One of the great things about getting older is that I can now be dismissive about young people. I can now say things like, “You’ll understand when you get older”, “When I was your age …” and “Get off my lawn, you pesky kids!” And the great thing is that I don’t even have a lawn, but they have to respect me because I am older than them. I mean, what do young people know? Nothing! They might have their fidget spinners and their Nintendos but I lived through Windows ’98 and Y2K. I’ve seen things and now I have the wisdom that comes with experience. I am finally superior to somebody and all I had to do was get older. But something happened recently that has made me realise that young people know something I don’t, and that they might be better than me.
There was a terrible tragedy in Florida recently. There was yet another one of those awful American school shootings and 17 people died. But from this tragedy there emerged a group of teenagers who spoke with an eloquence, poise and determination that left me stunned. Seemingly instantaneously these Florida schoolkids coalesced into a movement that has galvanised not only other young people but also adults with their determination and with their language. They speak in complete sentences with wit and with wisdom as they fight to change America’s bizarre gun laws. As one 18-year-old said in a truly powerful speech, “We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks,” and she’s probably right. I’m not just impressed by these teenagers, I’m also learning from them.
Where did they find their eloquence and intelligence? I couldn’t do that when I was their age and I can’t do it now either. I was led to believe, no, I had been promised that young people and the coming generations are, well, not that great. But now I’m really scared because they might be very bright indeed. In searching for answers as to why these Florida “kids” are so smart, I discovered that many of them are active members of their school’s theatre department. And suddenly it all made sense.
Theatre is not encouraged in Malaysian schools these days, but it really should be. Today’s parents are probably afraid that their children will be dazzled by the bright lights and glamour of the stage and will want to become actors. This is an understandable fear. Most of my closest friends are actors and they’re all very poor. But theatre teaches children lessons they cannot learn anywhere else. It teaches them to face their fears because going onto that stage and putting on a great performance is terrifying. By speaking the words of great playwrights, it helps them to learn about adult concepts and the adult world at an early age. And finally, the sheer effort of putting on a play is not only exhilarating but it requires teamwork, attention to detail and split-second timing.
I did theatre when I was at school. I had a great singing voice but I was a really terrible actor, so I was always pushed to the back of the stage where nobody could see me. But in a production of the musical Oliver! I had to go to the front of the stage and do a ridiculous little dance. Each night I would dread the moment I had to do my dance because I was so bad at it and I could feel the audience cringe in their embarrassment for me. It was the most humiliating experience of my life. But the good thing is that I got my most humiliating experience out of the way when I was only ten.
Parents, you should have your children do theatre. It’s a wonderful learning ground. Theatre’s lessons and experiences (even the humiliating ones) will fuel them long after they have forgotten all about the periodic table. And if you need any further encouragement then just watch the schoolchildren in Florida as they try to change their world. Obviously, it’s not just theatre that makes these young people so remarkable: they’ve also grown up with the internet and know how to use it. So now I’m worried that the coming generations might be quite special and that an old person like me will be left spluttering, “I would have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for you darn kids!”