by Valarie Kinney
I was giving a speech at a high school, and it was going freakishly well.
I’m not used to doing events where I’m not dressed up as a pirate or zombie, and I tend to be braver when I’ve got a layer of fantasy between me and reality.
For this day, I had to dress like a regular human being, so I dyed some of my hair fuchsia to get that little extra bit of courage, and headed back to high school.
I had offered to donate a copy of an anthology I have a short story in to the library at the high school I’d graduated from, and they’d asked me to show up and give a talk to the students as well.
I was happy (and nervous, and a bit freaked out) to do that, and it only got better when I found out my high school English teacher was coming to hear me speak.
There was a bizarre sense of backward time movement as I drove the quiet dirt roads through my old hometown that led me back to that school. I had taken the GPS because I wasn’t certain I could count on a memory more than two decades old to get me there on time. I needn’t have worried. After the first few turns, I could have been sixteen again, driving my little red car to class in the morning. The way to the school was somewhere in my bones, and my hands knew exactly how to get me there. I pulled in to the parking lot and suddenly remembered my last day of high school. We had a water balloon fight in that parking lot after classes ended, gloriously high on the idea of freedom. When it was over, we were supposed to be adults.
I remembered what it was to be that young. That confident.
It was with this mindset I entered the building, though my aching, arthritic knee reminded me repeatedly I was not actually that young.
The library I once enjoyed visiting when I was in high school had become twice its original size and was now called a ‘media center.’ As I set up for my presentation, I wondered about the kids I’d be talking to and fervently hoped I would not forget all the things I had practiced talking about.
At ten o’clock the teenagers started filing in, some laughing with one another, some quiet and holding notebooks against their chests. I looked at them, remembered I was going to be standing up front and talking for forty-five minutes straight, and immediately wanted to excuse myself to the bathroom. Or to go buy a bottle of water. Or anything that would get me out of the front of the room.
But I didn’t. I made myself stay put and start talking, and after a few minutes I slid into an easy routine. The kids were great. Honestly. They were quiet and respectful, and came armed with lots of questions, which was perfect because I can only talk about myself and my books for so long. There were a few who were really interested in writing, and stayed after my presentation to ask more questions.
This was the part that made my heart clench.
Because I could see how hopeful and excited these kids were, and I try hard to be approachable and open, but so many of them apologized.
“I’m sorry, I have a question.” The girl looks at the floor, like she is ashamed to have said that much.
“I’m sorry, can I ask you something?” She coughs and holds her hand over her face.
“I’m sorry I keep bugging you.” He flushes red and digs the toe of his Converse into the library carpet.
“I’m sorry I’m so excited.” He clutches his notebook against his chest and stares over my shoulder at the wall.
As a society, what in the world are we teaching our youth when they think they need to apologize for asking questions? For being interested or excited in a topic?
Shouldn’t we be doing the opposite? Hey kid, you’re excited about a potential career? Ask questions! Find out everything you can about it! Ask more questions!
My heart cracked a little when a young guy I was having a great discussion with suddenly stopped, put hand over his face, and apologized to me for being autistic.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I have Asperger’s, and I know I get overly excited. Just tell me to stop.”
Well, no. I had no intention of telling him to stop. But it was so sad that he had obviously been coached to do this, to apologize for being himself.
We are failing our youth this way.
We have got to do better.
We must teach them to be inquisitive, to ask questions, to be excited about their passions.
If we are to raise a new generation of artists, of creative people who will bring the music, paintings, and books to our future, we should teach them to be bold, to try new things, to make mistakes and learn from them.
Above it all, perhaps, is the most important thing. We must teach them to ask.
Valarie Kinney is a writer, fiber artist and Renaissance Festival junkie with a wicked caffeine addiction. She resides in Michigan with her husband, four children, and two insane little dogs. She is the author of Heckled, Slither and Just Hold On, as well as the short stories Copper and Ailith in the KAPOW! anthologies by 7DS Books. Narrator for Dragons of Faith.