Holiday gatherings bring generations together. This year that’ll happen as ours appears to be at a cross-road regarding generational leadership. The key figures of national government are mostly over 70 years old. And they’ve been key figures for decades. When elders dominate leadership, we are sure to hear the debate as to whether the youth of today have what it takes to lead. As a high school principal, I’m not worried about the youth of today leading us. On the contrary, I’m impatient.
My impatience reflects my confidence in working with so many terrific young people. Recently, I wrote about students looking forward to pursuing skilled work directly after graduation. I then presented a story about Ukiah High School’s strong tradition of military service. In this episode, I’d like to share stories about some of the most academically and politically engaged students I’ve worked with in my career. The diversity of the leadership shared in all three columns is the greatest strength of our nation.
Every year, I see some truly extraordinary young men and women who are intelligent, driven, passionate and willing to stand up for what they believe. The common attribute that has impressed me in recent years is the civility with which many of these young leaders engage in controversial and potentially divisive political and social activism, a civility that gives dissenters room to breathe and then, possibly, to listen.
In 2017, Ukiah High senior Maggie Flaherty embodied several traits that made her worthy of respect and admiration, three in particular. First, as the ASB President she was a true leader. She acted as a role model, was attentive to the needs of others, and was willing to take on challenges important to her fellow students. Second, she was unflinching in her commitment to her causes. She was polite and often understated, but her passion shined through and she did not budge for the sake of convenience. For example, she travelled to the Dakota Pipeline protest to lend her support, even though it was not conducive to her studies and the conditions were less than comfortable. Third, she did her best to educate people about issues close to her heart, making hard-to-hear messages consumable. The work she and two classmates did to educate fellow students about ending sexual violence and understanding consent made the issue tangible and real. One of the top students of her generation, Maggie is flourishing in the Ivy League as a student at Dartmouth College.
Last year, a senior named Gracianne Kirsch impressed me with her unapologetic commitment to fighting injustice. She organized campus and community protests in response to the heartbreaking violence of the Parkland school shooting. She also created art and spoke out about gender equity issues. Her compassion and empathy, blended with unwavering confidence, made her a natural leader. I believe the fact that she was passionate without being combative allowed students who were not necessarily aligned with her views to admire her courage. During the on-campus vigil for the Parkland victims, a stand-out athlete, Nate Johnson, paused to take in the scene. He asked me what I thought of the vigil. I told him I was more interested in his opinion. He said, in essence, “I’m not here to participate, but I appreciate what’s happening.” Like Maggie, Gracianne is also a gifted student enjoying her first year at the University of California, Berkeley.
Including Nate in this story is important. He is the quarterback and a captain of our football team. Nate is an inspired athlete and a fierce competitor. He’s a player who can light up a whole team. In that way, he fits the mold you’d expect of a high school athlete. However, his athleticism is not why I hold him in such high regard. I admire him because he is a thoughtful person, because he is empathetic and comfortable enough in his own skin to do things like share his appreciation for Gracianne’s leadership of student activism. Like the other leaders highlighted, Nate is civil and respectful.
It is students like Maggie, Gracianne and Nate that make me confident that our future is in good hands. So, Baby Boomers, it’s okay to retire. Tomorrow’s leaders will make us proud.