Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

A Weekend Conversation


On Saturday I ran into one of the Magpie’s friend, the Robin, who is freshly-returned from college for the summer. While talking about school (the curse of every returning college student is they get stuck talking about the same thing whenever they run into any adult they know–when’d ya get back, how did it go, what are you doing for the summer, blah blah blah), she mentioned an episode that occurred during the year. A professor in a class made a passing mention of apartheid. Another girl raised her hand. “Excuse me,” she said. “What’s apartheid?” The Robin was shocked. Later, she related this to another friend. “What’s apartheid?” he asked. She thought he was goofing aroudn, but he honestly did not know. The Robin was shocked–maybe even outraged–that these students did not know what apartheid was.

I thought about it for a second, tried to cast my mind back and remember the when of it all. Apartheid was something I can say I never remember hearing about until I went to college, where it seemed to be everywhere. Students on campus regularly protested the university’s investments in companies that did business in South Africa, and often picketed those companies when they came by to recruit students for jobs, internships, etc. “Divest!” was the word on many lips, t-shirts and exhibits at student events.  I also remember watching Nelson Mandela walk out of prison. The date was hazy but I knew it occurred after I graduated but before I got married. I thought the Robin’s ire was admirable, but that she should cut the other kids some slack: after all, kids like her—and her classmates—had grown up in a world without an apartheid state in South Africa. She countered with the fact that she knew about it, so why shouldn’t they, and was also disturbed by the fact that schools in a certain region of America (the classmates in question grew up in the south) didn’t seem to teach it.
Nelson Mandela and F.W. De Klerk

The fact she knew it and they didn’t could mean a few things. It could mean our high school is exceptional (I’d like to believe that, for a couple of reasons); it could mean her friends’ schools aren’t. It could all be on the skills of the teachers involved. I don’t know the answer, but I found her ire somewhat amusing, and heartening: there’s a view held by many old fogies in the world (like me) that young people are too self-absorbed, are too wrapped up in themselves and their status updates and tumblrs and tweets to really care about the world. This conversation, and my recent experiences working with college interns at the office, show me we’re wrong. There are lots of smart kids out there who care about what’s happening in the world today, and are willing to make an effort to do something about it.

The exchange also makes me think of something related to writing. One of the reasons we so often write characters our own ages is that it’s easy to relate to them and what they know of the world. If I write a 40-something year old character, I know this person grew up in a pre-internet world, where phones had cords, record companies made actual records, and you needed to go into a bank to put money in or take it out. My kids have no real concept of the Soviet Union or the Cold War; when they see Youtube videos of Americans hanging out with cosmonauts in the international space station, they don’t understand how unthinkable that once was, or how close our nations once were to blowing each other up. The Twin Towers are the dimmest of memories for my kids, while I’m still a bit startled every time I see that empty space in the New York City skyline. It’s easy to forget the often subtle little differences between people who grew up in different times.

How was your weekend?

Photo by the World Economic Forum, posted under Creative Commons license.

12 Responses

  1. That is a bit of a surprise since there have been two films in recent years–the one about the soccer player and the other about Mandela–that dealt with it. I guess they didn't watch those. It's scary. We are most likely to repeat history if we don't remember it.

    Thanks for your post, Jeff. I'm sharing this.

  2. Great point! Every year I try to discuss a lot of important modern/historical events with the kids. It's easy to forget they're young and don't have the experiences or memories we hold. It's heartening to find out how horrified our kids are by the way humans have treated each other in the past.

  3. I sat down with my kids a couple of years ago and showed them footage of 9/11 while talking them through it. Technology gives us the means to keep history in the present now.

  4. My weekend was great. Hit #1 on the big A. LOL It was fun while it lasted.

    I admit I don't know as much as I should about the world. Part of the problem is that I don't watch much TV, but the other part of it is that I hear all these little sound bytes from the media, and the words become familiar without me fully understanding the entire situation.

  5. Thank you, Donna. The thing is, there's so many films that come out each year it's hard to keep them straight. And I'm not sure how tuned in kids are to some of these movies.

  6. This is an excellent point, Donna, and an excellent way to use the technology. It's also one of the benefits to the 'camera in everything' approach to every device that seems to be coming out these days.

  7. Good for you, Jemi. I suspect it's hard sometimes to fit it all in with everything else you have to teach.

  8. This may be an odd tangent, but when 50 Shades came out and bunches of women/girls were salivating all over it, I started feeling that these women were too young to remember all the fighting women had to do to "break through" the glass ceiling, be accepted as managers and CEOs, and get equal pay. In the 70s, it was still called "Women's Lib" and for every Maude, there was an Edith (of All in the Family). These new women readers just had no awareness of how lucky they were and how women had to fight NOT to be put down and played with like some game-piece by rich powerful men. I guess this is the same group (of idiots) who don't know what apartheid is. Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it, and it seems there's gonna be a lot of repetition in the US…

  9. There are so many things I realise other people my age don't know… and then I realise there's things they know that I don't. I suppose it comes down to teachers (not just in schools, but parents and other adults who guide us on our childhood journey) and accessibility of information. Also, where you're from. I had never heard the word 'apartheid' until reading this post, but once you explained what it was, I realised that I already knew.

    On a related note, this week, I studied the film Freedom Writers for my kid's lit class, and the students in the film didn't know what the Holocaust was… and that movie is based on a true story.

  10. I don't think it's an odd tangent at all, Lexa. What I would like to believe is that there comes a point where you no longer have to teach certain things, because certain behaviors and thought patterns become the exception rather than the norm. We shouldn't have to teach the Holocaust or Apartheid or about Jim Crow for fear of those things coming back, and we shouldn't have to remind people that women are equal, for example. Sadly, a look at the world–and the United States–indicates that we do.

  11. A good point you make is that much of it is where you're from. There's a tendency to assume that everyone knows what you know–in New York, we learn about the Holocaust in high school, so it's normal to assume everyone in the country does, too, and to then assume it's that way the world over. I expect there are things you know that I don't ('piffing yonnies', for example), and that if I said, "I never heard of that" you'd say, "How can you not?"

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