At a climate march, I remembered that we need young people far more than they need us.
I was busted.
Four lanky teenagers, 2 boys and 2 girls, watched me approach the check-in table at one of the many Climate Change youth events. I mean, I knew I couldn’t meet the “youth” criteria, but hey — I can identify Kendrick Lamar in a lineup, can’t I? I was rockin’ my #RiseUp t-shirt; I’d left my Birkenstocks at the hotel; and my backpack was suitably ripped and dirty. Maybe my youth is long gone, but surely I could fake it enough to hang with the cool kids. Right?
The girl with curly hair sent me a big smile and started toward me, with the other teens straggling after her.
“Hi, are you looking for the Elder gathering?” she asked brightly.
No. I’m absolutely not going to anything entitled “Elder”.
Big Blond Nerdy Dude wanted to know, “Do you need a hand with your pack?”
This pack I’ve carried — fully loaded — on rocky trails and mountain paths all over the world?
Uh, no. But thanks.
Finally: “How can we help you, ma’am?”
And there it is. I'm a ma'am.
I almost cried. And I must’ve looked upset, because they hastened to assure me I was welcome with the youth groups, even if I, uh, didn’t exactly, uh …
“Oh, just come on in!” Curly Hair grasped my elbow and swept me into the gathering. I sat on the floor in the back, like I used to do as a kid in the 1960’s, while my parents and their friends made speeches and burst into righteous chanting without warning.
Kids scooted over and made room for me. They passed me flyers and water bottles and Starburst. Some thoughtful person dropped a few condoms on my lap. I sang and clapped and wept and sang some more.
The day before, I’d spent a few hours with a swarm of dancing protestors, and eventually shimmied my way down the street with them. (I can only pray that there is no photographic evidence of my dancing.) They gave impassioned speeches about the intersection of human rights and climate change, and connected to healing the planet in ways I hadn’t considered.
At the round-up earlier in the day, young people of the First Nations spoke only with their drums. They taught us the pattern and the pulse, and implored each of us to participate, to feel the power of the rhythm. To let our mouths be silent, and let only our hearts speak.
(Image by author)
I took my own turn at the beating of the drums — but it was not the sacred sound which uplifted me, but the teenagers themselves.
Idealistic. Resolved. Determined.
As a professional youth advocate, I often speak and write about what young people need from parents, teachers and mentors to grow into healthy, curious adults.
But here’s the truth: we need them far more than they need us.
We need their drive and their vision and their occasionally snotty attitudes. We need their insight and their single-mindedness. We need their self-absorption and their kindness to strangers. We need their lack of respect for authority, their refusal to accept reality, and their willingness to fling themselves, headlong, into whatever they love.
We need their techno-brains because God knows the next mutation of the cell phone might actually kill me.
As the Youth Gathering ended and the teens headed off to build art installations or TikTok themselves into a frenzy, I realized my legs were asleep and my back hurt and all I really wanted was an Uber and a lobster roll and a nice long nap.
“You okay, ma’am?” Curly Hair was back with her entourage. She helped me up off the floor and gave me a hug, granny-style. They’d been at the front of the room, talking passionately about climate justice and human rights and gluten-free pizza.
The fate of the world is in these young hands. And for the first time in a long time, I’m feeling optimistic.