Alan Zendell, March 2, 2017
I often think of the 2000 film, Paying it Forward. In retirement I tutor kids, mostly teenagers, in math and science, though our conversations tend to stray into many other areas. I find them surprisingly open and eager to discuss values, families, politics…you name it, and the issue of paying forward often comes up in two very different ways.
The majority of the kids are the children of immigrants. Their families come from India, Pakistan, China, Korea, Tibet, Vietnam, the Caribbean, Kenya, Nigeria, Liberia, Ghana, and probably a few places I missed. They’re Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, even Jews. Remarkably, their families all have two things in common. The kids are taught to obey rules and respect adults, and their parents sacrifice everything to assure their futures. Since I’m old enough to be their grandfather, I hear all the complaints. Why are they so hard on us? Why can’t we have fun? I’m always surprised that I have to explain, but I tell them it’s all about paying their generation forward for what their parents and grandparents did for them.
The other way it comes up is when we talk about materialism, though we never use that word. Smart and talented as most of them are, these kids can be extremely naïve about the world. They assume that we (their tutors) are all well paid, and why shouldn’t they? After all, they look up to us, and they value what we give them, so of course we must get fat paychecks for it. Some of my work is modestly compensated but much of it is voluntary. In either case, the kids are initially amazed. Why would we do this and receive so little (or nothing) in return (a question I hear from some retired friends as well)?
I explain that there are many currencies in which we can be paid, and that after a life in which we’ve had many opportunities to succeed, some of us feel compelled to give something back. The idea that their success is our reward doesn’t always sink in right away, but when I explain it in terms of things they can relate to – evolution, recycling knowledge, preparing the next generation to carry the torch – they get it.
Thus I am always aware of a responsibility to behave properly and morally when I’m with them. I don’t mince words over political correctness, but I always tell them the truth. I’m part of a vast network that includes their parents, grandparents, and school teachers that are helping them through the critical formative years of pre-adulthood.
I see their confusion when our leaders do things that seem to conflict with the values we teach them, and it fills me with pain that often boils over into rage when I have to confess that I understand and share their confusion. As teens, the only president most of them have been aware of was Obama. Agree with him or not, and politics aside, his image as a parent and leader coincided perfectly with everything they were taught a leader should be. They admire him almost without exception.
The entry of Donald Trump on the political scene nearly two years ago, shocked their sensibilities. For months I heard questions like, “How could he possibly….”? That sentence had a hundred different endings, and when I heard it from a fourteen-year-old boy or a sixteen-year-old girl, I didn’t hear politics. I heard the kind of anxiety that arises when a young person fears that everything he or she has been taught might be unraveling. When a sweet young girl breaks down in tears because her mother tells her she can’t tell people she is Muslim any more, something must be terribly wrong. Many kids told me that their whole worlds were turned upside down, that this wasn’t the country they’d been told their parents and grandparents said would offer them a better life.
The thing is, it’s not just the kids I tutor that I fear for. My own grandsons are growing up in this world, too. I’m thankful that they’re not yet old enough to understand what comes out of Trump’s mouth. I honestly have no idea what he really believes, but I am certain that without moral leadership he will do far more harm than good as president.