MAXWELL:  Kids mature and mellow in their own time

4/18/2001 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


In a recent column describing the rowdy, gangsta role-playing of a group of black kids on the New York subway, I ended with this comment: “For a moment, I almost envied them.”

Perceptive readers understood instantly what I meant: Although these kids were having fun, I would not want to be one of them in American society in the year 2001.

Most of the mail I have received in response to that column confirms why I would not want to be young these days: Most writers are mean and anti-kid, especially anti-black kid. They cannot camouflage their antipathy.

Too many grown-ups, myself included, do not understand kids. Instead of trying to understand, we set out to make kids behave like full-fledged adults.

As a young colleague told me, “Grown-ups don’t want to take the time to understand kids.” She is right. She also said that is why the DARE program does not work. Right again. Daring young people emboldens them and makes them sneaky.

One letter writer, a South Pasadena veterinarian, suggests that I, a former Marine and teacher, should have dressed down those kids on the New York City subway. Think of it: Bill Maxwell _ a mere visitor to Gotham City, a complete stranger to these children, an older man, a Southerner no less, wearing khakis and a blue blazer _ is supposed to publicly scold kids of the hip-hop generation on a Lower West Side subway line. How silly.

As a college writing teacher, I learned at least one thing about young people: Many enter school immature and lazy and make lousy grades the first semester. Months later, most have matured and have improved their grades. Eighteen years in the classroom taught me to give kids space, to let them find their natural rhythm, their learning styles, their ability to party and function with hangovers.

Occasionally, I receive mail from former students whom I flunked, who now own businesses, who write for some of the nation’s best newspapers and slickest magazines.

I learned also that the majority of kids do not have the life experience to make the complex decisions we grown-ups demand. And, yes, I am talking about simple courtesy and politeness in public places. In time, most kids mature and mellow.

My travels have taught me that, indeed, kids will be kids worldwide. In Israel, for example, I hung out at Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station, where children of all ethnicities were on stage _ role-playing. They came to see and to be seen. Ethiopian kids came to establish individual and group identities in the Holy Land of their ancestors’ dreams. Veteran Israeli youngsters came to escape smothering households, some seeking lovers, others seeking drugs. Russians with pink, orange and green hair made out in full public view.

As a know-it-all, prissy American, perhaps I should have told these kids to go home _ or else.

In Poland, I saw many drunk kids parading the streets and playing loud music. Yes, they were kids being kids. In Bucharest, Romania’s capital, rowdy, rude kids were everywhere. They, too, were kids being kids, this time in a poor, former communist nation.

What galls me most is adults’ pretense that they never were kids. According to my letter writers, they came into the world fully mature, polite, courteous and ready to raise a family. I cannot take such folk seriously and would not want them near my tattooed, break-dancing granddaughter.

The president of the United States did not grow up until he was in his early 40s. He was a rowdy frat boy, a drunk and a lousy student. Thanks to the safety net of a wealthy family and the world’s greatest political clout, he thrived. This undisciplined party animal grew up _ to the surprise of his parents.

I have no doubt that most of the kids I saw on the subway will graduate from high school and become responsible citizens in their own right. I think back to my childhood, when my buddies and I cussed from the time we left campus to the moment our homes came into view.

Tub, who stole his uncle’s moonshine and shared it with us, is a wealthy neonatologist in New York. Jimbo, who looked up girls’ dresses and smoked Parliament cigarettes, is a successful bookstore operator in Daytona Beach. Swill, who talked trash all the time, retired from IBM and owns a Piper. Tee, who could not sit still in class for more than five minutes, is a brilliant jazz pianist in Atlanta. Eddie Lee, who told the dirtiest jokes, retired from the Army as a master sergeant.

The point? Most kids, including African-American subway riders uttering “dat nigga,” grow up. They do so, however, on their own terms, at their own speed.