By the time our children are teen-agers, we’ve already given them a few obligatory “big” talks.
There’s the sex talk, of course, a well-intentioned muddle at best. There’s the talk about being responsible drivers, and the talk – ongoing, if we’re smart – about the volatile combination of booze, drugs and hormones. Now there’s another talk that can’t be avoided, a talk most parents didn’t consider before the tragic events of Sept. 11. It has to do with the future and the promise it holds for our children as they prepare to make their way in the world. It touches on the value of character, duty and a dedication to the welfare of others. But mostly it’s about the power of hope over despair, of courage over fear.
The talk can take a dozen forms, but its message to kids must always come across loud and clear: No matter how frightening life may seem right now, no matter how much worse it might become in the months or even years ahead, their future is as boundless as they choose to make it, their newly inherited world forever a place of infinite possibility.
If you’d like a few tips on how to begin such a talk, I refer you to a little speech I heard the other night by a Bangor High School history teacher named William Ames. He was addressing the new inductees to the National Honor Society, but his words apply to anyone on the perplexing threshold of adulthood.
Ames began by telling the kids of the world we parents knew at their age. It was a time of wondrous accomplishments, when a man walked on the moon and rockets sailed through the vastness of space. He told them that they would soon step out into a very different world, however, where madmen have stolen our security by sailing airplanes into buildings and murdering thousands. We are now a nation afraid of opening our mail, he told them, where we worry about what new threats await us tomorrow. Parents and teachers will, of course, try to protect them from that fear, he said. They will say don’t worry, everything will be OK, it’s only temporary.
“But you and I know that’s not true,” Ames said.
Life has indeed been altered, he reminded them, and uncertainty could be with us for a long time to come. So don’t believe platitudes to the contrary. Yet there is a way to keep their lives on an even keel, he insisted. The way to battle the forces of chaos, anarchy and terror, he said, is with character, leadership and service. It’s an arsenal that terrorism cannot withstand for long.
Role models abound, he said, but don’t look for them in popular music or movies or the world of sports. Instead, Ames directed the students’ eyes to the American flag, which stood close to the center of the stage. The flag’s position, which he had calculated by azimuth, marked a direct line to New York City. Ames then asked them to look right through the flag, through the school’s walls, across 500 miles to the rubble of the World Trade Center. There were the role models – those thousands of firefighters, police and rescue personnel who, when called on to be great, answered magnificently. There were all the exemplars the students needed, he said, to understand how ordinary people can move mountains in extraordinary times.
Before the inductees began to file across the stage, each carrying a carnation and an honor society pin as the proud parents clapped, Ames offered a line from Tennyson that they could take with them as well. It was about character, leadership, service and scholarship, though it did not use those words. It was about holding tight to the promise of a bright future that madmen will do anything to steal. But mostly, it was about the power of hope over despair, of courage over fear.
“Come my friends,” the poet urged, “’tis not too late to seek a newer world.”