I took a group of high school students to the Holocaust Museum. I rehearsed responses to what I suspected would be their questions. Of course no words are adequate to “respond” to the Holocaust. Nonetheless, I reviewed many responses to the question “why do bad things happen?”
After an hour of exhibits, the questions finally came, though not the questions I anticipated. Not one student asked “why?” But of course they didn’t. These young people were in strollers on September 11th. They check their email hourly above crawling news alerts of terrorism or updates on war. They have spent hours in carpools with radio in the background telling them of yet another car bomb somewhere in the world, planted by hate, killing innocents. They expect some evil every day.
So what was their Holocaust question? I remember it well because most of the kids had similar versions.
“Where was everybody?”
I tried to clarify, “who do you mean by ‘everybody?’”
Their facial expressions were a mix of puzzle and pity for me. “You know, like, EVERYBODY.”
Despite generalizations of this iPod generation as uniquely self-absorbed or individualistic, this group has been the most paired up, teamed up, and uniformed group of kids—whether by parents or marketers—in our nation’s history. They seek groups, online and in person. Notice that the recruiting phrase for the United States armed forces throughout the 1990s was “Be An Army of One.” Also notice that this phrase has been completely retired in acknowledgment that current companion-seeking teenagers might best be called Generation Group. The verb of this generation is “to friend.” I asked a teenager recently if she would ever run away. She paused and said, “Only if I could bring my friends.”
This generation believes in “Everybody.” They even hope in “Everybody.”
Episcopal schools have the opportunity to challenge current cultural trends, trends that create and market schools that are more competitive than they are communal; more about individual awards than public liturgies; and offer more talk of stress than talk of soul.
From preschool to high school, our students long for meaningful relationships with one another and in the wider world whose “web” they so constantly and curiously surf every hour. The young people I know are rebels only against those who seek to cut them off from “Everybody” with harsh judgments or unfair labels. What pundits of youth culture often misinterpret as an adolescent search for conformity is more often a passionate longing for community. I meet far more young people who are more afraid of being alone than of being different. They only fear being different because they see it as a sure path to being alone.
Episcopal schools should not call their communities into conformity, but instead call their communities to embody Everybody. And a fearless, committed and compassionate Church could be the Everybody our teens already believe in, already trust in and already know they need.