Thursday, September 14, 2006

Young Adults: Brave and Courageous

I read a thoughtful column about youth and the Montreal shooting and by Christine Blantchford. As a student, I know that much of what she says is true.

TORONTO — I live across from the University of Toronto's main campus downtown, and for as long as I've been here, I watched the same scene unfold every fall — the parents come in their loaded-down cars, with their lovely wide-eyed teenagers and sometimes a sibling or two, and thus begins for everyone involved the process of letting go.

There are a few hours, or a day or two, of schlepping the kid around. There are trips to Ikea, often, to outfit the new room or apartment; to the nearest grocery store for the first big shopping for all the heavy stuff; to Staples and computer stores and the like. Then comes the teary goodbye at the car, and the son or daughter goes off to start real life, and the parents drive away, hearts in their throats, with fingers crossed.

It's all any of them, any of us, can do. It's all that was ever possible or ever will be.

To survive young adulthood — when the human animal is at once trusting, adventurous, reckless, naive and sure of his or her own invulnerability — has always been a crapshoot. All of those parents who just weeks or days ago were dropping off the mini-me at one campus or another, all of us who made it through safely — we know. We know you always had to be lucky because we know what we did and that we were lucky.
It is true that on mornings like this one, after the shooting rampage of yesterday at Dawson College in the heart of downtown Montreal, the world feels a more dangerous and violent place now than it did. It may even actually be that way. But teenagers always had to be lucky to make it through. That most of them do is because they are strong as horses, adaptable, resilient as rubber. Did I mention, lucky?

I have no children, which may be why I am unabashedly romantic about them: I didn't have to wipe bottoms, change diapers, clean up sick, tolerate adolescent temper tantrums or worse, endure that period of being tolerated as a particularly stupid brand of adult.

There are many young people, most now in their early 20s, in my life — nieces and nephews, some of whom have lived with me or do now, and godchildren, and their friends, and my friends' children — but by the time I get to know them well, they are already well-formed by years under their parents' tender care, and are astonishingly articulate and accomplished. I know many others, just a little, from my job — the young privates and corporals I met in Afghanistan are just the most recent bunch.

I find that the older I get, the more universally beautiful the young appear to me. There seem no dumb ones, no unattractive ones, no less-than-generous ones.

On my television screen yesterday, there they were again: That boy with the blood on his T-shirt (he'd helped a wounded friend, who was shot in the leg, I think) who was such a marvellous eyewitness; the composed one who spoke of the teacher who had been such a terrific leader, and got the students in her class to push desks against the door, all of them stunned that such a thing could happen on their campus, to their classmates, in their city. Of course they were shocked: They're teenagers, twenty-somethings: Sudden death should be a stranger.

Yet even so — with so few details known yet about the shooter or what happened on the street outside the college and in its pretty atrium and cafeteria — it's clear that for all the panic, many of these students and teachers kept their heads.

Within hours, all the new-but-familiar sacred cows were being raised by politicians, experts and reporters: There should be more regulation upon gun ownership (since it appears the shooter's weapons were registered); with reference to television and mass media, the violence-begets-violence argument; the over-arching need for the college to bring in counsellors and social workers for students and staff; the predicted debate over whether Canada's college campuses ought to have airport-style security and the like. I heard no one say it, but surely the Web will come in for its share of blame.

Yet it seems to me that most often, these school shoot-ups, as dreadful as they are, have no single “root cause” and probably no fix, let alone an easy one. I'm not sure that even the rampage seven years ago, at Columbine High School in Colorado, where the two shooters were obviously troubled outcasts who even made a video in which their carnage was conveniently foreshadowed, could have been prevented, for all the terrible self-immolation that followed among their families and teachers.

There exists in our corner of the world the view that somehow, all bad things ought to be preventable. If only it were so. If only all the young could grow old. But it has never been that way. That poor girl who died yesterday, the eight who are in critical condition in hospital, weren't lucky. Perhaps it's best to think of these occasional gunmen, in their spooky clothes, as the modern equivalent of the truck wheel that flies off on the highway — another freak, if not of nature, of something just as unmanageable.

With crossed fingers: It's still, in the end, the best most parents can offer. It's why they're the bravest people.

I'm taking a course on The Risk Society, and often youth are painted as a big RISK. I mean smoking, drinking, sex, parties, debt, high-risk lender, inexperience, prone to mistakes and misjudgements, and the list goes on. We can surely understand why we, as young adults, are considered a big risk. But Christine's article paints us in a different light, and I really appreciated that.


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