I believe in the power of listening to our children, which also means talking to them. A former student of mine who now teaches at a Brooklyn high school told me the biggest thing missing in the lives of her students is any interaction with adults. Their parents don’t talk to them.
Remember the excitement of those times in childhood when you felt you were participating in the grownup world, the real world? I remember a discussion with my parents when I was thirteen, about school desegregation in my hometown. My mother asked me at the end: “Does this mean you’re an Integrationist?” I was thrilled. I’d never suspected I was anything.
For twenty years I’ve directed a program that brings high school students to meet and talk to writers like Salman Rushdie, Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing, Amy Tan, the late August Wilson. To me the best thing about these exchanges is that the writers talk to the students seriously–about their lives, their work, about politcs and art. The kids come away inspired. “I was in awe that this man, who spoke as he did, sounded like he could easily be a member of my family and yet was speaking such a profound sense of history and knowledge of life,” a student wrote this year after meeting Frank McCourt.
Every good teacher knows we learn better and faster when challenged–the same way a child’s vocabulary grows when he’s so involved in what he’s reading that he learns words from the context, pushing ahead to get to the next page.
A teenager doesn’t need a Nobel Prize winner to make her feel a part of the larger world–although I do think there should be programs like mine all across the country, wherever there’s a college or university that has a literary reading series. She needs us. Our companionship in encountering experience. Adult conversation. Yes, teenagers have their own world, closed to adults–to everyone’s benefit. But they also should be part of the larger conversation.
Kids aren’t the only ones who get something out of it. One evening last December my students were talking to David Hare about his new play Stuff Happens and the war in Iraq when one of them asked him: “If you could change one thing in history, what would it be?” He took a long time thinking. Finally he said he was stumped.
Later, after the students had gone home and the last person in the book-signing line had been taken care of, I went up to shake his hand. He said he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about that student’s question all night. And he thought he finally had his answer: the Crusades. Or maybe Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. Where did it begin, he wondered, the conviction that God is on our side?
When he was with the students, he’d thrown it back to his questioner: what would she change? She didn’t hesitate. “The way things are now.”
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.