Trust that our children are always watching, listening, and taking note of every action or inaction. We must be mindful of the necessity of molding a generation capable of inheriting the country. Education is at the front lines of this effort but portions of it, such as art and music, always seem to be under attack. When Winston Churchill was asked to cut arts funding in favor of the war effort, he simply replied, “…then what are we fighting for?”
As a high school social studies teacher for 11 years, I have worked with well over 1,300 students. Our district is among the poorest in the state. We rank roughly 158 out of 169. Many of our students have experienced trauma and loss beyond our wildest imaginations. Many would rather be anywhere but home. And, theater, for them, is a safe environment where everyone has a home. Over one tenth of our school population is involved in the annual spring musical. We preach that there’s a place for everyone and “there is no bench.” That’s powerful. That changes lives.
The students on stage represent Generation Z and they are more skeptical than ever. They do not see political leaders as moral compasses. Access to the internet offers them so much information that the newest skill is no longer “finding information” but determining which is the most credible. They know that older generations are already labeling them as apathetic, aloof, and shallow.
However, what many older generations fail to admit is that the self-imposed issues of the day are being inherited by our children.
For instance, according to Forbes, Connecticut college graduates rank highest in the nation in average student loan debt at $38,510. Moreover, according to a recent CNN article published in April of 2019, “Social Security won’t be able to pay full benefits by 2035.” That is merely 16 years away and the list of challenges facing Generation Z is relentless.
This less-than-hopeful future is resulting in a generational rift witnessed by educators across the state. They are observing a lack of overall patriotism, trust, and a general resentment that adults are allowing a world to persist without collectively working toward improving popular Generation Z priorities like climate change, government corruption, and school safety. And worse yet, these students feel blamed. And, even worse, they tell us educators that they know they need to act for the sake of their own children and grandchildren. “We didn’t start the problem but it is our’s to fix” is the general reality from our students’ perspectives.
In December, I asked the full cast of Newsies, “Which issue in American society fires you up the most? What is a topic that today’s youth, regardless of political affiliation, rally around?” Overwhelmingly, the group agreed that it came down to four words: “Sandy Hook and Parkland.” These kids agree that they are tired of politicians talking across the aisles on both sides while innocent lives are lost due to gun violence. Sooner than we would all like to admit, they will be the new electorate, the policy changers, the future parents, and contributors to our society. They are willing and eager to make a change when their time comes.
These kids are inspired, and they want to share their stories with anyone who is willing to listen. In the words of our Student Director, “The message of the show is what drives me to be my very best. The message is that the kids can make a real difference in the world, especially when there is corruption in the wealthy. Plus, African-American, women, and workers rights are championed.” How can we not support them? How can we not support their passion for the arts? How can we not give them the stage to build and unite humanity? We must protect and promote the arts; where creativity, unity, inclusiveness, and raw passion mesmerize and give substance to the human experience.
Children are our future, they have plenty to say, and arts programs across the state give them a platform to have and share their voices. They WANT to speak out! They are motivated and hungry to speak if we adults will listen. To any doubter of today’s youth, when they sing, look in their eyes! Revel at the sheer power of their voices! Many voices often turn into one voice. That is not magic; that is raw belief and trust in one another. “There’s change comin’ once and for all!”
Kevin Mariano is a teacher at Plainfield High School.
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