Youths of today can make a difference, if we let them
by Ted Slavinpublished in St. Catharines Standard
St Catharines, ON: 2010-10-16
When I was 13 years old, I joined a band. Now's the moment a youth may say, "Cool! What did you play? Guitar? Drums?" and I say that I played saxophone. I might get a reassuring nod from them as if to say, "That's still OK, I guess..." and then comes the curve ball -- "It was a marching band."
Any hope I had of remaining "cool" in the youth's eyes may vanish, but that marching band remains one of my most cherished life experiences.
It was the Burlington Teen Tour Band and if you've been to any parades in Ontario, chances are you've seen it perform. Not only did I make lifetime friendships, but we travelled together in countries such as Ireland, the Netherlands, Japan and through the United States (including Hawaii). We were, by every definition, a team and though there were various personal differences among the some 200 youths, as with any group of teenagers larger than two people, we pulled it together and gave our best for our performances.
The reputation of the band's youth was such that I've known at least two bandmates whose employers hired them as adults because of their past membership, but I can assure you that the band's reputation wasn't a given. The band's directors, past and present, knew full well the trends that typify the world's view of youth -- problematic, selfish, lazy and lost in the physical and emotional changes they're going through. The band members worked hard to counteract this image and the most important time to do it was when we were out of uniform during free-time wherever we were away on tour. One member's poor behaviour, we were told, would not only tarnish the community's view of that individual, but also that of the whole band.
I'm pleased that the good name of the Teen Tour Band and its members continues today, but was there anything unique about the youths in that band who stood stiff at attention in sub-zero degree winter or marched for miles wrapped in heavy tunics in the sweltering, humid heat of an American Fourth of July? Of course not. There was no special training, no psychological or physical tests of endurance, and no promise of reward at the end, other than knowing we did the job.
Remembering that we were all typical youths then, and that this is everyday youths now, leads me ask the question of whether we are selling our youth short, particularly those between ages 12 and 15. As a teacher, I've seen characteristics of junior youth that are unmatched in other age groups. The first is that they tend to question everything. They question beliefs and situations they've taken for granted throughout their childhood, but they particularly question their sharp sense of right and wrong. If they perceive something isn't fair (and they're right), look out.
Another characteristic I've noticed is that they want to help. Whether it's a friend in need or something like a community food drive, these youths are typically the most energetic and determined to make a difference. Give them a target to beat and they aim higher. Are we giving them the opportunities they need to see those targets? This is where I think we adults can do better.
If we're thinking that all 12 to 15 year olds are slacking troublemakers, these youths are picking up on that impression and a lack of faith in them isn't incentive for them to change an adult's attitude. After the age of 15, attitudes and habits tend to harden, and if they haven't realized their potential by then, changes in later teen years are more difficult.
Junior youths need the opportunities to show what they can do now. Encourage them, train them and walk with them to make a difference in the world, then prepare to be amazed.