On my way home, I stop at the store for some last minute dinner ingredients. While waiting in line, a couple behind me quietly mock the teenager who is bagging the line’s groceries. First, the woman makes fun of the teen’s hair. Next, I overhear the man say, “I can’t believe the kid can look up from her phone long enough to even hold a job.” His companion snorts and says she’s going to text that to her sister. For the rest of my life, I will regret not saying something to this couple. For the rest of my life, I will imagine what I should have told them.
At home, after my own teenagers have completed their evening routines, I grade and listen to the radio. There is a story about the teens in Scotland who have voted in the election pertaining to Scottish independence or continued membership in the UK. One group interviewed excitedly relays how they researched their choices in the election. Amid their giggles, they cite facts and sound delightfully proud to have been included in such a historic event. Later on, I read about a group of students in Newark, NJ who are successfully protesting on a large scale for changes in their school district. I am weaving through the This I Believe essays and my husband notices that I am smiling, which doesn’t always happen when I grade. It is because of a collection of titles by my 17-18 year old students. Titles such as: I Believe in Heroes, I Believe in Hard Work, I Believe in the Power of Creativity, I Believe in Taking Risks, I Believe in the Power of Unconditional Love.
I have only gleaned the first four of five essays and already I’m excited about how much these students are willing to reveal about themselves. Lest you think I’m a Pollyanna about my job, there are grammatical errors for days, and one essay forgets paragraphs. Still, my students have taken the assignment to heart and are risking vulnerability. They are asserting their personalities. It is thrilling. If I were a radio show host, I would read almost every one of these essays to the masses.
It is Wednesday when I overhear some staff talking about the graduate who was tragically killed earlier in the week. One bemoans how little time he had here to accomplish anything. All of his lost potential. This resounds in my mind for hours. It also makes me curious. I begin to ask my students if they will list any way in which they are involved in their communities. “How are you caring for the world? How are you fixing the world?” I ask them. I pass around a piece of legal paper to my first hour and by my last hour of the day, I have 8 yellow pages filled front to back.
My students serve the homeless, stock food banks, care for pets in shelters, coach little league, tidy their elderly neighbors’ front lawns, help with public library events. They serve the United Way, volunteer with relocation teams for both pets and people. They spend time at group homes for older, mentally impaired adults who have trouble with simple and or gross motor skills. My students visit senior citizen centers, pre-schools and run races to promote preservation of the environment. They donate and organize for breast cancer research and awareness. They visit the mother of a deceased friend who died of cancer at the age of 13 and would have graduated this year. My students are citizens of this world and they take that seriously. Wouldn’t it be nice if more people took them seriously?
I have a son who is almost 16 years old, and a daughter who is nearing 14. They are conscientious of their peers, engaged in the news of the world and are genuinely saddened when they learn about the death of the young man who attended my school. I explain that I didn’t know the young man well, but that all week I’ve been hearing some great stories about his ability to be a good friend.
Both of my kids ask if there is anything they can do. It would be very easy to brush off their question with a smile. Instead, I pull out the legal pad papers filled with my students’ lists of community service. I tell my children that I don’t really know how to best honor the young man other than trying to appreciate our own lives and to find a way to make our world better—even if we have to start small. I ask them to look the lists over and pick something that they would be interested in doing—if anything noted does indeed interest them. It does. We are planning on helping to prepare meals for local homeless shelters via the organization iHelp in the next month.
This evening I will read the last of the essays. One is titled I Believe You Should Finish What You Start. I’m about to begin grading when my son asks if he can practice driving, and can we go to the store because he needs a refill on his protein shake. He has discovered his muscles and is preparing to try out for basketball soon. I agree. As he pulls into the parking lot, I find myself hoping to see the couple from earlier in the week remembering how readily they mocked and judged the teenage employee. They are not there, but I think I will be able to articulate how out of line and wrong they were if I should ever see them again. When we return home, I grab for the last essay in the stack. It is titled I Believe My Friends and I Are Changing the World for the Better. I couldn’t agree more.