It’s that time of year again, graduation season filled with high school valedictorian and guest speaker oratory infused with all the hope of the next generation, college commencement speeches given by celebrities of every kind lending their fame to inspire up and comings, giving advice, anecdotes on a number of topics failure, success, dreams, ambition, passion, pulsing with all the promise of the young people before them, catching us all up in the dreams of what may come tomorrow. But is it realistic, is it hopeful or is it a delusion we give to our young people as they head off into the cruelties of the big, wide world; is it inspiration we fuel them with before sending them off to make their way or is it a quick path to disappointment?  Now many say the current generation mocking and disgustedly called the “Me generation” harbor a lot of anger and disappointment because we have programs based on self-esteem and telling adolescents they are special coupled with the laundry lists of public school system failures leaving them unprepared for life and work. Logic would however pose another question, an alternative, saying, or is it perhaps us, the older generation who have failed to notice the changing times and tides, the difficulties our brightest young people face, the opportunities that no longer exist no matter how good a start you had in life, no matter what obstacles you didn’t face? Is it that we no longer recognize that pulling yourself up by your bootstraps isn’t as possible as we once thought it was, is it that we’ve missed the diminishing returns on core values like hard work, perseverance, is it that we have failed to notice the clever cages crafted by our education and employment system limiting forward mobility?  

 Yes we seemed to have mastered the art of the program for the disadvantaged, the helping hand for the least of us, special schools to give kids a second chance, rare afterschool programs in obscure sports giving kids valuable lessons on team work, accomplishment and hope to not only finish high school but go onto college, reach their dreams in spite of their circumstances. And to some extent we have not been disappointed some of our nation, the world’s most talented kids showcased on talk shows, from child prodigies in music to those graduating high school while their age group is conquering state capitals and multiplication tables. From young entrepreneurs to published authors, kids fighting diseases to kids graduating high school in spite of stents in foster care, life in a group home, homeless to Harvard stories have been broadcast on the still hugely popular Oprah show. However we give little thought to what happens after, after young people graduate high school, after they complete college, after we fill them with the hope and inspiration of a program, after we engrain them with the great future they can have, after we fill their heads with possibility, what the real possibilities are, what happens when things don’t go as planned for the people who do everything right, the people taking full advantage of a second chance. Because after managing to survive bad areas, poor upbringings, abuse, the absolute worst starts in life, they go out and join everyone else possessing a high school diploma trying to get ahead, everyone who somehow managed to graduate college who is looking to start a career or who is simply looking for a job and finding the harsh reality that despite where you grew up, horrible or wonderful, despite where you went to school, The Ivy League, state university, community college, trade school, on scholarship, full financial aid or working 3 jobs to get through, they still can’t find a job, they are still working for minimum wage, they face going back to the squalor they grew up in. We have no thought for the individuals that can’t go forward because there is no place for them to go.     

Example a work to ride program for inner city kids, work around the stable be able to learn to ride a horse. If you want to take the next step learn to play polo, and playing with shoddy equipment, uncooperative horses, sometimes playing against girls to have someone to play at all, nearly always losing. Yet slowly but surely they improved, slowly but surely they advanced to play in the nationals at the high school level, the current polo team using their sport connection to attend a private high school on scholarship planning to go to college. Many would call this a success already because it has kept at least 3 young men off drugs, out of gangs, out of trouble with the law, kept them in school and also afforded them a better education than their neighborhood counterparts. Additionally these kids have been given a work ethic in they had to do something for the privilege, perseverance as it wasn’t an immediate accomplishment in either learning to ride, learning the sport or in winning a game. But again we come to what happens after; what happens when financial aid, scholarships and possibly working a paying job won’t pay for college or college at the prestigious school they got into? What happens when they do graduate college and join the thousands, millions of young people with a degree who can’t find a job, never mind their dream? Answer: back to the old, dilapidated neighborhood, back to the old streets, back to a dead end future, life only this time without hope of ever getting out, leading to the potential for bad habits, criminal behavior.

It’s the same scenario with the St. Louis judge who decided to dole out education not incarceration who said you read on a 3rd grade level today we’ll give you a 3rd grade book but show me better next week or next month. His actions are laudable for a person charged with dispensing justice who sees past criminality to both recognize the need for more, better, innovative education approaches and then to go out and create one; he is exactly what we need on one front, unfortunately only one. Because it is a dangerous thing to give people, especially people already taking bushes with darkness, hope that turns out to be false, that is suddenly taken away.  True he has better educated kids society tried to throw away, he has improved attitudes, optimism, motivation, given these kids both a wakeup call, a solid reason to stay out of trouble and an opportunity to realize what they want to do with their lives. Sadly once more we arrive at the question of then what; what happens when these kids are denied scholarships, financial aid, even admission to some schools due to their criminal histories. What happens when the future forensic detective in the above link manages to go to school, get her degree but can’t find an internship to garner the practical experience to get a job? Maybe she ends up in a factory job like someone else in a different part of that same state. They said detective so perhaps they want to be on the police force; what happens when they are rejected by the police academy due to their background?  What is a young person’s next move when they are rejected by the only school teaching a particular trade because they made a mistake? Like it always seems to be concerning employers, what happens when they find out they can’t get a job flipping burgers to pay for school themselves?  Predictably they go back that which they know, violence, gangs, smoking weed not to think about it, selling drugs on the corner because they tired the straight and narrow, and from their point of view it betrayed them, not so ironically paying more money than most jobs. Why, the repercussions of our twisted concept of morals practicing a form of social double jeopardy where it’s not enough for the penal system to take their pound of flesh, we next have to bar them from all but the most medial, distasteful low wage jobs.

