Say the RIght Thing!

As a part of being in charge of making fun activities for the freshman Journalism/TV Production class at my school, today I moderated a pretend debate on the issue of homework and whether there should be homework every night, a topic they and I could relate to easily. After 10 or so minutes of prep time, they let their ideas free and voiced them against each others’.

While the activity ended up being one of those classic, way too loud classroom arguments between two groups of kids trying to one up the other, what happened afterwards gave me some, quite frankly, frustrating food for thought.

Right after I finished up with the freshmen, it was lunchtime. I sat down next to a girl I like and her friends, and I swear; I couldn’t come up with anything interesting to say! I said a few obnoxious comments about the sodium content in my Ramen noodle soup, accompanied by an outburst of pretend joy when a friend of mine passed by me and gave me his sandwich, which he didn’t plan on eating.

But that’s about it.

It’s incredible to think, in retrospect, how I could have thought myself capable of leading a classroom session whose focus is eloquence and substantiation in public speaking when I couldn’t even come up with something remotely fascinating to say to a person right in front of me at lunchtime.

In fact, a few days ago, I did a full-on lecture about Internet journalism for more than half an hour to the freshmen, and managed to keep most of them remotely interested for the duration of the damn thing – and yet, I can’t manage to come up with something cool in front of one person?

But what’s even more elusive is just what it is that keeps me from having the Gift of Gab at the most inopportune time possible. I mean, I guess it’s cause I’m nervous (not shy, certainly) or worried about what my impression will be, but could I possibly be that nervous so as to lose my otherwise natural ability to dole out remotely interesting things to say?

What a mess.

Private in Public

There are very many different types of personalities you can adopt when you’re in middle school. You can concentrate full-time on your studies, concentrate full-time on your video games or playing cards … while I wouldn’t call myself a full-on nerd, I was the kind of middle schooler who talked a lot, had a lot of friends, knew a lot of names and faces, but was also substantially closed. In a way, I was private in public.

I did indeed have lots of friends. In fact, my Facebook friend count was well into the 400s before I even started high school. But somehow, I still managed to be quite closed when it came to socializing outside of school, when it came to doing things like hanging out after school on the benches right outside, or walking to the train station with a friend, or joining a sport or club. I was very concentrated on my studies, but it wasn’t really the academia that was keeping me from being as properly social as I now feel I should’ve been.

What was at fault was – though I’m only making guesses now – a combination of a desire to achieve independence, a belief that doing stuff like the aforementioned was pointless, and perhaps also a dose of anxiety.

Back then – and now I realize this – I couldn’t help rejecting the stereotype that I was a part of. In 6th grade I was appalled by the 5th graders, in 7th grade I was appalled by the 6th graders, and in 8th grade I was appalled by the 7th graders. When I say appalled, I mean turned off by the idea of being just a kid. Mind you, I enjoyed my childhood habits – playing video games, watching cartoons; standard fare – but the idea of being part of that stereotype was much less alluring than being say, of high school age or just being 18, 20, or older. So, whenever I would make a choice to walk on my own two feet with no one beside me to the bus stop, or the train station; whenever I would make a choice to go home right after school and play video games for hours instead of chilling outside with friends as they waited to get picked up; whenever I made such choices, I was making progress on my goal of independence. Doing the opposite would exacerbate the stereotype.

What a fool I was.

I thought hanging out was pointless. I thought of the term – “hanging out” – and just dwelled on how stupid doing that would be. I pretended that going home and doing stuff by myself was a way of showing I was better for doing it.

In retrospect, the rationale was quite pointless itself.

For example, one time I had the thought that hanging out with friends afterschool would be detrimental to my studies because it meant less time for homework.

Like playing video games and watching TV at home until six o’ clock was any better.

But now I realize that what really was at fault was my own fear of trying something new. Of following my heart and not my brain at the moment where I had to. I was, quite honestly, nervous about the entire enterprise … just hanging out, talking to people. Somehow, somehow I was nervous about it, about all of it.

What’s worse, I feel that having made such choices, day after day after day, constitutes one of my greatest regrets. I can think of many examples where I had the opportunity to chill afterschool with some friends and I passed it up. I can think of only some times where I actually agreed.

I can only hope that I make better, much better choices now and in the future.

An Icon: James Rolfe

I find it very unique of human beings to be able to assign so much spiritual value to something that, were it to be freed of the circumstance, would be as unimportant as the next thing. Take James Rolfe, for example, a budding indie filmmaker and one of my favorite Internet and film producers. His film works are incredible pieces of indie filmmaking, as impressive as the ones that maybe get more airtime in film festivals or other big events. But while I applaud his work, that’s not the reason why I’ve continued to track him and his progress ever since about 8th grade.

