Monday, December 21, 2009

What's Right with Today's Teenagers?

I remember having so much pent up energy when I was fourteen years old. My mother and my own children don't know this, but I got in trouble almost every week in Sunday School due to fidgety hands and influencing my newfound mischievous friend Michelle Clawson to distract the teacher with our hand games and abbreviated cheerleading moves. We couldn't contain ourselves, and the extra attention from the frazzled teacher was fodder for our expressions of dexterity. We progressed from the Sunday School teacher to the youth leaders as they tried to corral us into performing as Hukilau dancers in a musical extravaganza meant to unify the congregation. We would last on stage just long enough for the dance, and the rest of the time we would practice more cheerleading moves (this time with full-body effect), chase younger boys or harass the other girls who were going along with the program.

I don't know why I behaved this way in ninth grade. I had been painfully shy all my life--the teachers even said so on my elementary school report cards. In the first two years of middle school I only focused on being a perfect, straight A student. Ninth grade was the first and only year I got a B+, it was time to get my wiggles out. Luckily, the adults around me stayed positive, especially my mom. My father had passed away unexpectedly three years earlier, and my sisters were headed off to college; my brother had started to find his own friends. By junior year, we moved again and I was feeling quite alone. Changing high schools was sobering for an energetic girl who had finally come out of her shell. I had to reinvent myself again, this time finding connections through community service. Volunteering with other girls my age at El Camino Hospital gave me confidence, even though it was only once a week. Returning to school the next day I wouldn't worry so much if I sat alone or with too few friends in the quad at lunch; I knew I was needed someplace else, just a few miles away at the same hospital where I was born and where my father died.

I didn't realize the healing effect of my "candy striper" experience until last fall when I was training for a long cycling event and I rode past El Camino Hospital countless times on my way to the foothills of Los Altos. I could hear Mom's encouragement to go ahead and sign up as a volunteer: "I used to be a 'pink lady' [adults in the auxiliary], you should try it." Until recently, I still had the candy striper uniform in my memory chest, with the name tag pinned to it. That time in high school was the beginning of my realization that we are never alone, even when times are bleak; reaching out to others in need can make us forget our troubles, even if for only two hours a week. Sometimes that's enough.

These days, as I observe the good works around me, I am astounded by the energy and intelligence of the youth at Palo Alto High School. Three decades ago, at nearby Homestead, I knew of only a handful of students who did volunteer work, and just two or three clubs on campus that sought to make an impact through service. This generation is different; they are motivated to change the world in creative and thoughtful ways, whether individually or in their club activities. Some have accumulated over four hundred hours of community service, with activities like raising guide dogs, taking care of cancer patients, or producing shows for the community Media Center. Others have traveled to far away places over the summer: Afghanistan to build schools, Sri Lanka to help women in poverty, and Japan to coach young soccer players. Most of these students are pursuing their interests, not merely racking up hours for credit; all are learning about other's needs and forgetting their own.

Teens who volunteer have the same challenges as the rest of us, but they are empowered to solve problems and to remain flexible when encountering the vast array of unfulfilled needs beyond the world of high school. How can a student truly understand the devastation of Hurricane Katrina without actually visiting the region and realizing that his own efforts can encourage others his age to help? That was the inspiration for Jake, who went on to start "American Disaster Relief," a Paly club that looks and sounds more like a national humanitarian organization. With Jake's intelligence and ability to rally his friends, maybe someday it will become such.

Some students track their hours for credit on their transcripts, or to earn the President's Award for Community Service; the most passionate students I know, however, have no idea how much time they've spent. The idea of an award embarrasses them, but I wish they could be convinced. With the help of a parent volunteer and her son, Paly student Charles Zhang, we've been able to organize and track the community service hours of several hundred Paly students who applied for the President's Award during the last two years. This semester at Palo Alto High School, eighty-two students received the bronze award for 100-174 hours of service, fourteen received silver for 175-249 hours, and twenty-six earned gold for 250 or more hours (14-year-olds and younger get gold for 100 hours). At California's current $8.00 minimum wage, these students would have generated a base of $143,261 in labor alone. This is what's right with our teens today; maybe they don't worry about tomorrow as much as the baby boomers, but they do make the world a better place by sharing their time and talents freely in the community. They put their energy into making a difference

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