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Don't Generalize About This Generation

Despite high-profile examples to the contrary, many teenagers are kind, empathetic and tolerant.

April 22, 2001|CINDY SUMAN | Cindy Suman writes from Rancho Santa Margarita

Being a substitute teacher in the public high schools has given me a magnified view of today's teenagers. The adolescents we see in the media are usually smart-mouthed jerks. The real teens I buzz daily give me hope. Many also exhibit a touch of humanity.

Beneath the pompous bravado, behind the glittery makeup and tight-fitting T-shirts, hidden by tattoos and pierced eyebrows, beat teenage hearts that understand the power of acceptance and sometimes reach beyond themselves with a sense of kindness. I take fresh hope every time I see kids who wear trench coats and chains helping jocks with their classwork and kids of all sizes and colors making mutual plans for Friday night.

One example demonstrates my optimism. I took an assignment recently teaching English at El Toro High School. The teacher left me instructions to have the students write a short essay and then use the rest of the class time to sign yearbooks.

As the students burst into second period, I noticed one young woman walking alone who quietly sat in the front seat of the fourth row and didn't move. The girl who sat down two seats behind her was the complete opposite. Clearly popular, she soon had a pile of yearbooks 3 feet tall on her desk waiting for her autograph.

One by one, she took each book and wrote those sophomoric words we all loved to read: "Stay cute!" and "You're da bomb!" and "Call me this summer!" and "BFF (best friends forever)." She finally finished the last eulogy, and while handing the book back to its owner, she did the unexpected. Getting up from her chair, she approached the lonely, withdrawn girl and asked, "Would you like me to sign your yearbook?"

The young girl looked up in disbelief. Finally getting it, she hesitantly handed over a pristine, unopened yearbook. Miss Popular carried it back to her desk and spent several minutes writing the same sweet nothings as she had 28 other times. She then returned the book to its owner, who beamed as she read and reread the message--her only message--over and over again.

The bell rang, and the class began to shuffle out. I ran to catch up to the young author. When I thanked her for her compassion, she simply smiled and replied, "It was nothing," and ran to catch up to her waiting congregation.

I believe in the young people of today. I think the world will be in good hands tomorrow. We can't let the few delinquents who commit heinous crimes taint our faith in the millions of kids doing their best to reach, to grow and to make a difference. With or without our help, they are the promise to a world given over to self-interest and unaccountability. They collectively deserve a high-five for trying so hard, no matter how outrageous we think they look. In fact, I'd better give my son a hug when he comes home from school today. He needs it.

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