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There comes a time in everyone’s life when they start talking about what has already happened to them more than what will. I didn’t notice until recently how many of my conversations with friends inevitably veered off into memories we’d shared, old stories we’d forgotten, idle gossip about people we hadn’t seen in years. You start talking about something in your life, or in the news, and before you know it, that reminds me of the time and then you’re both off and going. Next time you talk to an old friend, note how much the two of you are recounting experiences you’ve already had together, rather than making a plan to have more.
As you get older, the future becomes less a place of infinite dreams and possibility, and more a place you are merely hopeful you’ll make it to if you can just get through right now. That sounds more pessimistic than I mean it. Whenever I run into someone I haven’t seen in a while, the initial quick, small-talk conversation, how are you, how’s it going, inevitably hits the “I’m hanging in, just the same old, same old, nothing much to report” point. This statement surely isn’t true—there is always something major going on in your life, it’s your life—but it does serve the important purpose of letting the other person know that your life is not currently on fire. Could be better, could be worse, but everything is still close enough to the way you want it to be that you’re able to stand here and have this brief conversation in the poultry aisle. That’s not a terrible place to be. There was a time in my life where “same old same old” small talk conversations would have made me feel as if the skin was melting off my face. Now I find comfort in them. They mean we’re hanging in. They mean we’re still standing.
The best thing about young people—and there are many wonderful things about young people—is that they are always looking toward the future. What will happen, what can happen, who they’ll meet, what they’ll do, where they’ll end up, how it will all go down. They are unformed, and their story is unwritten. When you have miles and years on you, you can’t help but have your world get smaller; the once-endless series of possibilities starts to whittle down, you realize things like, you know, I’m probably not going to be President someday. But young people have no idea what’s ahead of them. Every day is a new page in a story that still being frantically written. So they look forward, not back. They see the world as it should be.
This week, I spent a few days at Nichols School, a very fancy private school in Buffalo. A decade or so back, a distinguished (and wealthy) alumnus established an endowment for the school to bring in writers to spend a couple of days with their students, just going from classroom to classroom and talking about their life and their career and their work. Having run out of people to ask, I presume, they invited me. This school is so unlike the school I went to as a child; I had not realized, until I saw Nichols School, that I apparently went to grade school in a yurt.
Distinguished Nichols alumni include David Milch, Christian Laettner and surely many, many people who run hedge funds. I mean, they teach Latin at this school. This had led me, heading into my trip, to arrive with all sorts of preconceived notions about the students. I imagined them being pampered, spoiled, miniature avatars of privilege shuffling around a bit with backpacks before heading off to Vassar or Brown or wherever children who studied Latin in high school end up going. But preconceived notions are something that old people have, an unconscious crutch, a way to lie to ourselves that we’re being smart, or savvy, or experienced. That’s not what we’re doing, though. We’re just carrying baggage into a room that doesn’t have space for it, and doesn’t want it.
Everything I thought about the kids was wrong. What I was struck by, after two days of talking and listening to teenagers, is how much weight we have put on their shoulders, how much they’ve already had to endure, how many of our problems they’re going to have to solve—and how they’re very much up to the challenge.
One of the classes I talked to was a research class, where each student (sophomores, I believe) had to pick a topic and do a deep dive on it for a 2,000-word paper, a project that teaches them how to discover information, digest it and disseminate it. This is not an unusual assignment for a class of sophomores. I did something similar when I was a sophomore—I remember making a vehement argument in favor of listening to records instead of compact discs. So I went around the room and asked each kid what they were working on. Their topics, without fail, were weighty, complex and serious—even grave. One kid was writing about climate change reparations. One was digging into the Oklahoma abortion law. One was tracking the history of book bans. The smallest kid in class, who I swear looked younger than my eight-year-old, eloquently described his exploration into many states’ new voter suppression initiatives and their impact on historically underrepresented communities. They did not talk about these projects with the dull, heavy-lidded disinterest of a high school sophomore just trying to get this over with so they can go sulk in a corner. They talked about them with passion, with purpose, with, more than anything else, urgency. They talked about them like they were personally charged with saving the world. Which they kinda are. They don’t really have the time to debate vinyl.
This kids know what’s in front of them. I asked one if she had any idea what she wanted to do with her life, what she wanted to be—an old person question, a narc question, if there ever were one. She shrugged. “I just hope the planet’s still livable when I get to be your age,” she said. (To be fair: She may have thought I was 104 years old.) Another told me she was planning on double-majoring in Physics and English because “I need to double the odds I can find a job.” One guy, a hockey player, told me he wanted to go into politics to “stop school shootings.” That was his whole platform, and why wouldn’t it be? The next day, the day after I left, there was a threat called into the school.
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It is difficult to overstate what these kids have been through, in the last three years, and really their whole lives. That expectation that their lives are supposed to be better than their parents’—the very foundation of the American Dream—is an absurd one to them: They are going to be too busy trying to fix everything we have broken. To hear their questions was to see a generation that has faced way too much, way too early. Across the board, the most common question I got, when they heard about my writing career, my books, my background, was “How do you deal with the people who are so mean?” To them, writing a book or hosting a podcast or starting a blog was not a way to express yourself or to entertain or to inform; it was merely an efficient way to expose yourself to ridicule and scorn. I didn’t have an email address until I was college, and I was not on social media until I was in my mid-30s. But that world has been their whole world, their entire life. They have had the uniquely terrifying burden of being awkward teenagers who want to hide while simultaneously feeling as if the entire world is watching and judging them at all times—and being absolutely right to feel that way. Most weren’t impressed by the books or anything I’d done nearly as much as they were by the fact that I had been willing to put myself in the public square at all. They look out onto the world and they see cruelty everywhere. They see it so much sooner than we did. One girl talked about how, when she was 11, a stranger on the Internet said she looked fat in a picture and now “I think about it every day,” she said. She then paused. “I’m thinking about it right now.”
