A Question of Freedom, Abby Sunderland, Academy for Educational Development, AED, Affluence, Catcher in the Rye, Cem, Holden Caulfield, Into the Wild, Jordan Romero, Ken, McCandless, Narcissism, New Voices Fellowship Program, R. Dwayne Betts, Youth
A few years ago, at my social justice fellowship job in DC, I worked with probably the worst program assistant in all my years of work. He was a twenty-two-year-old graduate of U Virginia or some other four-year institution in the heart of the Confederacy, and this was his first professional position. In eight months’ time, he managed to screw up in every conceivable way. He sent out professional emails with the signature, “Scooby Dooby Doo.” He’d address me with, “Yo, wass up,” as if we were friends. He slept in one day during our summer conference, and showed up hung over and in the clothes that he’d worn the day before another day. He couldn’t even do a mail merge without turning it into the German loss at Stalingrad. It took all of these screw ups and more before my boss was ready to entertain firing him. My former boss’ lament was, “He’s young. He’s just trying to figure things out.”
It’s one of the biggest and most hypocritical statements I’ve heard, and not just at my former job. We make excuses for youth — at least some youth — because we believe that somehow, some way, these folks will one day find themselves and take over the reins of our society and world. If this were a universal thing, that would be fine with me. But it’s not. If you’re educated, middle class or affluent, White and male — and sometimes female — the above is what people say about you when you screw in ways that would’ve gotten me fired inside of a week, whether at sixteen, nineteen or twenty-two.
The fact is, we live in a society in which for those folk whose concerns have grown beyond money, food,
shelter and basic education and health, the everyday world isn’t enough. We think that youth and young adults have the mandate to search for themselves and screw up at all costs, because, well, the world is already theirs to inherit.
We don’t make excuses for poor White males, or Blacks, or the millions of undereducated youth regardless of race, gender and wealth the same way we do for the likes of the fully advantaged. Do we normally call it a mere mistake when a young woman of color gets pregnant at seventeen, or when someone like the author and poet R. Dewayne Betts (of his memoir A Question of Freedom) somehow ends up an accessory to a violent crime at sixteen? Of course not! We condemn both, treat them like they’re full-fledged adults, and hope that they rot out of our sight, media and mind.
From Holden Caulfield in the late J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye to the real-time Chris McCandless in the movie and book Into The Wild, the well-off mandarin class has embraced the contrarian and narcissistic perspectives that some youth have of our flawed and brutal world. Instead of fighting for a better world, the fictitious Caulfield and the real-life McCandless both went off in search of a reality that never existed anywhere except in their own minds. Ultimately, one took his own life, while the other put themselves in a position to lose his in not-so-wild Alaska.
I don’t object to the likes of thirteen-year-old Jordan Romero climbing Mount Everest with his father. Nor do I object to sixteen-year-old Abby Sunderland’s attempts to circumnavigate the world solo, despite the dangers of such. What I do have problems with, though, are the underlying assumptions and reasoning behind such feats. This isn’t just about man versus nature or about finding oneself through an epic struggle. Really, it’s about the reality that our world — at least for the kinds of folk that I’ve described here — isn’t enough for them anymore. It certainly wasn’t enough for their parents.
We celebrate these youth as if this is the way to live, and that right and wrong and consequences don’t matter. At some point, we need to get over our affluent obsession over youth, over ourselves and our collective lamenting of the state of our world, if we ever hope to grow up and fix whatever ails us and our world.