We Were Young Once

They say that teenagers are the hope of the world. And “they” say that because the rest of us are getting older and realize that the generation that follows is going to run the show. Teenagers are full of spunk and confidence that they really can do it all. Conquer all. Achieve all. Old folks are scared to death of that prospect because they know how blind and foolish teenagers can be.

Hope can be full of promise or overshadowed by fear, depending on where you stand. Like when Johnny P. (not his real name) came to stay with us one weekend and my Mama said, “Lord, help us if that boy every becomes President. He’s got a screw loose somewhere.”

It’s not hard to imagine a world where the young think they have the answers to what ails our society. There is something in the teenage DNA that causes an 18-year-old to wake up one day and declare to the world that he has it all figured out.

He knows what’s wrong with racism and how to fix it. He is aghast at war and wears a peace symbol around his neck to demonstrate his affection for humanity. He looks down his nose at the President and all things institutional. He raises his fist in defiance of any rule of society.

I took a stroll back into the early 70’s here recently. Wondering if I really remember what it was like to be young and full of ambition and so certain that we could solve all the world’s problems.

Like most other periods of history, the turn of the 7th decade in the 20th Century was a real mixed bag. The Apollo Missions were taking us to the moon and back. The Vietnam War was floundering and gasping for air. ‘Blazing Saddles’ poked fun at our intolerances. The prison riots at Attica took the lives of nearly 40 people. We had the best dang rock music on the face of the planet. The American flag was on fire nearly every night with Walter Cronkite on the evening news.

What could anyone do about it all? In 1971 Coca-Cola trotted out this ad.

The TV ad opens up with just a single face. A young girl. She is singing softly. Something that sounds like it could be a lullaby. Fresh. Clean. Innocent. You assume she might be from around the corner, but you can’t tell. She could be from Poland. The camera moves back and there are others standing with her. Singing the same sweet melody. One girl has a flower tucked behind her ear. The chorus grows. The camera swoops upward to reveal the Italian countryside as a throng of voices all blend together. American. Asian. African. European. Latin. The youth of our day pleading and singing in one voice, “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.”

Only if it were all that simple.

I got to thinking about how goofy we were at that age. And what better place to find evidence of that than in my high school yearbooks. The tradition still lives that at the end of the school year, you write stuff in the back pages of everyone’s yearbook. If you haven’t read yours lately, maybe you should. It’s a hoot.

“May your kids be compliments of a friend.” (Vicki) My wife is my friend. So, there you go.

“We will always remember Russell, right?” (Steve) I have no idea who Russell is.

“We had a really great time with water guns on the bus didn’t we?” (J.P) I have no recollection of any water guns.

“I hope you get lucky next year.” (Roger L.) That could mean a whole bunch of things.

“We’ll never forget the summer of ’72.” (Rhonda S) Yes.

Here’s one that blew me away. “What can I say? You’re the person I look up to.” (Jimmy T.) Sophmores should aim higher.

“Tim. What we’ve been through this year is unbelievable. I’m going to miss you.” (Jan) Uh, my name’s not Tim.

“To one of the sweetest twerps I know.” (Gracie) Thanks. Still twerping right along.

“You’re a crazy guy. You sure can dance good.” (Karen B.) I had moves back then.

“Stay like you are and you will go far. Sorry about your SAT scores.” (Judy) I’m just glad that SAT scores did not determine everything in my life.

“Well, you are really smart and cute, and you are very stupid.” (Donna E.) I’m confused.

“I wish you all the luck in the world because you deserve it.” (Connie E.) Shear luck has played some role in my life.

I saved my favorite one for last. I couldn’t have told you about any of these others, but this one I’ve always remembered.

“I have always considered you my friend, but I didn’t know what a friend you were until this year. True friends are hard to find. Be cool and I’ll keep the Black Panthers off of you. And don’t forget to tell the Ku Klux I want to join. Friend always. Willie the Racialist.” (Willie T.) I’m just quoting here.

Two guys of a different color. We hung out at school together, but we never visited in one another’s homes. He never ate supper at my kitchen table, and I never ate supper at his. We lived in a world where certain things would have been judged for the wrong reasons. You’d have to know Willie to understand the humor in what he wrote. Panther and Klan activities? We didn’t care about those things. We were just friends.

We were all optimistic about the impact we were going to have on the world. Thinking about complex things in terms of simple solutions. Living in peace and harmony is exactly what we all wanted, but it’s never been easy to get there. As much as I would like to think that I could buy the world a coke and thereby fix all of our problems, it hasn’t happened yet.

The division and disruption we are witnessing right now is horrible. But it’s not new. I’m not saying, “Who cares?” I’m just saying that there is nothing new under the sun. I’m convinced that skin color has nothing to do with it. Hate is a condition of the heart.

Maybe we just all need to go back to high school for a moment. Maybe everything doesn’t have to be as complicated as we think. Maybe simple would work if we would let it.

“To a cool joker. Stay that way. Always be kind to others. Luck always.” (Troy B.) You know, that might just work.

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