Thursday, November 10, 2016

Famous for Being Unfamous

Image result for william kamkwamba meme

I've come across a meme featuring teen inventor William Kamkwamba multiple times in past few months. Most variants focus on the power of self-education, but the one I've seen most recently derides "the media" for not giving him the attention he deserves. It reads, "A Malawaian teenager, William Kamkwamba, taught himself how to build a windmill out of junk and bring power to his village. He then went on to build a second, larger windmill to power irrigation pumps. He did this all from books he read in the library." And the header: "Share this. Let's make him famous because the media won't."
But haven't they?
This one-time fourteen year old inventor has grown up and made a name for himself. He has given Ted Talks, been featured on The Daily Show, written up in the Wall Street Journal, and named as one of the "30 people under 30 Changing the World" by TIME magazine in 2013. His book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is required reading at several colleges and his life was the subject of an award winning documentary entitled William and the Windmill. He is now twenty nine years old. But after all those accomplishments, our motivation to share it isn't to applaud his successes, but to make him famous for being unfamous.
This bring up two important issues: First, the tendency to hail teen heroes for as underdogs, and narrowing the scope of a person's life to only recognize their earliest accomplishments. I'm going to talk about the latter first. When using social media to celebrate people for the accomplishments of their youth, there are pros and cons to only focusing on their teenage achievements. I think about this a lot whenever I do spotlight posts.
A few months ago, I did a post on the now thirty nine year old abortion survivor Gianna Jessen, where I focused on her teen advocacy and used the word "teenager" in the title. My fascination with abortion survivors started last year. I've spent a lot of time researching abortion survival and the way it impacts children's later lives There are adult abortion survivors I like more than Jessen, and there are abortion survivors who are currently teenagers or children. But I chose to focus my post on Jessen for three reasons:
1. Though abortion is an ageism-fueled issue, I try to focus this blog on teenagers specifically, not just young people in general.
2. I wrote that post in response to a biography on Jessen that only covered her teen years.
3. Jessen is simply the most famous abortion survivor in the public eye.
Though I reported on Jessen as a teenager, I didn't want anyone to come away with the mistaken idea that she was still in her teens. A casual scroller could think this of William Kamkwamba. Some meme variants mention his scholarships and college graduation, but most focus only on his teen windmill-building. I didn't know until researching Kamkwamba's life that this windmill was a thing of the past. With Gianna Jessen, I made sure to mention her birth date and included a video of the adult Jessen testifying in Congress this year.
That's not to say I've always been accurate in my teen hero spotlights.
Here's a personal research flaw I've caught recently: two years ago, I shared a video of twelve year old Lia Mills speaking out against abortion. I didn't google her name or even check the upload date before blogging it. I assumed it to be a recent video. My abortion survivor research has lead me to follow a number of pro-life accounts, and just a few weeks ago, someone else posted about twelve year old Lia. Nobody stays twelve for two years, so I fact checked her age.
Fourteen? Nope, nineteen. And as of this writing, twenty. She had a birthday this September.
The viral video, originally just a class project, was uploaded by Lia's mother in February of 2009, more than four months after she turned thirteen, so even in the beginning there wasn't a twelve year old Lia making waves beyond her classroom. Lia is now a public speaker, author, and YouTuber. She speaks against abortion, yes, but she's also branched out into human trafficking and pornography addiction. Yet when you google her, the first thing to come up is her seventh grade homework.
That first video is a basic summary of popular pro-life talking points. Later videos narrow the focus to specific issues in abortion, as well as exploring her new topics. Her recent pro-life work is more sophisticated, but she's forever famous as twelve year old.
Some people get their big break young. When they do, that's more interesting than all their subsequent accomplishments. While Kamkwamba's current engineering career is certainly changing the world more than the two windmills he built in his small boyhood village, reading about a college-educated engineer building things is less impressive than a library-educated fourteen year old rigging up a windmill from junk and dreams. But it does a young people a great disservice to only let the spotlight shine on one moment of their lives. When you render someone as a wunderkind, you're ignoring the fact that they learned and grew and became fantastic adults too.
This doesn't just impact the way we perceive youth in current events, but in history as well. When I first began blogging at age fourteen, some of my very first posts were focused on youth history. Two of my eighth grade heroes were Sybil Ludington and Claudette Colvin. Ludington is known as the "teenage female Paul Revere" and Claudette Colvin is seen as a junior Rosa Parks. Both were teenage girls who committed acts of bravery similar to adults in their time. Sybil Ludington actually rode farther than Paul Revere, and on worse roads in the middle of a rain storm. Claudette Colvin kept her seat on a public bus nine months before Rosa Parks. And after she inspired Parks, Colvin testified in Browder vs. Gayle, the court case that ended Montgomery bus segregation once and for all. Parks was tied up with her own legal proceedings and wasn't able to testify. Even though these young women's accomplishments surpassed their adult counterparts, they play second fiddle. Adults can be famous for their accomplishments. Teenagers are famous for being unfamous.
Let's not pigeon hole the awesome young people of the world as wunderkinds. Teen accomplishments are a special kind of awesome because they were achieved so young, but we're not limited to the successes of our early years. People who start moving and shaking things when they're young can change the world their entire lives.

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