That’s not even accounting for the isolation of the pandemic, the fact that, at a hugely pivotal moment in their lives, they were locked away from their friends and any sort of definable structure, trapped inside with their increasingly manic parents. One kid told me she thinks none of her friends will ever really know learn how to socialize correctly. “I thought it would get less awkward this year, but it never really did,” she said.
But man, are they sharp. For nearly the past two years, I have been talking about How Lucky, traveling around the country, squinting through Zooms, sitting on panels, visiting book clubs, doing interviews. I have been asked the same questions over and over, and I have come up with honed, polished answers. I know how to tell the stories, the right ways to set up amusing anecdotes, the key points to hit. But in two days of talking to teenagers, I heard at least a dozen incisive, sometimes gutting questions I had never heard before. At one event, a public event in front of the whole school, one kid asked me “would you consider yourself an optimist? Or are you just trying to be optimistic so everyone around you will feel better?” I’m still wrestling with that one a few days later.
What struck me most, though, is how they still believe—how electric that belief is. It just vibrates off of them. The world is something out in front of them, a story without an outline, a plot that could go anywhere. Every day is a new surprise, every day brings them something they’ve never seen before. There is joy in those surprises, along with fear and anxiety and curiosity and hope. I remember, when the pandemic first hit, how my kids handled the initial shock of everything better than my wife and I did, and realizing this was because they were so used to dealing with new experiences that this new experience was just another reality for them to adjust to—something they were already doing every day. As you get older, water finds its level; we had gotten used to the way things were and were thus more jarred by the suddenly rocky seas. My kids just rolled with it. Like these kids, they didn’t really have much choice. These kids were worried about the future—how could you not be? But they were ready, are ready, to meet the moment. At this point, it’s all been thrown at them. They are more prepared for what’s coming that we think. And certainly more prepared than we were.
I know it is the coin of the realm, as you get older, to shake your heads at the kids, to feel like youth is wasted on the young, to be increasingly certain that your days were the good ole days. But that is not experience talking, or world-weary cynicism; it’s just willful ignorance. I spent days listening to these kids, the kids who are going to going to have to save us. They’re scared. They’re anxious. They’re overwhelmed. They’re also freakishly smart and driven and hungry and desperately eager to go out there and drink in the world in big, huge gulps. It was truly thrilling, a privilege, to witness and be a part of. It was the sort of thing that makes you think it’s all going to be OK. It was the sort of thing that makes you feel young again.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
Joe Biden Has More Energy Than You Do, Medium. I get exhausted just thinking about his schedule.
Sports Cannot Keep Up With Reality’s Misery, New York. They sure do postpone games more easily than they used to.
Best Movies About American Presidents, Vulture. Updated every year for President’s Day.
Can Seven 2022 Breakout Stars Do It Again in 2023? MLB.com. Sad to say, I don’t see Tommy Edman being a top-25-in-MLB player in 2023 again.
Volodymyr Zelensky Is Still Alive, Medium. Worth remembering how unlikely this seemed a year ago.
The Thirty: One Reasonable Goal for Every MLB Team, MLB.com. Expectations setting!
The Thirty: The Must-See Series for Every MLB Team, MLB.com. London for both the Cardinals and Cubs.
Grierson & Leitch, we discussed “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” “The Tree of Life” and “Life Is Beautiful.”
Seeing Red, Bernie and I are back! Eventually we’ll be weekly, but not just yet.
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, Tony solo’d on a bit about the offensive coordinators.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
“Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Civil War,” Peter Wehner, The Atlantic. Peter Wehner is not a writer prone to overstatement.
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CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Shoulders,” Big Thief. So I saw Big Thief in concert last night.
My love for the band is well-known, but I have to say, they were actually better in concert than I thought they were going to be? They’re more of a Rock Band in concert; the songs are tighter, and louder, and more crowd-pleasing, in person. They’re even a little jammy at times. I was sort of blown away. There’s also a yet-to-be-released song they played called “Vampire Empire” that, when it eventually comes out, I suspect is going to be a very, very big hit.
Certain bands just hit you right square in the human place. Holy cow do I love this band.
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
I’m off to Hoover, Alabama, for the Southern Voices Book Festival. If you’re near, stop by, I’ll sign your face.
Have a great weekend, all.
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Wow, just wow. This is the best thing I've ever read! It is real and it is now for the people. I shed a tear for what those kids have suffered yet I felt a hopeful pride that they can fix the world. I shared your thoughts about rich kids (I expected tales of doing cocaine in the bathrooms!) but I got so much more. I saw two typos but I had such watery eyes from a story so powerful I didn't care. I too wanted to make the world a better place and I failed, I feel shame in that. I hope these kids succeed, they are our last best hope.
You made me chuckle at the Presidents effect: I was depressed when Obama was elected because he was the first President to be older than me! Other people feel this too? Good music from your weekly recommendation. I give you one back: Kingston Wall, out of Finland. Been around since the 1980's, still touring. I suffered a crime this week, I really needed to read this.
Guess I better write you that letter.. Thank you Will.
This is the best thing I have read on the internet in a long time.