As is often the case, the teacher gets a lesson bigger than the students.
Today, I spoke to Mrs. Valerie LaRose's 9th Grade Honors English class about environmental journalism and related topics as part of the Wappingers School District's Planet Focus forum. (Wappingers schools is one of the larger suburban districts in New York's Hudson Valley.)
I hope they took away from the talk a sense that every decision we make, every purchase we make (better stop before this becomes a Police song) has implications for the environment. I hope they left with a sense that asking questions, exploring the world and writing are good ways to live and participate in civic society. Most of all, I hope they left with a sense of hope.
Why? My biggest lesson of the day came when I asked those 14-year-olds if they were optimistic about the world they'd inherit 14 years from now, when they're (more or less) my age.
Heads across the room nodded: No.
The problems seemed insurmountable, they said. Powerful corporations seem to be working to line their own pockets, and getting in the way of positive change. They didn't hear anything about solutions. Any progress being made would take too long to show results.
(Lesson to self No. 1: Write more about the innovators showing the way forward.)
I asked them what issues concerned them. The answers ranged from who killed the electric car and the natural resource-busting pace of American consumption to the why there isn't a five-cent deposit on plastic water bottles like there is on soda. One asked how important recycling is, and followed up with a pet peeve: That so many of her fellow students don't recycle Snapple bottles.
I asked what they could do about the problem (not much, they indicated), whether there was an environmental club at school they could work with (no, or ... maybe, not sure), whether someone could write a story for the school newspaper about the issue (no one reads the newspaper) or get an announcement made on the P.A. (no one listens).
Part of this pessimism is no doubt due to being young, and not having seen how positive change happens. Sure, "no one" reads the newspaper, but the right person might the one with the brilliant solution or the one in power embarrassed enough to change, say. Part of the pessimism is reality-based: The problems this generation faces will be big: The population continues to grow, we continue to burn fossil fuels and carve up forests and farmland for new development.
I told them the story of Annie Sullivan, a student who attends school a couple districts away. As a middle school student, Annie did a simple science fair experiment: Smear petroleum jelly on pieces of paper, set those papers around town and then count with a microscope the amount of particulate pollution that sticks to each. When she was done, she found that surprise! the school bus garage produced the worst air pollution. She took her results to the school board, which ultimately sought money to upgrade catalytic converters and reduce pollution. She also argued for an anti-idling policy to protect her friends' lungs as they waited for and boarded buses.
Change is possible. (Lesson to self No. 2.) We can't be daunted by the magnitude of the problem, or become immobilized by pessimism. The work's already begun by the generations a bit older than Mrs. LaRose's 9th graders. If we're successful, they'll understand change can happen. We'll know how we fared how they will fare if those Snapple bottles start getting recycled.
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