Teens these days.

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(Photo: Carol Kaliff, Hearst Connecticut Media)

Today kids across America walked out of school to protest gun violence and the inability for our government to pass common sense gun control.

That’s incredible. I can only imagine being a government & politics teacher, or any other branch of history/American studies, and witnessing your students actively participating in and organizing peaceful protests. Or deciding not to participate because they didn’t agree with the protests. Either way, it’s a teach by doing moment. It’s teaching kids to be actionable instead of simply memorizing facts or spitting out theory.

Facebook is flooded with posts of alum, teachers and parents talking about the school walkouts or walk ins, where assemblies are being held in memory of the students killed due to gun violence. CNN is live-streaming the walkouts and the words of our CT Senator Chris Murphy. Across the nation kids are holding up signs stating their beliefs and desire for the adults in charge to be actionable. They are no longer complicit and trusting that adults will get the work done. The Parkland students showed them that their voice matters even when they are unable to vote. That you don’t have to wait until you’re 18 to voice political opinions.

I was young for my grade and didn’t turn 18 until I was in college. I remember being furious that I couldn’t vote in the primaries that year, even though I would be 18 by the general election. I was always highly opinionated when it came to politics, thanks to my mother who was always a well-informed citizen and my brother, who walked into the Democratic Headquarters at 16 to start volunteering. I would tag along with him, making calls to remind democrats and independents to vote, checking in on our elderly residents to see if any needed rides to polls, attending Chris Murphy’s debates when running for Congress, joining the Young Dems chapter my brother helped start and my favorite part of the process: going from poll to poll on election night to watch them count then ending back at Headquarters or a restaurant to hear the results roll in. I couldn’t vote, but I was more engaged in the political process than most adults.

Which was why I was furious when adults would undermine my intelligence in my teenage years. I would often hear that my opinions, and the opinions of my peers, were just echos of my family’s beliefs. I understand the thought, and recognize that may be true in some cases, but I could never understand why my civics teacher would take so much time explaining our nation’s workings to us, only to tell me that my opinions were just something I inherited from my parents when I got in a fight with a classmate over Bush’s reelection. Of course my family influenced my beliefs, but I was also smart enough to research and act on my own. I was old enough to hold opinions.

I remember a car ride where my mom and brother were talking a politics. I listened without much input, thinking instead of my recent civics lesson on political parties.

“What if I’m a Republican instead of a Democrat?” I asked my family.

I was constantly the lawyer of the family. I always wanted to think about situations from a different angle. A contrarian, always thinking of the other side before agreeing with my family.

“Your beliefs line up with the Democratic Party,” my mom replied.

“But what if they don’t? What if I’m a Republican instead?” I asked.

“Then you can be a Republican.”

I went home and did all the research I could on both parties. I spent hours trying to understand the difference and political platforms. I weighed policies against my moral beliefs and found that I did side with the Dems.

All of this was done my freshman year of high school. Clearly I was already intelligent and thoughtful enough to question my beliefs and recheck them against my political affiliation. My thoughts and opinions haven’t changed much. They evolved slightly with the times and my maturity. Whereas I used to think we should eliminate marriage entirely, calling everything a civil union, so we can eliminate the religious context of marriage, I’ve realized that battle gets misconstrued and calling everything a marriage is a better angle. I used to be much more fiscally liberal that I am today. I used to be pro-choice under medical necessity but am now entirely pro-choice. Tiny tweaks, but my adult mind is still in line with my teen mind.

So I still get angry that I was always underestimated. That adults did not believe that I researched my policies enough. To be fair, this still happens. I was constantly accused for siding with Hillary instead of Bernie because she was a woman, when in reality I thought she was the most qualified candidate we ever had and her fiscally moderate policies enabled me to reap benefits while still covering costs of social security and welfare.

People may say that I was a different type of teen. That not everyone was as mature. Well then, why not teach them to find their own opinions instead of dismissing them?

