There’s Hope — Our Kids Are Everything We Ever Dreamed They’d Be

During a recent dinner with a close friend and colleague in Washington D.C., the conversation turned to our current generation affectionately known as “millennials.”

“You know,” he said “I am really hopeful. I think these kids are going to blow away some of the greatest challenges we face as a society.”

“Like race and class,” I offered up.

“Yes. Think about it. They are so accepting. They’ve grown up in an age where people can marry whomever they want, where our country elected the first black President, and where they want to live and work in communal spaces, vacation and travel in shared space, they’re just so much more accepting of differences then we are.”

Wow.

As a superintendent, I often said that, by and large, I could handle the 47,000 kids I was responsible for on a daily basis, yet it was the three I lived with that were maddening. They speak up, they contradict, they ask questions and push back. They are relentlessly curious, beam with confidence even when they are unsure, and are able to access information that makes them worldly and globally aware, well beyond their years. In short, they are everything we’ve wanted them to be.

Growing up with parents from that “Greatest Generation” there wasn’t anything my brothers and I wanted for in our childhoods. We literally had it all. As I think back, though, there was one important thing I lacked — confidence and belief in myself. We lived with the legacy, and in the shadows, of that generation that saved democracy and the free world. What could we possibly do for an encore? While the elders in our baby boom generation suffered from the trauma of Vietnam, the violence and illusive promises of the civil rights movement, the younger ones like me had the ’70s, with bell bottoms, forced desegregation of schools, and long gas lines. While gas is cheap today and bell-bottoms are enjoying a comeback, our “war on poverty” and desegregation of schools have largely been failures and I don’t hold much hope of my generation finding solutions in the near term. It’s not that I am without hope and commitment to this work, it’s just the brutal reality and deep generational divide we are all witnessing as reflected in our most recent election.

Which gets me back to my conversation over dinner. “I think you are right,” I heard myself saying. Then I shared how earlier that day I had participated in the inaugural gathering of the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, where I got to observe two high school seniors from Austin, Texas, lead a group of 30 adults in “who’s who in education.” In just 45 minutes, these extraordinary young men — who had lived and witnessed more in their 18 plus years than most of us had, or would want to, in a lifetime — facilitated a session on the power of collaboration that enabled us to cut through the polite talk and engage in serious conversation. And we would need to if our work to improve how we educate the whole child was to have any chance at succeeding.

We were creating powerful intersections with this next generation already showing their poise and confidence to lead. “The moment of possibility can’t be staged only by us,” the Commission Co-Chair Tim Shriver proclaimed. “We need to do this together!” Yes, together, as the four young people poignantly reminded us as we closed our first session. Tim asked each to describe in a few words what they hoped the Commission — if its work was successful — would mean to them.

“Make us feel wanted.”

“Please believe me.”

“Please keep the standard high.”

“Tell me that I matter.”

Talk about voice, presence, and ability to lead. Our young people today are an incredible asset that we must recognize, value, and utilize to the greatest extent possible.

As maddening as they can be, this generation is our best hope. Yes, their confidence and sense of self is often outsized compared to their years. Yes, they often lack focus and want quick results and instant gratification. Yes, they constantly need to know exactly how this project or that job will advance them. They can lack patience and humility and not understand the value of sacrifice. Yet despite all of this, there is a curiosity, a goodness, a desire to do more of what is right and noble, to build community, and a deep sense of multiculturalism that doesn’t put the United States at the center of the world. And that is where our generation comes in.

I am increasingly certain that the best leadership we can offer to this generation is to begin to step back and let this generation of leaders have the benefit of our wisdom and experience; to pass on the lessons and values we learned from our parents, from their struggles through the Great Depression and World Wars; to fight for what is right; and to learn from our generation’s experience how to find a voice and a place. How appropriate and timely it is now, to model leading that comes from a place of awareness, acceptance, humility, and kindness.

So when a Senior in the Law and Justice Academy at Cabrillo High School in Long Beach recently shared with me, “I’m the first in my family to attend high school, have an internship with plans to go to college and law school. I want to help those in my community who aren’t as fortunate and I want to be a role model for my younger brother and other kids like me.” Or when my 13-year-old son tells me “Dad, I know what I want to do when I grow up. I want to run for Congress and be President someday. I want to go to Washington to show people how to work together to solve problems, and that sometimes you have to compromise.” I smile.

My friend was right. We are in good hands. There is reason to be hopeful.