“I love being around students. They’re so optimistic. They haven’t gone out into the world and had their dreams crushed yet.”
I was a student when I heard these words, and it was an alumnus from my alma mater speaking to me. When he said it, I balked. I was four months from graduating at the time and completely primed to fixate on the “dreams crushed” part. But the rest of his statement didn’t entirely escape me. While my awareness of student optimism was probably limited in a similar way to a fish’s awareness of water, I still enjoyed it (to the extent I was aware of it).
The first part: “I love being around students. They’re so optimistic.”
Today I recall his words and say to myself: “pshyeah!” I love being around students. I mean, I got it when I heard it the first time, but I felt it in a different way a couple weeks ago with the students I met at Mind Riot — The Leonardo‘s 3-day innovation collaborative for high school students. Yes they are cynical beings, and in some ways I was taken aback by how much they already knew about the problems they’ll inherit (or, arguably, have already inherited). But man, they just emanate possibility and potential, and it’s shockingly contagious. The students I met are bold, curious, and chomping at the bit for opportunities to make a tangible impact.
The last part: “They haven’t gone out into the world and had their dreams crushed yet.”
While I understand it, I also reject it a little, or at least feel like it’s less applicable today. Many of the students I met were already innovators and boundary-pushers. One student had already started a legitimate nonprofit organization.
Now, I should absolutely take a moment to recognize that these students were not representative of all high school students, because there was nothing random about their selection. They were at Mind Riot because they were selected among applicants from all over the state. Even the act of applying set this group apart because these students were energized and excited by the idea of an “innovation collaborative” enough to write and submit essays – essays without class credit.
But allowances aside, I think we’re moving forward in terms of protection from disappointment or failure, so that students have a more realistic understanding of life beyond the classroom by the time they graduate. Even if I’m wrong and they’re not actually experiencing more disappointment or failure, they’re still more exposed to it because they are plugged into our society’s nervous system in a way (and to an extent) no other generations were at that life stage. While they still absorb the same polished, surface level headlines, they also hear the counter-narratives through things like blogs and tweets. They have access to back-stories with much more depth, messiness, and honesty than the stories of influential people from ten or twenty years ago — the picture perfect “I just happened to be wildly successful and likable the first time I tried, and I did it all by myself!” stories. The stories of yesterday made the ability to make a real impact seem out of reach for most of us, because the stories we had access to were so unlike our own. The stories of today’s game-changers let us see the flaws and nose-dives, in addition to the help and resources that made their stories possible. In those stories we can see ourselves, and that is empowering.
At the end of the day, my takeaways are these:
1. I loved sharing a room with those students, and if I could bottle that special mix of idealism, can-do, and let-me-at-it, I would. (And I’d patent the crap out of it, #obviously).
2. I don’t know if this generation is necessarily set up for the same kind of “crushing” transition between school and the “real world.” To say they are, I think, would be a mistake and a gross underestimation of this group. For now, I eagerly await the many ways they’ll inevitably surprise us.
3. Mind Riot is awesome.
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