Opinion

This is the season when the stars come out

This is the season when local newspapers bloom with photos of bright young achievers who won awards for having spent their time well. Valedictorians, scholarship winners, honors for excellence. Stars, all of them. Readers happily devour their stories, grateful for such good young people. The young winners are grateful for the parents, grandmas, grandpas, teachers, mentors, pastors and friends who helped them on their way. And we are thankful for how they shine against a societal background of violence and prejudice. Because of how they stand above rampant wrong-doing and laziness, this new crop of stars restores hope for our future.

It isn't easy. Today's youngsters must survive daily mine-fields of distraction to stay goal-oriented. Fascinating images and activities tug at their attention wherever they turn. Consider this: The same destructively attractive forces that ruin adults' lives and end marriages are wide open to teens. Unless equipped with a sense of right and wrong, their allure can seem more adventurous and fun than school. Or even sports. In spite of all those daily temptations to relax and go with the flow, our bright stars persevered. The world will be better for their dedication.

The skin-tones and names of award winners should serve as a wake-up call to native-born American students. Once again, the preponderance of immigrant children snaring top honors is far out of proportion with their numbers. And once again they give evidence that immigrants are America's most aggressive learners and workers.

About youngsters who reject education, everybody's got a theory. Pop-psychology says they were warped by bad toilet training or low socio-economic backgrounds. Whatever. More to the point is that when the "village it takes to raise a child" closes its doors and averts its attention, nothing good happens. Fortunately for most kids, the opposite is usually true. Undergirding the accomplishments of this year's crop of achievers is a network of open doors and welcoming helpers who kept company with our young as they grew and matured.

That's what made the difference. In homes and communities where youngsters and nurturing adults walk through life together, a sense of direction and purpose is passed on. At the other end of the scale, the distance between kids and parents widens to a point where they can relate only by reacting to one another. They're left without an acceptance that education is necessary and that learning is a privilege and obligation. Society is left to cope with the fallout of their inadequacy. The remarkable opposite, headed by this year's crop of achievers gives evidence of what can happen when parents and kids connect regularly.

It is natural and right. What if junior has been programmed by all the preceding generations of his species to learn in a particular way? What if copying adult behavior is the most natural kind of learning? What if playing at spear-making, setting traps and nurturing straw-dolls over uncountable generations impressed upon children a natural and efficient channel for learning for all time to come? What if children come to us hard-wired to learn as their ancestors did, all the way back into the dim beginnings of pre-history? What happens if the right role models for that kind of learning are absent from the scene?

It happens. With parents off to work each day, kids are still wired to learn the tribal way. Without elders present, they seize on whatever role-models are conveniently at hand. And when parents disappear to their jobs, kids select their role models from whatever is at hand; from their peer groups, school leaders, images cast by entertainment or the streets. A harsh reality, but reality nevertheless.

Today's kids' parents and grandparents remember neighborhoods of well-meaning decent people who pioneered a gentle form of child-abandonment. Because parents were sober and industrious, children were expected to be sober and industrious. No instruction needed. Parental guidance was doled out in the form of admonitions: "You play with that BB gun and you're going to put someone's eye out." Or "No swimming until two hours after lunch or you'll get a cramp and drown." They meant well.

As with all generations, those parents glowed over their children's accomplishments and suffered from their mistakes. And from basking in the former and cringing from the latter, kids derived a sort of direction. They still do, but it isn't as big a deal as it used to be.

Today's big deal lies in video games, flaming explosions and assaults for insignificant reasons. Now that's action. Everything else pales in comparison, including good advice, moral instruction, school lessons and loving support. To paraphrase an old song, "How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm, after they've seen TV." School lessons don't cut it unless they elicit gut reactions or hormonal responses.

Thank God that's not every young person's bread and butter. This year's crop of scholarship winners had the inner discipline to hold a focus on what's truly important. They obviously channeled their most precious resource, time, to prepare themselves for an uncertain future but not without parents' guidance. They stood against attractive pitfalls that ensnare so many while holding their sights on goals that lie beyond today's fascinations.

Thanks to all of you graduates who gave it your best. The obstacles were many and great but you overcame them. More thanks to parents and grandparents and others who helped to point the way.

Comments may be addressed to: rgraef@verizon.net

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