On Saturday I ran into one of the Magpie's friend, the Robin, who is freshly-returned from college for the summer. While talking about school (the curse of every returning college student is they get stuck talking about the same thing whenever they run into any adult they know--when'd ya get back, how did it go, what are you doing for the summer, blah blah blah), she mentioned an episode that occurred during the year. A professor in a class made a passing mention of apartheid. Another girl raised her hand. "Excuse me," she said. "What's apartheid?" The Robin was shocked. Later, she related this to another friend. "What's apartheid?" he asked. She thought he was goofing aroudn, but he honestly did not know. The Robin was shocked--maybe even outraged--that these students did not know what apartheid was.
I thought about it for a second, tried to cast my mind back and remember the when of it all. Apartheid was something I can say I never remember hearing about until I went to college, where it seemed to be everywhere. Students on campus regularly protested the university's investments in companies that did business in South Africa, and often picketed those companies when they came by to recruit students for jobs, internships, etc. "Divest!" was the word on many lips, t-shirts and exhibits at student events. I also remember watching Nelson Mandela walk out of prison. The date was hazy but I knew it occurred after I graduated but before I got married. I thought the Robin's ire was admirable, but that she should cut the other kids some slack: after all, kids like her—and her classmates—had grown up in a world without an apartheid state in South Africa. She countered with the fact that she knew about it, so why shouldn't they, and was also disturbed by the fact that schools in a certain region of America (the classmates in question grew up in the south) didn't seem to teach it.
|Nelson Mandela and F.W. De Klerk|
The fact she knew it and they didn't could mean a few things. It could mean our high school is exceptional (I'd like to believe that, for a couple of reasons); it could mean her friends' schools aren't. It could all be on the skills of the teachers involved. I don't know the answer, but I found her ire somewhat amusing, and heartening: there's a view held by many old fogies in the world (like me) that young people are too self-absorbed, are too wrapped up in themselves and their status updates and tumblrs and tweets to really care about the world. This conversation, and my recent experiences working with college interns at the office, show me we're wrong. There are lots of smart kids out there who care about what's happening in the world today, and are willing to make an effort to do something about it.
The exchange also makes me think of something related to writing. One of the reasons we so often write characters our own ages is that it's easy to relate to them and what they know of the world. If I write a 40-something year old character, I know this person grew up in a pre-internet world, where phones had cords, record companies made actual records, and you needed to go into a bank to put money in or take it out. My kids have no real concept of the Soviet Union or the Cold War; when they see Youtube videos of Americans hanging out with cosmonauts in the international space station, they don't understand how unthinkable that once was, or how close our nations once were to blowing each other up. The Twin Towers are the dimmest of memories for my kids, while I'm still a bit startled every time I see that empty space in the New York City skyline. It's easy to forget the often subtle little differences between people who grew up in different times.
How was your weekend?
Photo by the World Economic Forum, posted under Creative Commons license.