Sunday, August 28, 2016

San Francisco Teens Seek Suffrage

Image result for san francisco

In two small Maryland towns, Takoma Park and Hyattsville, youth suffrage activists have pushed the voting age down from eighteen to sixteen. San Francisco aims to be the third municipality to grant voting rights to Americans who are already considered old enough to work, drive, and be tried as adults in a court of law. 
Like their friends in Maryland, San Francisco teenagers only aspire to vote in small scale elections for now, and they won't make it in time for this year's presidential race. Hard work, youth empowerment workshops, and campaigning by the San Francisco Youth Commission put a proposal called "VOTE 16" on November's ballot. If the eighteen and ups support it, high schoolers will be able to cast their votes in municipal, county, and school board elections. Teenagers are raising their voices, but ultimately, it's the adults who will decide if they can be heard.
A common criticism of youth suffrage is that young voters will just give their parents an extra ballot. It might be a legitimate concern in a world where teenagers never rebel against their parents. When sixteen and seventeen year olds cast their ballots in the Scottish independence referendum, 44% voted independently of their parents. 
In San Francisco specifically, teenagers who do align their political beliefs would their parents could give their family not a second vote, but a first one. San Francisco is a diverse city with a large immigrant population. One in three San Francisco Unified School District students have an immigrant parent who could not vote for laws and policies affecting their US citizen children. 
VOTE16SF isn't just about getting teens to the polls. They aim to create adult voters, today and tomorrow. Only 40% of eligible San Francisco adults turned up for last year's election. Young blood could bring more. They want teenagers to come home from civics class and talk politics around the dinner table. They want high school voters to become college voters, and then parent voters themselves. 
If you're interested in donating $16 to the cause (or any amount, really, but I have a hard time resisting the sweet sixteen), or just want to learn more about the teens and ideas behind this proposal, you can visit
I can't see any day in my lifetime when sixteen year olds could be guaranteed voting rights across the country. But then again, women at the Seneca Falls Convention were hesitant to push for voting rights because they thought it was asking too much. They wanted to concentrate instead on securing property and child custody rights. Only one teenage girl who attended the convention in 1848, Charlotte Woodward Pierce, lived to see the day in 1920 when she was granted the right to vote. The impossible has to start somewhere. Maybe today's the day.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Worth More than Gold: Lessons from a Former Teen Olympian

Makayla Maroney lands a vault routine in 2012
"I'm worth more than a gold medal," says Makayla Maroney, who took home a gold medal at age sixteen in the London Olympics four years ago. While two of her teammates, Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman, conquered Rio this year, Makayla had to watch the games from home.
I only did gymnastics for a few years myself, and I never had any great skill in it, but I've loved following these two sets of teammates because I match up with them in age. I always keep an eye on young celebrities and public figures, though I don't blog about them now as much as I did in previous years.
Earlier this summer, I found a little blue notepad while packing for my travel term. I flipped it open and found it hadn't been touched since I was fifteen years old. It had drafts of blog posts and book reviews (I ran a book blog for several years) as well as topics and titles I wanted to cover in the future. The last thing on it was a to-do list for when I got back home from a family vacation. "Update blog, finish books, watch Olympics, and get ready for school."
On the train ride home from my travel term, I started to make a list of things I'd do in my brief summer before leaving for school again. Then I realized I could just reuse the list I made four years ago. Every item is the same, but now I'm going into my sophomore year of college instead of high school.
Fifteen was a big year for me. It's the year I wrote my first novel. The year I started high school. The year I watched the cops pull a body out of the river behind my house and never looked at life and death the same. And now I'm a full Summer Olympics away from being fifteen. Change sneaks up on you. My daily routine doesn't look much different, but in so many ways I've shifted from what I was four years ago.
Since Olympic time frames seemed like a good unit to measure my own life's progress, I checked up with the three members of the Fierce Five who didn't return for Rio to see how they're doing.
Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Makayla Maroney, Jordyn Wieber, and Kyla Ross
Kyla Ross (I've always had a soft spot for her because we were both fifteen at the time of the Olympics, although she did flips and stuff and I sat on the couch and watched) is attending college at UCLA. Teammate Jordyn Wieber is there with her. And Makayla Maroney? The face that launched a thousand memes? A knee injury took her out of elite gymnastics, but she's doing fine now. She's writing music, something she barely ever had time for as a professional gymnast. Her first single, "Ghost", comes out next month. My favorite thing I found on any gymnast was this interview Makayla gave Us Weekly.

