Trying to survive growing up

March 09, 1996|By Harold Jackson

"IJUST WANT to get money. That's all. I don't even know what I want to be, I just want to get money.''

The young woman, a student in Diane Young's African-American studies class at Patterson High School, was responding to my request that the students tell me what they want to be doing five years from now.

I had hoped to get them to open up and reveal their true aspirations.

Instead I mostly got the same responses some of them have, like a reflex, been giving to that question since first grade -- nurse, lawyer, policeman.

But there was a difference. Every first-grader has some answer, even if it's, ''I want to be a ninja.''

More than a third of these teen-agers admitted they didn't know what they want to be doing five years from now. I was a little surprised, having expected more of them to at least say what rTC they thought I wanted to hear. That they didn't may be another sign of the high anxiety among a generation that's constantly being told it will be the first whose members won't have it better than their parents. It's hard to be optimistic about the future when you keep hearing that the country is spending itself deeper into debt and leaving all the IOUs for you.

Even when we were doing nuclear-attack drills in our schools and building bomb shelters next to our homes, children were made to believe the future would bring better days. Today, kids are told all the future will bring is more bills for them to pay. That is, if they live to see the future.

Teens today know the threats to their survival are more real than some bomb that might be hurled from the other side of the world. They know a teen-ager today can get killed walking down

the street.

Surviving today

Many of the students at Patterson are too busy thinking about surviving today to worry about five years from now. They have that in common with teen-agers at other inner-city schools across the nation.

What they all have to realize is that it's only in being concerned about the future that they will be able to survive today.

The young people who are gang banging and drug dealing and otherwise putting themselves on course to end up either dead or in prison aren't thinking about the future, they're living for today.

I told the Patterson students something that I expected them to challenge, and they did.

I said a young person trying to survive must learn to adapt, to change his dress, his speech, his demeanor, to do whatever is necessary to gain the advantage in a potentially life-threatening situation -- like a job interview. (If you don't work, you don't eat.)

''It sounds like you're saying we ought to dress a certain way just to please somebody else,'' said another young woman, adding that people should be accepted for what's inside their heads, not the way they wear their hair.

I agreed with her that in a fair world people truly are judged by the content of their character, but that she and I both knew that in reality we are all routinely judged by our appearance.

''That's true,'' chimed in the first student. ''Because if somebody tries to talk to me and he looks like a bum, I'm not going to have anything to do with him. Unless he's a bum driving a Lexus.''

All teen-agers should be concerned about their appearance and speech. But African Americans especially, who still face racial prejudice, can't take it for granted that they will be given an opportunity to show what they are like on the inside.

And adults can't expect young people to change their behavior without giving them reason to believe some good will result, that their future is not bleak.

Harold Jackson writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/09/96

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