In a society obsessed with youth, how is it that we fail to learn the lessons of their example?
I live in Los Angeles. For those of you who have been living in a bathysphere beneath polar ice caps that are melting faster than a popsicle left out in the midday sun, LA is ground zero for the Cult of the Youth-Obsessed. It’s the epicenter of the tremors that roil our culture’s tensile socio-tectonic plates. And it’s the place where the highest compliment you can pay another person is to commend their youthful appearance, or better yet, to tell them how they (gasp!) don’t look their age.
Not surprisingly, children become the ultimate chit in this environment. If you assume the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, how great is it to have the cutest, smartest, sexiest apples in the orchard? Actually, for me that’s a rhetorical question. I don’t have children. But my status as one whose loins have born no fruit hardly disqualifies me from making observations that are easily within the grasp of a blind dead guy.
What’s appalling to me is how we don’t at least let the other shoe drop in our dysfunctional pas-de-deux with our preoccupation with all that is young. Sure, we can trot out mindless entertainment that parrots the notion that, hey, kids sure do say the darndest things, don’t they? But when it comes to actually heeding the gems that fall from their lips, we are conveniently missing in action.
The most glaring example of this came recently when Misha Lerner, a fourth-grade student at the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital, posed a question to the visiting ex-Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice. In his query, the kid basically asked her what she thought about the things the Obama administration was saying about the methods used by the Bush administration to get information from detainees. Going full-metal-Nixon in her response, Ms. Rice asserted that if an act was ordered by the President, it was per force not illegal. So much for a lesson in revisionist civics. (Side note: In a virulent display of the kind of abdication of children by adults I am talking about, Misha’s teacher actually edited his original question for Ms. Rice; originally it read "If you could work for the Obama administration, would you push for torture?" Personally, I am just proud of the kid for not taking his teacher’s suggestion that instead he consider asking Ms. Rice who her favorite Jonas Brother was.)
But I digress...
If our kids are living messages we send to a time we will not see, what’s the message we’re sending? Isn’t it bad enough that we have abandoned our roles as responsible adults, a group that should be on the endangered species list for my money, by not asking the obvious and necessary questions of our leaders, especially in times where their behavior has patently strayed beyond the bounds of decency? And where is the outcry over the fact that we are teaching kids with the shabbiest of examples by our own inactivity, blunting the sharpness of their heart-felt and justified curiosity about the state of the world we have created for them in the process?
It’s a situation that leaves me in great despair, like finding out I have an alter ego and it’s Glenn Beck. But just when I had given up hope, I came across something that rekindled my spirits, and I found it in the oddest of places. Recently a book was published by writers Bruce Kluger and David Tabatsky. It is entitled Dear President Obama: Letters of Hope from Children Across America. In it, 178 kids from ages 4 through 18, from 29 states and every region of the country, wrote to and drew pictures for their dashing new President. And its contents reaffirm my faith in the innate wisdom found in a child’s bottomless curiosity, and best of all, in their unflinching willingness to give it voice
Full disclosure: Bruce Kluger once served as an editor on a book I contributed to.)
Fuller disclosure: That has absolutely nothing to do with what I am writing here.)
The book is full of missives and images that render what passes for "adult thought" as hollow and meaningless. Hannah Levine, a 12 year-old from New York City, chronicles watching the election night returns with her mother and father, and when the results are announced, she makes an observation worthy of Thucydides when she states that in the time it took to shudder, to sniffle, and to smile, history was made.
In one of the most poignant letters I have ever read, 14 year-old Casey Mack talks about the significance of seeing a man who looks like him reach the plateau of the Oval Office. But beyond the meaning of seeing someone of the same race elected president, Casey details how his brother has a brain tumor and how he himself has his own set of rare medical afflictions, and how he believes Obama will actually make healthcare available to people like Casey and his family. It’s the plea of a young man to someone entrusted with the responsibility of making his life better through leadership. It is a bull's eye to the heart of the issue of accountability and hope.
There’s even a letter from an eight year-old prospective lobbyist-in-training who opens his correspondence to the President by reminding him he donated $4.74 to his campaign. But the point of all this attention on the Obama presidency isn’t about partisanship—it’s about the intrinsic value of a historical event to a segment of our population with whom we need to come to a greater understanding of and relationship to—our kids.
Misha Lerner shamed the entire White House press corps the day he put Condoleeza Rice’s feet to the fire by posing a question that no one else had the guts to ask. In much the same vein, the kids who wrote letters and drew pictures for this book have unwittingly thrown us all a lifesaver. It remains to be seen whether we will be shrewd enough and strong enough to recognize it as such and grasp it fully.
Dear President Obama: Letters of Hope from Children across America is available at www.obamakids.us