The Kids Are All Right

January 3, 2004 | By Rick Gray

Editor’s note: Chester resident Rick Gray is spending the holidays on the campaign trail in New Hampshire to experience the Democratic Presidential Primary. He will chronicle his experience in The Progress-Index through a series of columns.

Home again.

Undoubtedly the hardest thing to grasp about my experience in New Hampshire was the youthfulness of the key players. Except for a few phone-bankers who worked a few hours in the evenings, I only met one Dean staffer over thirty.

There was “Zig,” sometimes referred to as “Yoda,” a grey-bearded veteran of seven Presidential campaigns. Zig had started in charge of a regional headquarters upstate until a family death caused him to take a few weeks off. When he returned, the kids he had trained were doing so well that he felt superfluous. He had moved on to Manchester.

I entirely understood. The Dean kids are that good—smart, dedicated, and incredibly hard-working. They’re also having the time of their lives. Unless you’ve seen it for yourself, I’m not sure I can do it justice.

But let’s try. Picture the common area of a college dorm during exam week—except that everyone has showered and is wearing clean clothes. Add the energy of high-school drama kids at final dress rehearsal—but add four years of maturity and subtract the inevitable “diva” character. Then add the younger staffers on The West Wing—subtracting five years of sophistication and the upscale wardrobes. Put all that together, and you’ll begin to get it.

What I’m trying to convey is that these kids are great. They’re serious. They have great values and a strong work ethic. They care passionately about their country—and their planet.

But they are not radicals. In a week among them, I never heard one wild, way-out idea. If they are more “liberal” than the Baby Boomers now running the country, they are nothing like the radicals we thought we were at their age.

While they don’t condemn others for being different, they set high standards for themselves, and they don’t make excuses. This generation embraces personal responsibility.

Refreshingly, they don’t talk much about sex, drugs or drinking. I heard zero prurient sexual jokes and only a few four-letter words during the week. On New Year’s Day, most of the staff was in the office before noon, clear-eyed and working hard.

And—despite the insistence of Beltway pundits that the Dean campaign being “fueled by anger”—these kids are not angry. They’re hopeful—not in a wide-eyed, innocent way—but in the manner of people who believe that, with hard work, they can achieve their goals.

Think Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed from It’s a Wonderful Life—but with Donna running the Building & Loan.

And let’s be clear, I’m not just talking about the Dean kids. At the Bagel Works, a very young woman was clearly in charge of the Gephardt troops, mostly middle-aged union men. When I visited the Lieberman headquarters, it was humming along nicely with no one over 25 in sight.

Considering that I spend my life surrounded by high school kids, perhaps I should not have been so surprised, but like most folks, I have my old stereotypes, derived from my experiences as a college student in the early ‘70’s and as a teacher of Generation X kids in the ‘80’s.

New Hampshire finally got through to me: This rising generation is different.

On New Year’s morning, as I packed for home, I chanced to be listening to an interview program on the Manchester NPR station. Interviewer Laura Knoy was talking with William Strauss, co-author (with Neil Howe) of Millennials Rising: The Next American Generation. What Strauss said gave me new insights into my experience.

According to Strauss, the generation born between 1982 and 2000 shares many values with the “Great Generation” which grew up during the Depression, whipped Hitler, outlasted the Soviet Union, and put men on the Moon. He made good sense. I plan to read his book and apply what it says—and what I learned in New Hampshire—to my dealings with the “Millennials” I teach. I believe it will make me a better teacher. Certainly, it will make me a more hopeful one.

And—while I will continue working hard to make Howard Dean President of the United States—my confidence in our country’s future does not depend upon a single election.

For this generation will pass away. We Boomers, with our arrogance, our excessive materialism, and our eagerness to condemn what we do not understand—qualities epitomized by the current Administration—must inevitably yield to the passage of time.

In time, a new generation will take our places. They aren’t perfect. Please understand that I’ve described the best of them. I know the rising generation has its slackers, whiners, ditzes and jerks. Remember, I teach school.

But right now, I’m focused on the kids I met in New Hampshire. While they will certainly make mistakes of their own, I believe they have what it takes to fix most of the mess we seem determined to leave them. The kids I met are the vanguard of a generation worthy to lead the greatest nation in the world. Our future is in good hands.

The kids are all right.

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