“I lost myself. It was an identity crisis, no doubt. I would go and meet people and they’d tell me, ‘You’re the gymnast.' And I’m like, now that I’m no longer a competing gymnast, it throws people off and that would throw me off. I don’t want to let people down. It was such a big test for me to be like, you know what? No! I’m worth more than a gold medal. I’m worth more than being a gymnast. I am not what I do. I am who I am and I’m what I love.”

Worth more than a gold medal. Most people would be happy to if they could measure their life in gold and just break even.
Makayla has put into words what I've wanted to say for a long time. I've watched plenty of my friends have identity crises. When you're young, your life is in flux, so your identity is vulnerable, and it hinges largely on hobbies. Some people get theirs in high school, but I saw the bulk of it my freshman year of college. When you go away to school, you're uprooted from your family, friends, and hometown. Athletic hobbies go away if you're not good enough to play at the college level and other hobbies disappear because you lose the time. And on top of all that, you're supposed to choose a major. That's the first question people ask after your name. They don't know how to learn who you are without asking what you do with your life. If you don't have a major yet, you're not just a slacker, you're a non-person.
A few months ago, a girl giving a talk at my church shared a story about her eighth grade soccer coach, who never gave her playing time. At first I thought it was ridiculous for her to be whining about playing time in a public meeting five years after the soccer season ended. Then she said, "All I'd ever known was soccer. Now that I wasn't playing, I felt like he'd taken away my identity."
Hobbies are the figurehead of childhood identity. When you hit thirty, people assume you don't have fun anymore and stop asking "What do you like to do?" at get-togethers. But at fourteen, you'd better have something good to say. You aren't working and can't be dating anyone yet, at least not seriously. A hobby is all you've got.
Gymnasts burn bright and brief, and all athletes have to slow down as they grow up, but all hobbies, even the non-athletic ones, fall by the wayside eventually. If age isn't your struggle, time is, or else ability.
One day back in fall semester, my roommate slammed her laptop shut and announced she was going to the library to print off a photograph. Once she had it, she was going to draw.
"What class?" I asked her.
She told me that no professor was forcing her to do it. She just wanted to draw, like she'd been able to in high school, when she took AP art classes.
That caught me by surprise. My roommate was an accounting major, I'd never thought of her as the artistic type. She loved it and was good at it but when college rolled around around it was time to study something else. She didn't even take drawing for her arts elective, opting instead for interior design. But art was a part of her and it needs to resurface once in a while.
My other roommate was a dancer and a Kiwi. I'm convinced hobbies are the biggest portion of most teenager's identities, but I can't skip over the  role race plays in shaping who you are. From birth to age eleven, she lived in New Zealand, surrounded by her people, and even when she moved to America she had her family. Then one day she wakes and she's sharing a dorm with three white girls. She very much wanted to get into our campus's Polynesian dance ensemble, but freshman don't make the cut. So she joined a Tahitian luau group instead and got to dance and connect with more Polynesians that way.
I've had my own crisis. When I was twelve, I watched my older brother receive the Sterling Scholar award in the category of English. The Sterling Scholar program awards full tuition scholarships to any school in the state of Utah, but my brother wasn't interested in either Utah schools or English, so he tucked that feather in his cap and ran off to Berkeley, eventually landing as a Chinese History major. At age twelve I knew I had a love for books and some level of talent for writing. I figured that if he could make it, I should be able to as well.
So I spent the next six years of my life turning myself into a perfect Sterling Scholar candidate. Every conference I attended, every extracurricular activity, and every teacher I sucked up to all tied back into getting that scholarship. I won for my school. That got me a picture in the yearbook and another in the display case by the library. But I only advanced one tier beyond that. Not to state level, where the glory is. And the money.
That's six years of my life I'll never get back.
I turned out okay. All those years were spent developing skills I loved and could use in arenas beyond the Sterling Scholar competition. They built me up. They contribute to who I am. But hobbies and interests will always be part of who I am, not all that I am. As Makayla puts it, "I am not what I do, I am who I am and what I love." Gymnastics will always be a part of her, but it's because of the passion she invested in it, not because of the medals she'll hang on her wall.
Next to holding your moral ground, finding your identity is the biggest struggle of your teenage years. And after you figure out who you are, you have to watch your identity torn down many times and built it up again. Whoever you are, you're worth more than gold medals or scholarships or a spot on the team. You worth an entire you and what that means is evolving all the time. 

