Curtain Raiser

To the Boys & Girls of 2014, Colltalers

It’s been a tough for year teenagers, and we’re not talking about their choice of iPhone here. Around the world, the plight of adolescents often accurately reflected the state of their societies, either by achievement or, most likely, by the relentless sacrifice of their lives.
Using demographics to pinpoint the ills of our times may not be the most comprehensive way of going about it. But the past year has shown, with stark clarity, the kind of world we’re setting up for those we’re breeding to occupy it. And the picture is bloody.
There has never been a time when being an adolescent was easy, regardless of what a certain brand of parenting may prescribe. Since the post-Industrial Revolution era, that ever evolving segment is constantly oppressed between their innocence lost and the brutal awaking to a world mostly indifferent to their needs and aspirations. Some perished, by the dozen, while some excelled.
In the U.S. and the Americas, in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, their voices have been heard, but only briefly, and usually right before being silenced by the thunder of gun barrels and the proselytizing of homicidal leaders, pursuing their intolerant agenda.
Thus it was a small miracle that, at the year’s end, a courageous 14-year Syrian boy, Usaid Barho, refused to ignite his suicide vest inside an Iraqi mosque. For most of the months prior have been a story of lives destroyed before they even reached their 20s.
Take the U.S., for instance. Throughout the year, scores of black teenagers have been shot and killed by police, joining the ever open graves of racially-motivated murders, whose numbers are already inflated as if we were all back in segregated times.
For such an underprivileged segment of the American society, 2014 has gone to the books as a blood-red blotch, as law enforcement institutions continue to downplay their own lack of preparedness to deal with this country’s glaring racial inequalities.
Since crime has been on a statistically downward trend, and even recent fatal shootings of cops, albeit tragic, remain rare, how come so many black youth have been killed in the streets, and thousands more continue to swell the jail population to record levels?
The young is always getting into trouble, one may say, brains still forming and all. But what we blame on them is exactly what governments and societies use to manipulate them into being unquestioning soldiers, loyal militia members, and gun-bearing vigilantes: their idealism, cluelessness towards danger, longing to belong. In 2014, we’ve betrayed them even more than usual.
Consider the more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls, kidnapped by a terrorist outfit, to be possibly never returned. Reports on their forced ‘marriage’ and religious conversion would be shocking enough, if the exact same rules didn’t apply to all young women in some societies. The girls’ hopes for an education were dashed because that’s what terrorists and autocratic societies fear the most.
Other kidnappings of young girls by terrorists seeking ‘wives’ and concubines have been reported in Nigeria and elsewhere, but governments’ routine militaristic approach may be credited with their absolute lack of progress getting any of them back.
On Dec. 16, another horrific incident, and the attempts at finding the culprits, mirrored with precision what happened in Africa. Militants strapped with explosives broke into a military-run school in Peshwar, Pakistan, killing 148 people, 132 of them teenagers.
Again, instead of finding answers and accountability about the massacre, the Pakistani army has gone in a shoot-to-kill spree, and claims to have killed the leader of the operation, no questions asked, along with estimated 500 people accused of being involved.
But if the pursuit of school children to kidnap or kill has scared the hearts of thousands, it has also produced its first certified hero, Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the face on her way to school, recovered, and became a symbol of resistance to intolerance for millions. Despite being less than popular in her native Pakistan, her Nobel Peace Prize is the best news of the year for the young.
Malala, 17, not just survived the shooting but also refused to cower before her still at large aggressors. By correctly identifying their fear of young girls being educated as their biggest vulnerability, she beat them by turning her recovery into her most powerful asset.
Other examples of engaged youth abound. In Boulder, Colorado, another 14-year old, Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez, has become an environmental activist at an age when many kids spend hours in the mirror, popping pimples and wondering what to wear.
He too, quickly, gauged the fear he could instill in the powers that be and, instead of retreating, soldiered on. A performance of an anti-fracking rap song with his brother at his school, prompted angry comments online and threatening calls to his home.
Of course, in this or any other year, millions of children and teenagers are killed by violence, religious obscurantism, or simply for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. So there’s a certain level of generalization about their collective plight in this post.
But we can’t tell each of their stories, and sometimes, an example encapsulates better both context and depth of a tragedy, than an interminable list of casualties that may be effective as a statistics infograph, but lacks the bone and flesh of experience.
We all roll our eyes when the topic turns into the Middle East, or the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. But the image of the bodies of four brothers, killed while playing on a Gaza beach, remains indelible as a symbol of the cruelty and brutality of that war.
Speaking of education, it may be difficult to understand how it can change lives from a teenager’s point of view, or how any kid would decide to find time in their busy schedule to use what they’ve learned so far to help others. But it did happen in 2014.
13-year-old Shubham Banerjee, for instance, invented a low-cost braille printer that will improve the lives of millions in the developing world. And so will 17-year-old Kenneth Shinozuka’s sensor to be worn by Alzheimer patients. The printer will improve how sight-deficient people communicate with others, while the sensor saves lives by alerting caretakers that their patient is on the move.
There are more, of course, but these should offer enough respite to the terrible events involving children we’ve witnessed these past 12 months. From parades full of soldiers too young to say no, to the oblivion to constant school shootings (of another kind) in the U.S., to terrible parental choices making the headlines, to unspeakable crimes committed by them or onto them, 2014 was a doozy.
Then again, there was Usaid, and Malala, and Xiuhtezcatl, and Shubham, and Kenneth, and millions more, all alive and promising to make this a better world we ourselves have managed so far. Now if we could only somehow multiply this crop of teenagers coming to age in the worst possible times, we could gather enough reasons to be hopeful about 2015 and beyond.
But ultimately, this is the world we’ve built for them, and it’d be unfair to expect that they would forgive us, and change it for the better. We’ve lost the moral higher ground on this one, and they’ll be righteously rebellious against what we think should be done. But that’s the nature of being a teenager now and ever. This post it to say that we still believe in their power. Have a great new year. WC


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