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Next enter a prison college program for eligible young inmates in California, essentially pairing them with a buddy allowing them to study together, earn a degree and have a future; outside the fact that this program isn’t available to every young prisoner, who will get out of jail at some point, nationwide, the fact it should be available to every prisoner who will get out of jail and go out into society, nationwide, there is the issue of the repeated, redundant questions? How do you keep them out of jail, despite the glowing statistics of individuals in this program vs. those who just served their time, were pitched beyond the prison gates, told to rebuild their lives with nothing, placed on parole/probation told to report to their parole/probation officer, get a job and keep their nose clean, when, regardless of their degree, regardless of  the practicality of that  degree, they will be confronted by employers who don’t want them not only because of their record but because they actually spent time in jail, prison? How do you keep them from becoming recidivists, permanent residents of the criminal justice system when they come out competing against other people, the same age, slightly younger with the same degree, no record and possibly some practical experience? The answer: you don’t; you have a few that get lucky, have employers who are either so desperate for workers with whatever specific skills or training, they’ll take whoever is qualified or who are impressed that an inmate took their time in prison to do something constructive other than lift weights and sculpt their body. Outside of that, these people once again become society’s throwaways.

The impending tragedy for this young man is his violent Englewood neighborhood doesn’t define who he is yet; key word being yet. He’s only 15 and has the advantage of attending the only all-male prep high school in his area; he hasn’t gotten a chance to get tired, he hasn’t had the unfortunate luck to have had a friend shot and die, he hasn’t been shot at himself. He goes to a school where he is told there is hope, that tells him he can move beyond where he is now; still we know what happens when fighting these odds gets to be too much, when harassment from gang members forces him to join one simply to feel safe walking down the street. We know this story, the story of what could happen when financial aid doesn’t cover schooling, when he is turned down for scholarships due to lack of them, lack of funds to give deserving students; we know what will happen when he has to settle for a state university or community college rather than the prestigious school he got into. We know what happens when he gets a degree, joins the droves of others like him, only he’s already worn by the treadmill of life, still can’t find a job, the job he has is minimum wage.  His only choice financially is back to the neighborhood or a similar run down, dilapidated, police forgot it neighborhood wherever he happens to be living, this time sans any incentive not to join a gang, do drugs or pick up a gun.  The impending tragedy is doing the right thing, staying on the right path, the path of good people; the ordinary path to success may well turn out to be meaningless.   

Interestingly enough the issues surrounding this high school dropout program isn’t the haughty stigma of summed up in the accusation why couldn’t you just go to school like everyone else, why are my tax dollars funding this program, even though they survive on donations, it is both in who they serve and our resounding question, what actually awaits these hopeful young people who no longer have to define themselves by their lack of high school diploma, where is the forward they are going to, what does it really look like, have we given them a golden key or an empty promise? Firstly looking at the post high school goals of the teens, 20 something’s featured you have a future mechanic and a wanna be chef; not only are these kids the type pushed aside by traditional academia, bereft of the hope that might have kept them in school long enough to graduate because their high school offers no classes in cooking, welding, car care, small gas engines, they are headed for high demand, so called practical fields. Whether our young man ever goes from cooking school to being the next Emeril Lagasse or working in a 5 star restaurant, he will always be able to make a living as a short order cook in a dinner, at a local restaurant earing far less money. Our future mechanic, provided he finishes his training, isn’t likely to want for a job owing to the need for skilled workers willing to do this kind of perceived low class, messy work. Further unlike a lot of high school and colleges today, this program for high school drop outs holds ties to the community, real information about colleges, universities, trade schools, and jobs beyond the institutions. Students participating learn how to actually get into a field, are connected with chances for real world experience, partly through actual job recruiters; imagine if every college university, trade school or training center offered the same instead of the too often found career services departments marked by ineptitude, people in the business who have no time to tell anyone the basics of how to get the job they have, communities where they refuse to offer internships for lack of time or  money or a lack of will to bother. That is the hidden success of this program vs. regular high school, vs. typical college experiences

