Wednesday, September 26, 2007


My older son, as some of his generation have, opted to take on some form of service, in his case as a teacher in an impoverished urban pocket, when he came out of college. He came out of that experience hating the educational bureaucracy. It was enlightening, therefore, to hear from a teacher who "could be their mother" talk about these young people, their promise and their challenges.

Like her, although I am not yet in the oldest generation, I am in the position of possibly being the parent of the younger teachers of today's children. It's that stage of life in which you are at the top of the hill: you can see clearly birth, youth, adolescence and young adult striving; and you can also see, through the travails of parents and other older relatives, the journey involved in what I have begun to call "growing down."

You know a lot of things merely from having been around the block a few times. A Spanish saying captures it best: Más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo (the devil is wise because he is old, rather than because he is diabolic).

There's always the temptation of the more grizzled generation to criticized the callow one.
Young people today love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for older people, and talk nonsense when they should work. Young people do not stand up any longer when adults enter the room. They contradict their parents, talk too much in company, guzzle their food, lay their legs on the table, and tyrannize their elders.
The words first came to my attention when I was a teenager, sick of my parents' generation's criticisms. They are attributed to Socrates.

So imagine how refreshing it was to hear first the positive, then criticisms that sounded all the more valid, given the context. Clever, gracious or probably both. The young teachers, the experienced educator said, have fresh ideas. They are open to trying everything.

"Some things I wouldn't have thought of myself," she admitted. Of course, others fell quite flat for predictable reasons. That's where the valid criticism arises. As she put it, "They feel entitled to be heard, without having to listen."

What else would children of Boomers be? If Boomers felt entitled, imagine children raised by Boomers in rooms full of trophies given out because "everyone is special."

A week ago, I encountered this mixture of promise and challenge while covering an event at which Kaya Henderson, Vice Chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools, was presented as an alumna of national service. Like my son, she taught in the public schools of South Bronx.

Henderson is part of a new wave of municipal leadership in Washington. Without going into details of only local interest, she serves Mayor Adrian Fenty, a recently elected young man in a hurry, who in turn appointed her boss, D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, as part of Fenty's attempt to make his own mark: to fix the D.C. public schools.

The schools are in disrepair for the majority. However, both my sons went through them and were admitted to top universities where they did not struggle unduly. Still, the D.C. educational bureaucracy seems as dysfunctional in Washington as in New York.

Henderson and Rhee bring energy. As Henderson explained it, for the first time making clear to me what their strategy is, Rhee and Henderson are trying to bring about change by populating the top levels of the school bureaucracy with peers who are national service movement veterans in hopes of shaking up the system with their zest.

Time will tell whether this is the hubris of Generation X (born in the United States between 1965 and 1976) or, as my teacher friend said, one of those new ideas worth trying.

For the moment, Henderson impressed me as a can-do person. One who seems to have her heart in the right place without the Boomer ideological baggage.

"In the back and forth between [President] Clinton and [House Speaker] Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004," wrote Barack Obama of Boomer politicians, "I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation -- a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago -- played out on the national stage."

Unapologetically, in my blogging hobby and personal life, I am quite ideological. To my mind, ideologies are what you develop when you organize what you experience and learn in a systematic way. Ideologies shouldn't be dogma -- which is the real unmentionable Achilles' heel of my generation, many of us are way too categorical, even about being laid back.

In this, the Gen-Xers are freed. Those who are not the reputed slackers of social lore make a virtue out of eclecticism.

Still further, there are the younger youths, the 76 million people of Generation Y or Echo Boomers or Millenials or the Internet Generation, born since 1976 up to about 2004. These are the teachers of whom my friend could have been a parent, the generation of my sons.

It is too early to say very much about them, but they inspire in me a lot of hope. Their tastes tend toward multinational and multiethnic fusions. They seem best represented to me in the French film L'Auberge Espagnole.

They may seem a bit over-entitled, I agree (you could also read it as having very high expectations). They also come across as overly cautious, forever carrying a bottle of water lest they ... gasp! ... dehydrate. I actually almost died of dehydration and I don't carry around a bottle of water.

But they are freed from prejudices that still dog my generation. To them, to be gay is something like preferring blueberry to chocolate mocha at the ice-cream store. They don't see skin color. Men and women are just about the same, although we'll find out what happens when they get married and begin to have kids in large numbers.

I still find their taste in music unpleasant. I'll never genuinely like or understand hip-hop. However, I have taken a shine to some songs -- the quieter ones -- by alternative rock groups, such as the Canadian group Barenaked Ladies, the Irish Cranberries, and the American Five for Fighting and Counting Crows.

Most of all, behind the air of jadedness there's an earnest desire to do better than their parents. We've left them plenty of room for that.

When I finally begin coasting down the other side of the hill, I feel, the world will be left in good, if occasionally picky, somewhat overconfident, hands.


jen said...

I've not seen my generation summed up quite like this. i like it.

Geneviève said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
fjl said...

This was quite funny. My son recently sums me up as an ass, but then.... ;-)