Monday, August 1, 2016

Take a Breather

One of my high school teachers had a knack for calculating marriage ages. He'd ask a volley of question-"Are you dating anyone? Got a job? Want a job? Headed to college? How old were you parents? Sisters? Brothers?" and then he'd shoot out a prediction. "You shall wed at age twenty three!"
He claimed he had a 95% success rate. How does he know that? Students grow up, get hitched, and report back to him. Once, long before my sophomore year of high school, he did it for a handful of kids and predicted they'd all marry in their low twenties. Then he told the last girl she'd be thirty two.
The rest of the girls gasped their how-dare-yous, but she tilted her head to the side and said, "No, that's right." She had plans for herself, plans for New York City and art school, and marriage wasn't in the foreground. When she finally reported back to our teacher, she was thirty three and happy with the way her life had gone. 
If you've been reading lately, you'll know I'm currently enrolled in a summer travel term. I finished school the same time everybody did-late April-and originally planned to spend a spring term on campus. But when I found out I'd been admitted into my summer program, I knew I'd need a break. I'd catch a plane the morning after finals and do homework for my new classes during layovers. There would be no time to pack, no time to breathe. I'd have an unbroken chain of school for six straight terms. 
So I dropped by spring classes, canceled my housing contract, and spent seven short weeks with my family. Whenever I tell adults that I finished school at the end of April and started again mid June, they look at me funny. Not because I'm going the extra mile by taking a summer term, but because they think I'm not moving fast enough. They ask what I've been doing with my life, if my parents are supporting me, and how I could possibly not justify spending less than two months away from school if I'm not working. I spent seven weeks fielding these questions at church, family reunions, and lunch get-togethers. I thought the people asking me were ignorant because they hadn't been in college for a while and forgot how school schedules worked. 
But today, I got this question from a professor.  
I'm not sure why it surprises so many people that I scheduled a seven week break from college between August 2015 and May 2017. Is it such a radical idea to have a spring break now? When Malia Obama announced this spring that she would start classes at Harvard in 2017, the "not until 2017" was deemed significant enough for inclusion in headlines. She's graduating in a presidential election year. Is it so shocking that she wants to spend one more normal year with her family? Or spend a year by herself, figuring things out? Or a year in travel? 
Young people are expected to move ahead with their lives at breakneck speed. This simply isn't possible. Sometimes, in my hours of anguish, when I'm scribbling four year plans in the margins of midterm notes with one hand and scrolling through job listings with the other, I think back to some words a church youth leader shared with us a few years back: "You don't have to sing all the verses of your song at the same time." If you did, they'd be muddled beyond comprehension. 
I did a lot from the tail end of April to early June. I caught up with old friends and was a bridesmaid in one's wedding. I trained for and ran a charity 5K. I attended a multi day writer's conference. I went to doctor's appointments that I could not possibly make room for during the school year. I went hiking and boating with my family. In short, I did all the things a person in any stage of their lives might do in any seven weeks of the year. 
But I didn't go to school.
That's two more classes I'll have to fit into a normal schedule instead of having them out of the way a term earlier. And you know what? I'm fine with it. Other students in our program sprinted through spring term just in time to catch the plane. But I know if I did that, I would've had a breakdown and not completed one of those terms. 
Even though I resent the pressure people put on me to sing all the verses of my song, I've caught myself trying to do that same thing to others. My brother typed the final words of his master's thesis last week. I shot him a text of congratulations, and then, fingers hovering over the keyboard, I was tempted to ask him what he was doing next. Was he going to find a job? If so, would he stay in America or head out to China again? What about that girl he was dating before his last trip to China? Can I plan a wedding? What kind of job is he going to get with that Asian Studies degree to support his wife, and are they going to get married now or after she finishes her doctorate? Never mind that so far as I know, they only dated for two weeks. The need to know is always burning.
So cool the flames. 
Over the course of my travel term, I've gotten to know the life stories of people I never would've met otherwise. We're all in roughly the same ages but different stages. I have one eighteen year old friend who graduated from high school with her associate's degree. Another girl dropped out of school at sixteen, got the admission fairy to let her into college, and is now a year and a half into her education. Her eighteenth birthday was two months ago. They're both further along than they're supposed to be at the eighteen, but one took the steep path and one took the detour. 
You end up where you end up. For some people, the right answer is to get married at nineteen. For some it's thirty three. For some people, it's not right to go to college right now, or ever. Some people need to speed through it. Still others will get it done in that same, normal, plodding four year plan. 
When I was a sophomore, I thought my teacher was a some kind of psychic or number wizard, predicting marriage ages with such accuracy. Now I know he was just a normal guy who'd figured out what I'm figuring out right now: that everyone moves at their own pace. I can calculate my friends' marriage ages now. I look at her health, her school goals, and whether or not her mom graduated college, but most of all, I look at her desire to get married. Everyone moves at their own pace, in love and learning and other matters. Life's not about seeing how many verses you can sing at once, but about finding how you fit into the rhythms.