My first year teaching—and every year after that in the classroom—I learned that no one has a better radar for honing in on hypocrisy than teenagers. “Why do my parents tell me not to smoke pot when they get wasted on alcohol?” “Why does the church say they’re all about peace when they’ve gone on Crusades, killing people for their faith, since the Middle Ages?” “Why is our country stockpiling nuclear weapons when they say other countries can’t?” “Why do we say our country was founded on equality when we don’t let women and black people have the same opportunities as white men?”
I couldn’t answer those questions back then, of course, and I’m not sure I could completely answer them now. But this week I had to laugh when one of my contemporaries was raging about “the way kids dress today.”
As I listened to her, I was thinking about how my best friend in high school—a guy—once laughed at me when my bathing suit top, tied together by a string in the back, came loose in the pool, and I rose from a dive to see him laughing and pointing at my tiny but completely exposed boob. Bra-less halter tops and see-through, gauzy blouses were the fashion of the day—and we didn’t wear camisoles.
I remembered my first trip to New York the summer after tenth grade, where, on a shopping trip to Macy’s, I bought a pair of hot pants that barely covered my hips. I remembered wearing a white dress that I’d made myself when I was one of a few junior girls chosen to hand out programs at graduation. I stood behind the table, and the yearbook picture has immortalized that short white dress—the only one that showed several inches of leg between table and hem as I stood behind it, handing out programs. I laugh out loud because the caption underneath the picture identifies me as one of my classmates. And at my 20-year reunion, when dress styles were no longer mini, that same friend who laughed at my bathing suit malfunction laughed again as we were looking at our yearbooks and asked how I ever got past my dad in that dress.
When I shared these incidents with my contemporary who ranted about current fashion, she said, “Oh, no, the dresses weren’t that short.”
“Yes,” I assured her, “they were.” I told her about one of my teachers who, when she wrote on the board with her right hand, had to hold down her dress with her left so that she didn’t expose her butt to a group of tenth graders.
And so, when my contemporaries bemoan a world where young people have no values and where our politicians have no ethics, I try to remind myself that I grew up in an age of hot pants and hypocrisy. The president resigned in disgrace just as I began my freshman year in college, after months of swearing that he wasn’t a crook.
And so it goes. Each generation must learn its own lessons. I expect that our daughters will say to their daughters that their clothing is too provocative, that our government is too lax.
I almost hope that that will be the case. Because if it isn’t, it may mean that the extreme religious conservatives in our country have gained power as the Taliban gained power—that oppressive fanatics have forced our young people to cover their bodies in a future iteration of today’s burkas.
I sit this evening and watch a television special where the Eagles reminisce about women dancing naked on the stage. One of the band members talks about how they had a party after every show, about how sex and drugs came as a package in the ‘60s. “Who could handle it? Who could function? Who could show up?” they asked. “We challenged all the rules,” they said. Only now, as they look back, do they say, “Let’s face it. We were idiots.”
And so, young people, your parents may not have worn hot pants, and they may not have been hypocrites. But I was one of the most innocent of my contemporaries. I’ve never even had a puff of a cigarette, much less smoked pot. And when I went to a GYN at the age of 23 and asked for a prescription for birth control pills, he looked at me as if I were an extinct species that had shown up in his office. Most of my contemporaries cannot say the same.
So…this is your world. We—I and my contemporaries—are as outdated now as we thought our parents were then. And you’ll have to figure out this world for yourselves. So don’t let us cynics jade you. You aren’t in any worse shape than we were as we tried to figure out how to extract ourselves from Vietnam, how to give equal rights to women and minorities, how to trust politicians in the wake of Richard Nixon.
And when I think about that world and remember how we thought we were the answer to the world’s problems, I smile. And I remember that you are my hope for the future.
So tell me your dreams. Where will you take us as we, once young but now forced to admit that we’re on the cusp of being elderly, look to you and hope for a better world?