Stale old generation gaps meet brave new voices
Recently I heard another person on NPR mention how Generation Y — loosely defined as anyone age 9 to 30, but perhaps more accurately translated as “kids these days” — is characterized by a sense of entitlement, selfishness, and materialism. The report cited as symptom a rash of college students hiring housekeepers to tidy their dorm rooms.
I am always dismayed when adults paint younger generations with the broadest of brushes in order to establish superiority over them, to denigrate and dismiss them, or — most of all — to market to them.
The reporter identified herself as in her mid-30s, like me. I still remember when, in the early '90s, people started referring to us young'ns as Generation X. We wondered, who came up with that? What's it supposed to mean? I think it had something to do with angst and flannel. Now Gen X is busily codifying Gen Y. Has packaging youth into a neat little box become a rite of passage into American adulthood?
When the report aired, I was driving home from Illinois, where I had the privilege of coaching the Ann Arbor team at the 12th annual Brave New Voices festival, July 14-19 in Chicago. Brave New Voices brings together teams of teenage poets from across the country (and beyond) to share their words under the auspices of the National Youth Poetry Slam.
Coaching the team at Brave New Voices was an incredibly rich experience. Perhaps my favorite moment came before the competition or festival events ever got started. The night we arrived in Chicago, the team sat together in a dorm room and, one by one, in that intimate space, performed their poems for each other. I'd seen them work and rehearse for weeks, with plenty of rough patches, but that night they nailed it, one after another. They gave me chills and brought tears to my eyes. This is what you have to understand: These aren't kids playing around. These are genuine poets, with a real gift for language, with big hearts and minds tackling serious matters. And they don't resemble the Gen Y stereotype in the slightest.
These young poets look outward, beyond themselves. Ann Arbor's team put in enormous amounts of attention and effort on three group pieces for the festival - one about the residents of a low-income housing project; one about a New York woman who experienced a lengthy dissociative fugue; one about an Ann Arbor teenager murdered earlier this year by her boyfriend. In addition, each team member worked on at least two individual poems to perform at the festival. For anyone who believes teens these days think mainly of themselves, it may be surprising to learn that the most common recurring theme in these poems was family. One after one, that night in the room, I watched them perform poems full of sophisticated empathy for their parents, their aunts and uncles, their siblings. Especially their parents. For instance, one poet writes about her father, who emigrated from Mexico almost 20 years ago to be with her mother:
“I know you still keep the key to the rancherÃa
on the same ring where you keep the key
that starts the Civic,
like you could go home,
like you know where that is.”
Think about the degree of empathy here, the striving to understand. The poet observes and imagines the depth of her father's longing for a life that pre-dates her. She is stunningly aware of how her father (like many of us) can be torn between past and present, between here and there. How often do any of us think this deeply about our parents' experiences, about the choices they've made, the things they've left behind to become the people they are, for us? How many of us would believe our own children capable of it? And this is just one among many poems that I could cite from the team.
These teens are not alone, either. If you don't know this, you should: there is an incredibly rich culture of youth literature in our city. It is fueled by the Neutral Zone, by 826michigan, by teachers like Jeff Kass at Pioneer and Sarah Andrew-Vaughan at Huron, among others. The six teens who went to Brave New Voices earned their way there in a city-wide competition involving more than 70 poets from Ann Arbor high schools. Come see any reading involving Ann Arbor youth poets and you'll see an amazing level of awareness, intelligence, heartfulness, and verbal skill.
Is all of “Generation Y” this thoughtful and engaged? Perhaps not; but it's clearly a mistake to characterize the lot of them as self-centered materialists. We do ourselves and our youth a disservice every time we talk down to them. Instead, we should be doing more to encourage them to speak up to us.