There’s an old adage that, “if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.” Your Dad probably used it, or something like it, when he caught you hanging out with the so-called wrong crowd. Friedrich Nietzsche’s Dad probably used the line on him and Nietzsche prettied it into “When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you.”
In 33 days I’ll watch a class of high school seniors claim their diplomas and head out into whatever awaits them. At least one of these guys is going to M.I.T. Another is headed to my alma mater, Wheaton College in Massachusetts. One young woman is headed to Tufts; another is bound for the Marines.
More than a few will be grabbing their diplomas and running as far away from organized education as they can get. Some will come back, others will tell anyone who asks that they hated school and all it made them do.
Most of these students don’t get enough sleep at night. They spend too much time on Facebook or playing video games. Few of them read for fun. Some of them play guitar. They’re selfish, ignorant jerks. Many of them have never changed a tire or washed a dish. A couple of them have saved lives. They’re lazy. They build houses for the less fortunate. More than a few drink and smoke pot. A bunch of them have had sex. One girl started an origami club. Several score think deep thoughts and worry about the future. A small percentage is half convinced world will really end in 2012. I’d say half of them are convinced life is worth living and the other half are still waiting to see. Maybe 1 out of 50 can name all nine Supreme Court justices.
They’re enlightened angels. They can’t spell. Two of them got together to start a poetry blog. A few of them have thought about killing themselves; some of them have tried. Some want to change the world; many have let the world change them. They’ve never lived without the Internet and can’t separate themselves from their cell phones. A lot of them have no grasp of the “Protestant work ethic”; they let Mommy and Daddy pave the way for them. One of them dropped by the other day to show me a Shakespearean sonnet he’d spent weeks working on. One guy has set up a nonprofit to make sure people in Third-World countries get fresh water. Some of them believe in God and want to spread the word. Others don’t believe in anything and don’t give a fuck who knows.
This is my abyss; these are my dogs. I’ve spent the last five years with adolescents crawling through my brain, impressing me, disappointing me, testing me, teaching me, bugging the hell out of me and leaving me stunned.
And I am a better man, a better person, for it. I spend every work day with them, a slowly calcifying stone in the company of clouds of pure, untapped potential, spinning storms of Could-Be. They could be parents. They could be doctors. They could be criminals. They could be heroes. They could be the generation that gets it right. They could be the last generation that had a chance of pulling us back. They could be the generation that blows it.
Work with them. Learn from them. Be open to them. Engage them and offer them your best. Make friends with them and help them see their worth.
Odds are, they’ll turn out just like us. But maybe they’ll shake off the fleas they caught in our company, and be better.