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'Barack Obama makes me want to be smarter, and get involved." That's what a teary-eyed Beyonce Knowles said after gloriously singing to the new first couple's dance as hundreds of millions of people around the globe looked on. Beyonce captured one of the amazing effects of Obama's inauguration: He has managed to bring out not only people's hope but also their desire to lead intelligent and caring lives. This is remarkable, inspired change.
I had a startling conversation recently with the editor of Ma'ariv Lano'ar, a weekly teen magazine produced by the daily newspaper Ma'ariv. The man, a spindly, spiky-haired, 30-something with multiple facial piercings, offered me his experienced counsel about how to reach teenagers. "Celebrity on the cover," he said. "It's a must. It's the only way to get teens to read our magazine. It's the greatest common denominator."
Greatest common denominator. I wonder why some people assume that what kids - or all people - have in common is the shallowest aspect of our existence, as if gawking at celebrity defines human existence. Obama provides the Western world with an alternative model of the human spirit: that what we have in common is intelligence, care or compassion. Sure, we may all have base instincts like lust or greed, or the fact that all our heads turn when we see a scantily clad Photoshopped model in glossy while we're on the checkout line. Just because we all happen to have that marketing-measurable knee-jerk response does not mean that this is our greatest common denominator. It may in fact be one of our most deplorable common denominators.
The Ma'ariv Lano'ar guy may think I'm out of touch, or worse, geeky. But I have some news: This kind of "geeky" is the new cool. And that's not me talking - it's teens.
I HAVE been spending a lot of time with teenagers lately, and, as counterintuitive as this may sound, I have discovered that kids today are more engaged than disaffected. Last Monday night, at my weekly meeting with the team of my teen-magazine, Switch, I recounted my conversation with the Ma'ariv Lano'ar editor. The 20 or so kids who were energetically crammed around my dining room table all screwed their faces in unison. "Ew! No way! We don't want a celebrity on the cover!"
I was taken aback - after all we have never had such a unanimous decision! But more than that, I saw that the kids, who come from half a dozen different schools and were born in at least 10 different cities on five continents, were unraveling the way society has tried to mold them, taking back their own culture and redefining their own selves. I had assumed that they would embrace whatever the Ma'ariv Lano'ar guy suggested. Isn't that, after all, the image we have of "youth today"? That they are all shallow, chasing that which is cool, thoughtless and self-centered? Actually, maybe we are the ones who are shallow.
It seems to me that kids are ready to own Obama's model of humanity. If our magazine is any indication, kids are being drawn to serious engagement with profound issues. Our magazine due out this week includes articles on topics - all written by teens by their own choosing - such as the war in Gaza, environmental responsibility, wasteful government spending, car accidents, politics, American views on Israel, Ayn Rand, the meaning of life and a witty and biting analysis completely destroying the Twilight thing. When I started this magazine, the educator in me thought I would have to take the role of ensuring that there would be serious content. But now, I find myself in the position of ensuring that there is enough "levity" thrown in there - music, computer games, humor, puzzles and advice (there is, by the way). These kids are all asking to be treated seriously and to take the world seriously.
ADULTS ALSO tend to assume that just because teens like tech, it means that they are missing out on relationships - but perhaps the opposite is true. Kids are using their technology to communicate and connect, and those are terrific goals. In one particularly telling exchange, I suggested that a lengthy debate over one aspect of the publication be continued on Facebook. "No way," came the overwhelming response. "Talking in person is much better." They sat around for an hour past the time our meeting was meant to end, listening to one another's ideas and writings.
So while pundits tend to say that "kids today" care only about FB and do not know how to have a "real" conversation anymore, I really think that this image of teenagers is wrong. Facebook is not their lives - it's only a tool, one of many at their disposal. They crave engagement, connection, meaning and intelligent conversation, and they are dedicating quite a significant amount of time to developing other human aspects of their lives, on and off the computer. They don't think that Facebook is who they are, and neither should we.
Obama's message, that it is in fact cool to be engaged, a message that had no contradiction with the way he swayed his hips to Beyonce's voice, is one that resonates with teens. Obama's notion of humans as complex beings, who can be both engaged and playful, is echoed entirely by the kids. They are saying, we are intelligent, concerned human beings, not ditsy, shallow and empty-headed. They do not want Ma'ariv Lano'ar - they want, I daresay, a little bit of Barack Obama. It's a beautifully sophisticated rendering of the world, that the coolest thing in the world is human connection. Wow. If one Obama can inspire millions, imagine how much inspiration can be derived from such a group of kids. I find myself in awe of these kids.
There is one particular boy in my group whose passion for social justice moved me beyond words. "We must put Gilad Schalit on the magazine cover," he said. Other kids disagreed. It's not that we don't care about Gilad Schalit, they said, but it's not news, it's tiring and anyway it won't help him. But this young man did not give up, nor did he give into the pressure. On the contrary, with each "nay" his passion strengthened, his enormous care for Gilad Schalit overflowing from every pore. Even as I write this, I am filled with admiration and inspiration by the profound humanity of this young human being. We need people like this running our country. He is only 15, so we will have to wait a bit.
We need more Obamas, especially in Israel. I do think some of these kids sitting around the table are capable of taking such a role. I am feeling so very hopeful - and inspired.
Dr. Sztokman is a writer, researcher, educator and activist, and most recently founder of Switch Teen Magazine.
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