I think adults fall into an awful habit of thinking kids don’t know enough. We talk down to them and assume they can’t possibly understand. But clearly they do.

Today’s teens are living in a world where any question they have can be answered in a matter of seconds on their phones. Teenagers are actually MUCH better at recognizing “fake news” than we are. Aside from their obvious increased technical literacy, they’re also taught how to seek out information. As students, they have access to online encyclopedias and academic research. They’re constantly being told not to trust sites like Facebook and Wikipedia, and instead fact check every piece of information they want to use. They’re writing research reports and getting graded on whether or not their facts are confirmed. They’re much better at finding the truth than we are.

Without the ability to vote, I believe they’re getting antsy. I remember talking to my cousins, just shy of 18, about how much it sucked to be unable to vote in such an important presidential election. And now here we are, with massive school shootings happening at levels that I can’t even comprehend, and they’re done with us adults. They can’t vote, but they can speak for themselves and remind politicians that they’re voting very, very soon.

We need to stop underestimating kids and instead listen to them. That’s how I treat the kids I babysit. I never want to influence their own moral and political beliefs, so I just listen to them and encourage them to think about where they stand. The other day a kid I babysat was doing a project on trans kids and I found that she knew way more than even I did. I offered no opinions and instead just let her inform me on the topic. When I was watching some younger kids, someone came to the door who was running for local office. What followed was an hour long conversation with the kids about what their platforms would be and how they can run for office within their school. While I would steer at times, like suggesting they invest in scientific research when they said they wanted to stop all hurricanes, I let them carry the conversation.

We invest so much time and money into our kids and their education. But often when they want to show us the results of that investment, we don’t listen. While what happened at Stoneman Douglas was horrific, it is inspiring to see the students use their voices and speak up for themselves when a politician is dismissive of their question. Unless you’re a teacher or school employee, the topic of school shootings will ALWAYS impact the kids in your life more than it will ever impact you. Empower them to use their voices, especially if they’re teenagers. I’m so proud of these teens who are speaking up for the students in Sandy Hook who are still too young to speak for themselves. There are no longer only parents representing their students, but students themselves being actionable.

Keep going teens. Stand up for what you believe in and know that your mind is worthy of respect and your opinions are worth being heard.

Let people lead their own stories.

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As a Chicago resident who is also a huge Eagles fan, I spend almost every Sunday of the football season at Chicago’s Eagles bar, Mad River. This past season I went alone for the first time. I was scared of going to a bar alone but figured if I got there early enough, I could grab a bar seat which would make my solo journey a little less noticeable. When I got to the bar there was one seat left at the end next to a woman around my age. I figured she was saving it for a significant other, because I’m a bad feminist, but decided to ask anyways. To my surprise, she was also alone. I soon found that there are a lot of solo riders at sports bars. East Coast transplants who don’t have the energy to convince their Bears friends to peel away from their own game for an afternoon to come to an Eagle’s bar. I spent the rest of the season sitting at the bar and getting to know new Eagles fans.

Over the season, I inevitably made new friends. When you’re spending 6 hours, or 12 hours during playoff games, at a bar, you get to know people well. We exchanged stories of superstitions, trash talked Chip Kelly and shared fond memories of watching games with our families.

After the super bowl, one of my friends and I went back to Mad River for one last drink at the bar that brought us so much luck that year. Without the distraction of the game, we got to chatting about our lives. During the season I had been at Mad River healthy, was absent for a couple weeks, then came back on crutches. As I recovered, I went down to one crutch then eventually was able to start walking without them. Everyone knew I had knee surgery, and made sure to keep a close eye as I stood on the bar pouring champagne into the mouths of fellow fans after our NFC championship game, and she wanted to know the full story. I proceeded to tell her all about the accident and struggles with my first doctor. Before I could get into the story with my first doctor, she asked: “Did he let you get an MRI?” “No!” I responded, with a hint of excitement of recognition in my voice. “You always know a bad doctor when they won’t prescribe a MRI,” she responded. I could tell that she had experience in that area.