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Until now the reading have been focused on people who had abysmal chances or needed second chances however,  following in the same vain as those in the previous paragraph are the mavericks the ones who succeeded, succeed apparently doing everything wrong, taking the unconventional route and still manage to, not only make it, but to thrive. Parents no doubt cringe when they hear John Mayer talk about having to go to summer school to get his diploma, completely down playing it’s significance at the time or the sheer fact that he has made records, won Grammys, become an undisputed star in a business known to chew people up and spit them out without attending a music school, without a degree in music, much, if any, formal training; why, it makes their kids think they can be just like him.  For people young and old having done all they could to go down the right path, go down the surest path that would lead them to their goals, lead them to a good, solid life, afford them a reasonable chance at a dream, at sustainability Mark Wahlberg on Anderson Cooper’s talk show endorsing the Taco Bell graduate to go program may seem like too much irony from a guy with no high school diploma, a criminal record having spent time in jail, who went on to be in a singing group then became a famous actor, but at least you can say he learned from his mistakes.  But what about when the “mistakes” are the success; Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are well known for dropping out of college. Still their creations changed lives allowed them to amass wealth the positive way. Another Mark, MarkZuckerberg dropped out of Harvard after the booming success of Facebook. The resounding message is confusion whether they try to achieve going the traditional way or attempt to strike out on their own creating their own business, product, inventing something; lasting failure appears to be the end result either way.

Above is a visual representation of a travesty that has now been explained away, that too many agreed with in the first place taking into account the coddled nature of the current crop of graduates. Above is a duel travesty yet the travesty isn’t a high school teacher who butchered the occasion while trying to impart some reality to young people about the world they are going into, by telling them they are not special, the travesty isn’t that he tried to get media obsessed, self-absorbed young people to go beyond that stereotype as they move out into the world, by telling them and their parent kids should stumble, should fail, it is to be expected,  the travesty isn’t that people’s such strong reactions put the focus on him, not the students’ achievements, or that they misunderstood the lessons he was trying to impart. The travesty is, here is a teacher who admittedly had to be told recently what a blog was, who got a powerful lesson himself in the blogosphere post his unconventional speech, who naively thought he was speaking to students and their parents, having no idea in the age of video phones, i-pads and the latest i-phone that he was potentially speaking to the entire world then had the audacity to state on a morning show his students attention spans are less than even 4-5 years ago. Worse this is an English teacher, teaching a subject encompassing grammar, a love of the written word, classic literature to the very foundations of communication, who doesn’t know what these things are, who doesn’t understand how they impact the way we communicate, write and transmit ideas. Honestly who would listen to someone attentively who didn’t know those things considering he may have budding journalists in his class, videographers, creative writes, students who have a personal blog, who are looking into it as a professional or money venture, have already made it one?

The travesty is, here is a person who should have a command of the written and spoken word, who had the perfect opportunity to better affect his message by using what young people think about themselves to make his point. He should have said you are special not because your parents always say so, your teachers have been trained to say that at the least glimmer of talent, the trophies in your room, the friends you have, the clubs you belong to, the colleges you got into, but because everyone, including you has unique skills, abilities, insights, talents. The challenge for you now is to go out do something special and unique with your lives; the challenge for you is to use them not only to the betterment of yourself but of society, the planet. The challenge is for you to go out and do what you can for someone else, to make sure they know they are special too. Not only does it sound better, it’s true to what he wanted to say- selflessness is the most important thing. And the travesty continues in his monumentally failed understanding that it doesn’t matter if these kids grew up in affluence, that as expected, many are headed to the Ivy League, you can’t be selfless when you can’t even take care of yourself, when even if you financially, academically graduate, do well, you can’t find a job. When if you do find a job it’s minimum wage, even with your better job, you are drowning in student loan debt, your back on your parent’s couch to deal with said debt, while you grew up in affluence you end up living in anything but even after doing everything right, taking advantage of all that was presented to you. You cannot practice selflessness when you are too busy trying to survive. This is the picture of what these young people are headed into in the age of occupy Wall Street, and this is what a teacher has to say to them. It’s insulting and he should be ashamed of himself.     

 We as a society need to start thinking about what happens after, after high school, after college, after trade school, after training programs; we need to open our eyes and take an un-simplified, scrutinizing, harsh look at what the employment landscape actually looks like for young people, no matter how much education they have or don’t, no matter how much hard work they put in or try to, no matter where they are willing to start. We need to take that same hard core look at what employers are asking for in terms of credentials, experience, certification and education up against what colleges, universities, trade schools and training programs are providing. Simultaneously we need to take the business world by its traditionally while collar and shake it saying you can’t ask for everything and the kitchen sink if you’re not willing to give applicants a means to get it. We need programs for all these disaffected college students too who have degrees deemed worthless, who couldn’t find the means to finish, who need something beyond a B.A. to obtain a career but can’t afford it. We need programs for the luckier ones too who did graduate, who are at least employed, but who are drowning in student loan debt, living with their parents to make the payments, putting their life on hold, buying a car, buying a house, getting married, starting a family, to pay back their debt.  Here is the source of anger, disappointment for the millennial generation, gen Y; we told them to do well in school, to get educated, to go to college and they would go somewhere in life, would achieve their dreams and welied. That is the source of the angst of generation now, not programs based on self-esteem, not a laundry list of public school failings, not a lack of knowing facts, logical thinking, problem solving but the fact we sold them a bill of goods then try to blame them, their character failings for it, for where they landed in life.