I spend so much of my life in high school. Every day I awake at dawn (grudgingly, very grudgingly, for I have never been a morning person, and my choice of career is therefore a lifelong masochistic joke) get myself ready, stop at a coffee shop (because otherwise I'd be sleepwalking until third period) and head off to share my day with hundreds of people a third of my age. Most of them can't wait to grow up, to move on, to graduate and take their place in the vast world. My own place, my destiny, is to live among them, to remain endlessly a fixture in the strange, false, enclosed world that is high school. I see them grow and strive and succeed and fail. I see them laugh and cry and work and play. I see trends and fads come and go. And every day, in every one of their faces, I see the promise and the hope of youth.
Much has been written about the notion that the young are reckless, that they think of themselves as invulnerable, that they are self-centered, that they don't care about anything other than what will get them ahead, etc. Sometimes these things are true. Like any generalization about any group of people, you can find examples that illustrate it in real life. But what I witness on a daily basis are the far more subtle nuances of teenage life in all of its chaos and drama, much of which we, as adults, see with our adult perspective as unimportant because, having the benefit of the long term, we know that it does will not matter in what we call the grand scheme of things. And that is true. But what we as adults cannot remember is that they, as teens, have only their fifteen or sixteen years of life to draw from. Their current dramas and causes are everything to them. They are the only things that matter.
Perhaps this explains why so much idealism is centered in the young. We have witnessed this dramatically in our own recent history. The uprisings and protests of the 60's that were supposed to change the world for the better were led by college students. They were going to lead us into a world in which race, sex, and other incidental distinctions between people did not matter. There was even a brief moment–remember the "summer of love"?–when in their youthful idealism they may truly have believed what the Beatles were telling them: "All you need is love." Of course, that was 1967, before it all went sour. Before Watts. Before Detroit. Before MLK and Bobby Kennedy. Before Chicago and the '68 Convention. Before Kent State and Cambodia. Before Altamont, when even the music was no longer a place to hide. Before so much that lit the dream of hope on fire and burnt it to the ground.
When reality and all of its ugliness intrudes upon idealism, the ugliness usually wins. It makes sense. It is so very, very hard to remain true to the causes of justice in the face of a society that not only stomps upon justice but actually rewards those who do so. The young idealists of the sixties watched their causes fall, one by one, to the ugliness, as violence begat violence and the notion of peaceful protest became yet another fantasy in the Nixonian police state. When Nixon fell, perhaps for a moment they might have felt vindicated. Perhaps for a moment their hopes might have been renewed. But his pardon–though it was probably the right decision by President Ford at the time for a nation desperately in need of healing–must have been the final nail in the coffin of 60's idealism.
The young radicals grew up and settled into suburbia. Their youthful anger at The Man and The System faded as they became a part of the system, as they themselves became The Man. They became doctors, accountants, lawyers, politicians. Even Jerry Rubin, one of the infamous "Chicago Seven," went on to become a successful businessman. And almost every time one of the old radicals, still wanted by the law for some misdeed large or small, is unearthed, he or she is living quietly in the 'burbs, the father or mother of three or four children, in a quiet little neighborhood, unnoticed, unrecognized as the leader of this or that violent underground organization from so long ago.We settle. We settle because it is easier to say yes to the ways of the world than it is to say no. It is easier to say yes, sure, whatever, when the promise of a decent though undramatic life is held out to us, when the opportunity to live comfortably and profitably and peacefully is proffered. It is so much harder to turn it down, to hold out for the ideal, to demand what once upon a time we would have demanded: everything.
In one of my classes I am teaching Jean Anouilh's Antigone, a 1940's update of the classic Sophocles play. Anouilh wrote his play as a not-too-subtle message to his fellow members of the French Resistance to keep up the struggle, no matter how hopeless it all seemed. The Vichy government was established and in power; it was placating the masses; it was doing whatever it could to be perceived as, at worst, a benevolent dictatorship. Anouilh saw the trap: this was a government that was fully cooperating with the Nazis, that was at least aware of if not actively a participant in the extermination of Jews. This was not France. France should not acquiesce to it so calmly and easily. In his play, he uses the character of the king, Creon, as a stand-in for the leader of the Vichy government, Philippe Pétain, and Antigone herself, the doomed teen heroine, as a symbol of the Resistance.
Desperate to fulfill her youthful idealistic obligation to bury her dead brother despite Creon's proclamation against it, though she knows it means death, Antigone finds herself face to face with the King who, it turns out, is not the despot she envisions, nor is the brother so blameless as she has believed. After a long conversation, Creon finally convinces her of these things, that she would be dying for a cause that is not worth dying for, and she almost walks away from it. But then she remembers her soul: what is it that he wants her to settle for? Something halfway? Some mindless mediocre life? Some path of least resistance that he defines as "happiness"? And she says "No." Though it means death and she knows it, though the cause may be tainted, she chooses to fight on because, she tells him, it is not worth living if she has to settle. She cannot say "yes" to some phantom half-living because it is "comfortable." If there is anything that she can do to bring change about, she will do it.
"What a person can do," she tells him, "a person ought to do."
Yes, it is true. There was so much promise in the past, so much that was supposed to change because of the power and attitudes and idealism of youth. It's sad how so often we settle for something less than our ideals, and sadder still how we lie to ourselves about the degree to which we have achieved those ideals. A respondent to yesterday's blog spoke of "something precious" that has been "ripped" from his soul when it became clear in this political campaign that we are not so post-racial as we had hoped. Yes: it was that promise, that destiny of enlightenment that the 60's generation was supposed to shine on the world. When all was said and done, perhaps it is true that the light was less a beacon of cosmic illumination than an ornate but ultimately inefficient chandelier.
But the fact that the light was not powerful enough may have had as much to do with the difficulties of beginning a new movement as anything else. It takes so much more energy to start a boulder rolling forward than to sustain it once it is rolling, and if it gains momentum, there will come a time when nothing at all will be able to hold it back. That is the law of inertia, and we had been pretty darned inert in this nation for generations, especially in matters of equality and civil rights. But granting those rights does not immediately change attitudes. Maybe it was not for the youth of the 60's to succeed but to make a start. Maybe it is the youth of today, those high school teens whom I see each day, who will finally take that movement and carry it to fruition. Maybe they are the ones whose light is bright enough to be a new sun for us all.
I'm fifty years old and I have not lost my idealism, but that may be due to the fact that I spend all of my life among the young. For those who do not: remember when you truly believed that a different future was possible. It is only through believing that we can act, and only through acting that we can make it happen. We need to say "no" to the same negativity we've seen forever, to the same anger, the same frustrations. We need to say "no" to politics as usual. What a person can do, a person ought to do. And we can change the future.
Yes, we can.