She proceeded to tell me a story about how she almost died due to a doctor not prescribing a MRI. When she pushed for it, her doctor still wouldn’t budge so she stopped complaining. On a visit home, her mom forced her to a different doctor, who saved her life with emergency surgery.

I was speechless. Here was this person who I got to know well over the course of several months, and I had no idea that she had such a near death, life defining experience. I knew she preferred American to Whiz but didn’t know why she had a scar on her head. It’s not so much that I didn’t notice it, I just didn’t really care when I saw it. Chalked it up to a childhood accident, or car accident, or who cares what, it’s not my business.

One thing I’ve realized about myself is that I don’t really ask anyone their story. It’s not that I don’t care about the story… in fact, I often find it the most captivating part of a person. I have just realized over time that people will tell you their story when they’re ready to tell you their story.

There are large chunks of my life that I’ve told to a stranger but am not willing to share with my close friends. There are things I don’t want my coworkers to know but broadcast on the internet. There are points in my life where I would tell telemarketers that my dad was traveling, or tell guys at a bar that he worked in IT, because I didn’t feel like being reminded of his death.

I’ve also learned a thing or two through life. My mom always taught me that there were things about people that were far more important than race and when I would refer to someone as “my Hispanic friend” she would press me to help her remember who the person was beyond their heritage. What was their personality? Where could she have met them before? My friends have expressed how much they hate that the “where are you from” question is the first question asked of them. I’ve learned that friends have hometowns they don’t like to be reminded of and asking about family life is not always a warm opening.

Through all those experiences, I’ve learned that we never need to feel pressured to hit every base right away when getting to know someone. I remember I used to hate when I would disclose that my dad died, only to be asked how immediately. I thought that was so self-indulgent. Why does it matter? So you can quantify my hardship? So you can make sure it was a freak accident that wouldn’t happen to you? The only time I was ever cool with it is when people asked because they could relate. My dad died in a car crash, their mom died in a hospital. Not an exact match, but enough of a community.

A lot of times we ask abrupt questions because we genuinely want to know more about people. The intention is fine – we’re curious beings and want to know about the others around us. But after my dad died, and I hated being asked that question, I started challenging myself to not ask other people questions that are too pointed. When I did that, I started finding out that the stories eventually come out anyways… now they just come out on the owner’s terms. I have to imagine that’s a much healthier way to go about things.

For quite a few years, I’ve trusted that I’ll eventually come to know the things about my friends that I’m curious about. I’ll learn their heritage when we’re in the middle of a conversation about our grandparents and they talk about their immigration process. I’ll figure out where they grew up when they tell me about their favorite baseball team. The reason they limp will become evident when they disclose their birth defect after a long night of chatting about god knows what. Eventually everything comes out, we just have to decide who sets the pace.

I usually find more out about people when I’m willing to talk about my scars. I expose some of mine, which makes them comfortable to do the same. Humans want to connect and we will unravel those complexities eventually. Let’s just find a pace that suits both of us.

I don’t always follow my own advice, and sometimes my curiosity gets the best of me, but I try to remind myself to work on letting others tell their own story. Allowing them the space to tell it, but also not asking the type of questions that will force them to. We always get there eventually.

I think the world is a little healthier if we let people lead their own stories.

I’m not always brave

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When I was a senior in high school, I entered my school’s competition to deliver a speech at graduation. I saw it as my chance to make an imprint on the school. You see, I kind of slid through senior year in the shadows while my best friends celebrated being crowned homecoming queen, prom queen and funniest senior. This was my opportunity to make my mark.

After many rough drafts, a severe case of writer’s block, two auditions in front of stern faces seated at a conference table and convincing myself that my speech couldn’t possibly outshine the 70+ others in the competition, I strolled in late to school one day (the usual) just in time to hear my name announced over the intercom as one of the two winners. I was beyond excited – this was going to be my ‘mark’.

