It's an image we see with increasing regularity, because, as they say in the news business, it makes good copy. Police armed with sidearms and grim faces lead away some baby-faced teen in handcuffs and an orange prison jumpsuit too big for his body. Most recently, it was Charles "Andy" Williams from Santee, California. His gunplay caused the latest fidgeting and pontificating. Much has been written, more has been said about the crisis of the American teenager. Why do they slaughter their peers? Why are they committing suicide in increasing numbers? Can we stop it?
Good questions these, as are others less gruesome yet equally pressing. But during a recent week they were not on my mind. Instead, I spent four days in our nation's capital with fifty teenagers from New York and New Jersey who joined a Leadership Mission to Washington. These teenagers lobbied Congress on several foreign and domestic policy issues. They were addressed by the Legislative Director of one of New Jersey's senior Congressmen, our parent organization's Associate Director of public affairs, the Congressional Affairs Director of a large advocacy organization, two law professors who double as congregational rabbis, our parent organization's president, a third pulpit rabbi, the chief of a large non-profit organization serving Jewish college students and an internationally-known and respected Washington attorney.
Throughout, the teens showed knowledge of the issues, critical thinking and a healthy dose of polite, respectful and vibrant disagreement. These well dressed, clean cut kids discussed the merits of the Elementary & Secondary Education Act and the Workplace Religious Freedom Act with Congressional staff. They picked apart the first amendment with a Harvard educated attorney who has argued before the US Supreme Court almost thirty times.
Making point and counterpoint, they analyzed school choice and charitable choice proposals with a former attorney who meets with senior policy advisors to the House, Senate and White House leadership each week. These quite average and completely normal teenagers questioned points made and challenged positions taken by very accomplished, educated and respected Washingtonians. We advisors take well deserved credit for careful advance preparation and briefings on our part, but still, this was an impressive display for the much maligned Generation Y.
After volunteering with teenagers for nearly nine years, I am well aware of the problems and the issues. I do not naively think every teenager in America is like this in temperament, thought or action. I know too well the need for solutions and answers.
That said, we forget to step back and look at the sum. No doubt - abuses, assaults, illnesses, crimes, punishments, sticks and stones prey upon today's youth more than ever while our young receive less support than ever. Perhaps we in youth work focus more on that and more on the orange jumpsuits than others. Perhaps we forget more than others. We allow the crisis du jour to occupy valuable mind space. Rather, I suspect, the news pictures accurately reflect the pulse of adult America. If so, the stresses, strains and dangers facing American teenagers today cause much alarm and much grief.
That being the case, it is time we all do what I did. Step back from the canvass and see the whole. You needn't go to Washington with my youth group to do it. You needn't be Jewish either. Step back and see healthy, normal teenagers acting as healthy, normal teenagers will. I never said they couldn't rattle adult nerves. I never said they always listened. Nor will they constantly debate vital public policy issues or always work to make our shared world a better, fairer, more humane and more livable place to call home. But teens are out there, engaged in the world, committed to acting right. Sometimes with flourish; sometimes without fanfare. Sometimes great deeds; sometimes mundane actions. But always struggling to do good.
I can't tell you what every teenage participant gained from that trip. Nor do I speak for my fellow advisors or offer the views of those who addressed us. But I tell you what I gained, I speak for myself and I offer my own view. It can be summed up in one word.
I am inspired to see what can be. The picture of Andy Williams clad in an orange jumpsuit is in my mind. I know the price of failure. But now, after four days in DC, I have also seen success - and hope. This is what can be.
Now back to those questions. Precisely because we have seen what can be. We must make it so.
Howie Beigelman, an attorney (and freelance writer) volunteers as an advisor with a national Jewish youth organization.