Last month my daughter, Isabel, had a difference of opinion with one of her teachers. The issue was one of classroom management. In a tough moment, with little other recourse, the teacher had given a punishment to the whole class for the actions of one person. Isabel, who is 10 and therefore still in the “moralistic stage” of development where fairness and justice are black and white issues, was quite upset. I was moderately bothered. It wasn’t exactly fair but it was also just life. Sometimes unfair things happen, all adults know this.
As Isabel told me the story that evening and it became clear it was a deep-seated issue for her, I suggested that she write a letter to the teacher expressing her concern.
Isabel spent the evening huddled over my laptop, researching classroom management strategies and composing a 5 paragraph essay on discipline options that would have been more effective. As I realized how seriously she was taking it, I spent the evening and the whole following day wondering if I’d made a terrible mistake. This wasn’t her regular teacher and I had no idea if he knew her well enough to know that this was way outside her comfort zone. Would he see an entitled post-millennial where I saw a kid learning how to speak up? I prayed, literally prayed, that the teacher would just accept the note quietly and throw it in the trash when she wasn’t looking.
Here’s where the story becomes a life lesson. That teacher didn’t just accept the criticism with grace, he accepted it with enthusiasm. He publicly and loudly applauded Isabel’s decision to use her voice to make positive change and lifted it up as an example for the whole class.
I’m struck by the example he set for all of us who care about empowering kids. It turns out that there’s a risk when we teach kids to work for justice. When we teach kids to speak truth to power, we have to know that we may someday be the power to whom they speak. Our choice will then be whether to embrace their prophetic vision or to discount it as youthful naivete.
Of course, I'm telling this story because it has special meaning right now. Kids are stepping up as leaders in the struggle for racial justice, they’re organizing to work for gun safety, they’re taking the fight for earth care to the courts. They’re calling us to action, as young people have done in every generation and will certainly do again in future generations. And, of course, they can do this because there are adults in their lives who have paved the way.
I mention this for two reasons. First, it’s a reminder that the work we do to support and encourage young people matters. It matters that we encourage kids to be leaders in our community, that we provide them with opportunities to learn about peace and justice and that we embrace their gifts and passions.
I also mention it for a second, more challenging reason. When youth movements take the spotlight, it becomes an opportunity for us to reflect on whether we’re really willing to walk the talk. Are we, like a certain teacher I know, willing to take kids seriously? Are we willing to let them lead, even if their way isn’t our way? Can we rise in response to their prophetic visions?
If that long moral arc of the universe really bends toward justice, it’s only because each generation empowers the next. May this, too, be a way we work for a just and peaceful world.