Recently, I had the privilege to participate in a morning long program dedicated to diversity. The Port Jefferson Middle School assembled a wide range of speakers that challenged their young listeners to think about all of the differences that are woven into the tapestry we call America.
All of the delicate social issues regarding diversity were presented with respect and sensitivity to the audience present.
I was most impressed with the young people in my workshop. They were six, seventh and eighth graders. The theme of our conversation was respect and not to "judge a book by its' cover."
We talked about the traditional stereotypes that tend to cause us to build walls instead of bridges, such as the areas of race, religion, social status and a person's life choices.
However, the majority of the conversation focused on an area of discrimination that is rampant among us, but an area that most people don't like to talk about. Judging people by externals can be lethal. We put people in boxes because of clothes, hairstyles, body piercings and tattoos. We also tend to discriminate if a person has battled with the law or struggled with addiction.
Too often as adults, as parents, we want to protect our children from making poor choices. However, we use language, images and generalizations that are demeaning and downright not true. For example: to deter our children from smoking pot, we will say things like "if you smoke pot it is a gateway drug to other more serious drugs" or "smoking pot will make you a drug addict." There is no empirical research to support any truth in either of those statements.
Just as it is unfair to suggest that if a teenager is not living at home, he must be a "dirt bag." Some teenagers don't live at home because they want to change and become something. Other teenagers don't live at home because their parents are reckless, irresponsible adults who should not have been permitted to raise children. Leaving home was the teenager's salvation.
The message here is simple. We should not judge without all the facts, or better yet we should be slow to make generalized statements about people, what one encounters with one person should never define a whole group.
These young men and women in this middle school workshop were most refreshing. They expressed their thoughts honestly and openly. To this presenter, it was clear that they understood the meaning and purpose of this morning dedicated to diversity.
Over thirty years ago, I began my teaching career. For ten years, I taught on the junior high level, five of those ten years I was a building principal. I learned much from the students in the classroom and from those I coached on the basketball court. Spending time recently with junior high school students only further reminded me of how important those years of development and learning really are. They are still reasonably open and not yet scarred by the world.
My former junior high school students are in their forties now and still keep in touch and make reference to those years and the things they learned.
Someone recently shared with me a copy of a speech Bill Gates gave at a high school about the things you did not and will not learn in school. He spoke about how feeling good, politically correct teachings have created a generation of kids with no concept of reality. He spoke about how this concept has set so many kids up for failure in the real world. Let me paraphrase the basic message he conveyed:
Rule one - Life is not fair, so get used to it. Rule two - The world won't care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something before you feel good about yourself. Rule three - You won't make $60,000 a year right out of high school. You won't be a vice president with a car phone until you earn both.
Rule four - If you think your teacher is tough, wait until you get a real boss! Rule five - Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your grandparents had a different word for burger flipping, they called it OPPORTUNITY.
Rule six - If you mess up, it's not your parents fault, so don't whine about your mistakes, learn from them. Rule seven - Before you were born, your parents weren't as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you thought you were. So before you save the rainforest from the parasites of your parents' generation, try delousing the closet in your own room.
Rule eight - Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life HAS NOT. In some schools they have abolished failing grades and they'll give you as many times as you want to get the right answers. This doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING IN REAL LIFE.
Rule nine - Life is not divided into semesters. You don't get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you FIND YOURSELF. Do that on your own time.
Rule ten - Television is NOT real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs. Rule eleven - Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for one.
Mr. Gate's "Eleven Rules for Living" offers us a lot of food for thought. Some of his statements are strong and maybe unsettling, and they should be. Are we adequately preparing the present generation for success or are we setting them up for failure?
The success that we need to look at is not the success measured by dollars and cents, but rather the success that is grounded in one's heart. It is a success that will empower one to live one's life with the tools to find inner peace and be a part of that circle that can make the world a better place.