The Kids are All Right

Just when I have been doing some reporting on the role of younger leaders in our own fair city, young people nationally have come in for a minor hailstorm of criticism sparked by a commencement speech at a public high school in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

A teacher, David McCullough Jr., son of the famous author and historian of the same name, told the graduating class of this very high-end high school, "You are not special." McCullough went on to warn them that their parents, coaches and other mentors may have coddled them into a false sense of self-importance, setting them up for brutal awakenings later when they enter that place we all ruefully call, "The Real World."

McCullough has said on television since the speech that his money line -- "not special" -- has been taken out of context; he wasn't trying to make the children cry; he does think the failure of adults to give kids a realistic picture of their relative insignificance in the big picture really does set them up for all sorts of disappointment and failure later.

But it may be too late to dial this one back. His remarks are already being scavenged by hungry after-feeders eager to horn in on the buzz. Author/pundit Rachel Marsden has a piece out on the interwebs agreeing that young people aren't special at all but asserting in the end that she sort of is.

"I was fortunate enough to believe that success was something to be earned and proven," Marsden writes -- a line that just begs us all to purse our lips and deliver that famous Dana Carvey church lady line.

Here is my dilemma. I think of my own generation's hopes and ambitions -- "I can't get no satisfaction!" -- and I recall that my generation had the nerve to be skeptical of the Gen Xers when they started showing up in the workplace. All of those extra hugs and help with homework, we feared, had given them a "sense of entitlement."

Oh, no! God knows, our generation, who went to college for free and introduced middle class America to getting stoned, couldn't put up with a sense of entitlement.

Now I look around Dallas, especially at North Oak Cliff which has become Dallas' Gen-X refugee camp, where they are settling themselves possibly to get away from the rest of us, and I see nothing but wonderful hope for the city.

I don't see lazy people, if that was the great fear. They look to me like they're working hard at jobs, starting a lot of really interesting small businesses, raising kids and now even running for and getting elected to the City Council.

And they're showing up in lots more places than just North Oak Cliff. I just finished a big piece on affluent whites who are coalescing behind a public school reform movement in Dallas, and it occurs to me that even young affluent business-conservative people, even some of the ones who are already 1-percenters -- the ones whose politics I do not agree with one iota -- are way more progressive about basic diversity than even the white liberals of my own generation.

They should be. I shouldn't be surprised. They all grew up in a more diverse world. They all bring a tangibly more humane and tolerant mentality to the table -- great proof, I guess, that my own generation was right to fight for just such things. I don't think we anticipated it was going to make them smarter than us. Might have had to think twice if we'd seen that one coming. Just kidding, of course.

I swear I pick up a certain vibe in all of them -- I think of it as French vibe -- reflecting a greater interest in being happy. And by being happy, I obviously don't mean being loaded-rich or stoned or zoned out in some cult-like trance. I mean being more at peace with life as it is, taking time to smell the flowers.

I just interviewed Leslie Finical Halleck, the general manager of Northhaven Gardens and a pioneer in the city chicken and urban vegetable farming movements. She told me her mantra in life has been an aphorism often repeated to her by her Army colonel father as they moved about the planet: "Bloom where you are planted."

That's exactly what I see them all doing. In the process they are turning their parts of the city into a garden.

I get what McCullough means. It's especially a problem with kids whose parents are trying to pass on their own high positions in the meritocracy. They face a tough problem. You can't leave merit to a kid in a trust fund.

But I doubt that needs to be the only concern for most of us in raising children. What is it exactly we want them to do for us, to have, to pile up? Do they need to amass a big pile of boxes of something before they go? Isn't life itself the purpose of life?

You take a kid, and you give the kid way too much love. So what? Life is pretty good at knocking the corners off kids, as far as I can tell. It's like Lindbergh flying over the Atlantic for the first time. You said you'd gas up the plane for him as your little contribution to his big adventure.

You wave him off as he departs your shores, and you pray he makes it. You had no way of knowing just what he would face out there. You had no way to measure exactly how much fuel he would need.

Maybe you loaded him up with too much fuel, in which case he may have to dump some before he lands. But would it have been a better idea to err on the side of too little? When he stops answering the radio calls somewhere out over the frigid shark-infested waters of the Atlantic Ocean, would you tell yourself, "At least I saved on gas?"

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze