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The Okayness of the Young
...and the incomprehension of the old
This is a follow-up to my last post The Despair of the Young; if you haven’t read that one, it will be hard to follow this one. I wrote this one in response to particular a comment about how dark D of the Y was and how seemingly hopeless; the comment made me feel that I had not emphasized strongly enough what I said at the end of the piece that actually, my students were not just doomed, quivering wrecks but were “ambitious, humorous and bright in the face of everything.” (By ambitious I didn’t mean in pursuit of career success, I meant in terms of what they were willing to try, artistically.) Some of them were forthrightly inquisitive, challenging in a good way and open to being challenged themselves. I wasn’t just being nice when I said they were “pretty great.”
Example: The young woman who, during an office hour, queried me on misogyny vs. sexism; she had used the term “misogynist” to describe a particular dead male writer and I said, “I don’t think he was a misogynist. He was sexist but I don’t think that’s automatically the same thing.” She asked, what’s the difference? I said, basically, sexism means a rigid categorical definition of male/female nature that brooks exception grudgingly if at all. But within those definitions, women may be respected and loved, even idealized—which is a problem if you want room to move, to be a human as opposed to an ideal, but its not hate. (Example: Don Lemon’s opinion that Nikki Haley is, at 51, “past her prime” is definitely sexist. But I don’t think it means that he hates women.) Misogyny means contempt and visceral loathing that is on a whole other and much more destructive level. We went back and forth about it; I don’t know if I changed her mind. The important thing was that she was interested, assertive in her opinions but genuinely interested in exploring someone else’s.
At the same school, though in a different class, I’ve had similar discussions, for example, about Flannery O’Connor’s banal private racism (as expressed in letters to friends), in which I made the case that she was still a great artist in spite of her petty bitchiness about James Baldwin and snideness toward black people generally. (With some help from a wonderful essay by the dazzling Af/Am critic Hilton Als who, if possible, loves O’Connor more than I do.) Again, they may or may not have come over to my way of thinking, but it was a conversation; nobody was running out of the room to denounce me, which seems to be what people visualize happening constantly at universities now.
In a class at a different school, when a young woman got angry at some of the culturally unpopular things I said (for example, I expressed the opinion that rape is about both sex and power as opposed to solely about power) she argued with me about it in a rational and vigorous way as opposed to complaining to a dean. On another occasion, when I asked a literature class (as opposed to a writing class) if they wanted a trigger warning about violent material, they looked at each other and one of them said “I think we’re good with whatever.” Indeed, when I distributed a story (The Witch by Shirley Jackson) that I personally consider very horrifying, I did nonetheless issue a warning for those sensitive to violence; the next day a girl expressed her disappointment that the story wasn’t horrifying enough!
So: even in a conformist environment, many if not most of the students I’ve encountered are able to think for themselves, to find balance between the legitimate moral concerns that engendered what I labeled “the corrective apparatus” and the unthinking zealotry it too often enforces. Yes, I could plainly see the ways that they were injured and/or outraged by the world as it stands. But I could also see their strength—and their pleasure in life.
I saw it in their writing too: in a culture where humans generally seem unable to look deeply at the natural world around them, let alone describe it, some of my students were open to developing that ability and did so during the semester. As noted in the original post, all of them wrote with feeling and depth about a variety of subjects. I’m thinking of a young guy who wrote from the point of view of an elderly woman who shoots a bear while hiking up a mountain with her grandson; it was a intense combination of empathy with and disgust at age, a meditation on violence in a variety of forms. I’m thinking of a young woman who wrote about caring for her ill mother and immune-compromised sister during the pandemic, focussed on her family’s sense of humor and nesting into the complex strands of each character; even with sickness as its subject, that story was suffused with vitality. I’m thinking of another girl who wrote a vignette about lying with a friend on a beach at night during a blackout, holding hands and looking at the stars. And Luke: his first story was disturbing because the imagery he used was so complex, intelligent and vivid, so accurate in conveying the terrible states he described; it was stunning that way.
Going over this in my mind made me remember things about when I was a teenager, particularly as seen through adult eyes. I remembered reading essays in places like Time and Newsweek, about how crappy my generation was, how slovenly and mentally ill, drug-vitiated, moronically promiscuous, morally shallow and violent. There was usually a bit of truth to these articles! I would read them (they always came with pictures of sullen kids drooping morbidly in public parks or going nuts with their eyes bugged out at concerts or screaming at demonstrations) and feel in my heart, yeah we must really be scary and weird.
Except that I knew we weren’t, mostly. We were kids negotiating a scary weird world that was different from the ones our parents knew. We spoke a different language that wasn’t just a matter of new slang. The term “generation gap” immediately became a cliche but it was absolutely apposite. What looked horrific to our parents from the wide angle of a news story was, on the ground, usually something much more matter-of-fact and low-key on a daily basis.
I don’t mean to downplay what is happening now (or what happened then; bombs blew up, demonstrators were badly beaten and even shot, Black Panther Fred Hampton was set up by the FBI and murdered by the Chicago police) or what kids are faced with; seismic shifts in the viability of our planet, the phenomenon of mass shootings and maybe most important a radical change in how humans connect with each other or don’t; the newly aphysical, electronic experience of life. It’s all challenging. But it occurs to me that for people my age, as in the past, the way young people are looks worse than it is when viewed from the wide-angle of an article or essay, including one like mine. Because, as I said to one of the commenters, people my age are perhaps too different, in terms of sensibility, to feel with any depth how kids are wrestling with the shit that’s come down on them.
Also going over this, I remembered a boyfriend in college, one of the nicer guys I dated for maybe six months. He was physically intense but polite and considerate—I would even say morally thoughtful. I remembered that this guy showed me a story he’d written for a creative writing class that had concerned his teacher. It was about a guy who loved his girlfriend so much he decided to cut her up in pieces so he could keep her forever and it was graphic. (I think the tone was comic as opposed to rageful, but not sure.) It really was not good as a piece of writing and I didn’t enjoy reading it. But it did not occur to me to be afraid of him because he wrote it, or even to think that he was a misogynist. I think I intuitively understood that this range of feeling, related to but far outside the norm of possessive love, was something he was trying to get his head around in a way that he could control—with words. Because this was the mid 70s there was no consequence for it. I think the teacher spoke to him about it, I think maybe she suggested therapy—but I don’t really remember because in the context of my experience with him, the story made very little impression on me.
My boyfriend’s teacher of course didn’t have any context of friendship with him; all she saw was a violent fantasy presented to her by a physically intense young guy. By today’s standards, it sounded like she reacted with quite gentle tolerance; she also reacted with a direct conversation. I look at that time nostalgically! But it’s harder to have gentle tolerance when a mass shooting seems to happen every time you turn around and/or you read/hear about rising rates of suicide in young people, particularly young men. It’s also harder to have tolerance when someone is presenting himself as the killer in the story or is sending you strange emails.
Thus, the corrective apparatus—which I, however reluctantly, became part of for a long minute—stiff and clanking and wanting to do right. In some circles there is at least as much hand-wringing about the apparatus as there is about any other social ill you might think of; although I refrained from making a suggestion about how to give students the “something better” that they truly deserve, my instinct would be to get rid of the apparatus or rather to modify it so that it works more flexibly. Instead of saying to Luke that he couldn’t write the story he wanted to write (which I did in part because I could only imagine the shit storm that would ensue if I allowed that) what might’ve happened if instead I’d opened up the idea for general discussion in the class under the subject heading, what should be allowed, why and why not? Even that could, I guess, have upset some people, but it could also have been extremely interesting. If they voted on whether or not such a story was acceptable to workshop I’m guessing it would’ve been a no with dissent—but at least they would’ve had the chance to think it out rather than having me decide for them. As I said at the end of my original post, I am not at all confident that I know the way to give students “something better.” But I think more open conversation in general would be part of it.
So I don’t know if I’ve made anything seem more hopeful, but at least I’ve drawn a fuller picture. The class I wrote about was, I think, unusually focused on mental and social suffering as well as the phenomenon of self-harm. I think they were more pissed off than average too, rationally so. They were also complex and talented people. Within the rote machinery of the apparatus that is supposed to help them, an apparatus that (I think) most of them embrace as morally correct, their minds are still agile and quick, and can, if they want to, find ways to move within its strictures or away from it altogether.
Part of the reason I wanted to write this follow-up is my memory of the concerned pieces written about “the youth” in the 60s and 70s. Regardless of their quality, such pieces are definitional; if there are enough of them, the people so defined can come to believe that is who they are and act accordingly. As I mentioned in the previous post, I spent some time in a mental hospital when I was a young teen. When I got out, I found, in my parent’s possession, a description of myself that flabbergasted me—God, did I sound bat-shit crazy, a danger to myself at the very least! I’m sure that the professionals who came up with the description had their reasons for it. But I found it so ridiculous that I drew a cartoon, complete with captions, of the nutjob it depicted and left it where my parents would find it. So. I’m not walking back the piece I wrote. It is a truthful story about my experience with two classes of students and, based on the response I’ve gotten, it plainly reflects something bigger than my experience. But it bears noting: regarding the students themselves, it is only a tiny fraction of their story.