Not only was I thrilled to be picked, but I thought that my message was worth spreading. My speech was funny yet sentimental and I knew that my classmates wouldn’t be able to sleep through it. Instead of picking a generic graduation speech quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, JFK or Buddha, I opted for someone who wasn’t as popular among high schoolers – my gal Gilda Radner. The speech was appropriately entitled, “Delicious Ambiguity” and I absolutely couldn’t wait to share my idol’s words with new ears.

On the day of my graduation, all was well. The sun was shining and I was running from place to place with my friends snapping all the pictures we possibly could. My classmates, teachers and family were excited to hear my speech and we even planned a little prank where the senior class would do the YMCA in the middle of my speech. I headed into my school’s auditorium knowing that I would exit in our graduation march down to the football field & make my “mark”. We lined up and took one last walk through the high school. There were tears, hugs and recalled memories. The doors opened, the band played, and we started to walk outside.

Then what happened? It started to downpour. The sky was dark and the crowd was running everywhere for coverage. Being the optimist I was, I thought… well, it’s just rain, right? We’ll be okay. We took our places on the football field and the administration announced that due to the weather, they would hand out diplomas first and do the speeches after. Okay… I can deal with that. As the diplomas were handed out, the rain got worse. I was still optimistic. Our valedictorian got up first to start her speech… but she only made it through a few lines before the lightening started. Her speech was interrupted by the announcement that graduation was cancelled. For our safety, everyone had to leave the field immediately.

I wish I could tell you that I was brave. That I was optimistic and left the field in the line we were supposed to march out in with my head held high. But I wasn’t. I ran off the field in tears, went straight into the arms of my favorite teacher and started to sob. He tried to comfort me and then helped me find my friends. I was crushed… two of my friends practically had to carry me across the street to my best friend’s house. I refused to go inside and made my mom drive me home where I could lock myself in my room for a few hours. I was devastated.

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Clearly not okay with what’s going down…
 

You see, I’m not always brave and I’m not always strong. Sometimes my life falls apart and I can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I still have days when I call my mom sobbing, wondering if I made a huge mistake moving out to Chicago where I have absolutely no family nearby. I have moments of self-doubt where I wonder who the hell I think I am to pursue comedy. I have nights where I come home from work in tears, swearing to my roommates that today was the final straw. And trust me, I have my moments where I think of all the bad that has happened in my life and I feel so bad for myself. I wonder what the hell I did to deserve all of this.

I allow myself to feel those moments – to become the person who desperately needs advice instead of the one who gives it. I’ll let myself cry in the shower, cry myself to sleep, cry to my mom on the phone… hell, last week I cried in yoga. I think there’s this perception of me being such a brave and strong person… but I’m not always like that. I’m human, just like everyone else… just because 95% of my days are spend smiling and laughing doesn’t mean that I don’t still have my 5% of bad days. As a Libra, I think life is about balance. You have to let yourself feel those bad feelings to clear your mind for the good ones. You’re not weak, you’re human.

After a bad day, I dust myself off and remind myself of all the good in my life. I count my blessings and choose to be happy. That’s the way this world works… fall down, dust yourself off, find the good. Choose to be a happy person.

Oh, and what was my graduation speech about? While visiting DePaul’s campus, I saw a cute guy walk by. I was crossing Fullerton, got completely distracted by this beaut, tripped on the curb and face planted into the street. The leg of my A&F jeans tore open and my heels were ruined. I was mortified. I felt like a child sliding around in mommy’s heels, pretending to be grown up but looking ridiculous doing it. However, I couldn’t just lay there in the street (after all, DePaul traffic is serious business and it was piling up). So I picked myself up, looked at my mom & burst out laughing. (It’s a metaphor for life…)

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The damage.
You guys… shit happens. As my gal Gilda wrote (and as I would have quoted if the sky didn’t shit all over my parade):

“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”

Embrace the delicious ambiguity, folks… the good and the bad.