One day at a friend’s house, we were looking at Youtube videos of retro video games when we came across something called the “Angry Nintendo Nerd” and his review of Spiderman for the Atari 2600. That “Angry Nintendo Nerd” was none other than James Rolfe. From the moment we saw that, through now, I have found reason after reason to come back to his website for nearly any video Rolfe makes, however trivial or “stupid”.

Some of those reasons are easier to guess than others. Being in 8th grade at the time, and hearing the Nerd spewing curse word after curse word was enough novelty to keep my eyes glued to the screen. But as I began to watch more of his videos, and even play some of the games that he talked about myself, I began to come to terms with some of the other qualities of his work that drew me to them and to him – a nostalgia factor, a ‘bygone years’ factor, a ‘memories’ factor.

Every time the Nerd does a review, he makes a comedy skit out of it and generally spews unnecessary amounts of less than honorable language; still, between all that, he makes earnest comments on what these games mean to him. This guy’s a collector – his basement is a 1980s teenager’s dream game room, with shelf after shelf filled to the brim with cartridges and original game boxes, all in pristine condition – and so a sense of warmth and affection towards the games he sometimes ridicules and sometimes appreciates gets through to the viewer, me.

And I’ve connected with that on a very personal level. Rolfe conveys these feelings through these hilarious comedy sketches about vintage video games, while other filmmakers convey through perhaps more conventional fiction tales. Either way, I know exactly what he’s talking about, because I feel it too. For example, in addition to the sketches, Rolfe loves to review old cartoons and movies from his childhood, always managing to, foe example place a comment about how he’d wake up earlier than usual before school to watch the latest episode of whatever cartoon he’s talking about. The earnest tone inherent to these retellings makes me think of my own childhood stories, of my own middle school memories or time spent playing with my toys or time spent lounging around in the morning before the bus came to take me to school.

And just because the guy makes a fool of himself for the game reviews doesn’t mean he’s not a cognizant soul. He produced film called “Rocky Jumped a Park Bench” that, even though it’s really little more than a location tour of the different locations used to shoot the Rocky films, it ends up being both a tribute to the Rocky series as well as some of its underlying motifs like hard work, passion, love, the American dream … the editing and shots and certainly script all make these things stand out, giving a new dimension to location tours.

So every time Rolfe releases a video – even if it’s just a video of him and his filmmaker friends standing outside the house from Family Matters, say – I make time to see it and enjoy it, because in a way, Rolfe’s nostalgic yet at the same time front-facing spirit (as an indie filmmaker) connects with my own mindset and philosophy, and seeing the fruit of such an attitude on my computer screen is in and of itself the most rewarding experience possible.

Something Intangible | Young Humanitarians in Africa

 When thinking about the perfect summer, a lot of teenagers might think that a sunny day at the beach or a night out with friends would be their cup of tea. And yet, a unique group of youngsters made part of their summer into the adventure of a lifetime, more than two thousand miles from home, in a foreign country; learning, helping, and understanding a culture so fundamentally intriguing. I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with one of the adventurers, Kira Levin, a junior at Miami Palmetto Senior High, who described the summer 2011 trip into the Tanzanian landscape as a lifetime experience.
From the get-go, there were several questions I had in mind – where’d you go, how’d you get there, what did you do, and most importantly, what did you find? But I made the conscious choice to start from the very beginning: what inspired you to go on this African adventure? It turned out that a genuine fascination with world history was the cause; more specifically, a fundamental misgiving about the idea of imperialism upon the African continent. How can people just take other peoples’ lands?
Thousands of miles later, you found yourself in the middle of a Tanzanian village, having gone through so much to get this far, in the company of like-minded American teens who wanted more than just a safari tour through one of the most troubled regions of the world – they wanted to help. The idea of giving back to the community was not foreign to you – you’d already had experience mentoring little kids in the ways of tennis, here in sunny Pinecrest, Florida – but the surroundings made you feel out of your comfort zone. Through bus rides that lasted hours on end, through hikes that went on way too long, and through living conditions befit solely for the rampant globe trotter, somehow this spirit of benevolence towards a society well removed from your own persevered.
You told me about your experience teaching African youth, at Himo Primary School, about an hour away from the compound you and your fellow Global Leadership Adventures mates were staying at. It began as a frustrating venture: the kids didn’t understand you too well, and they essentially copied whatever you guys were saying. But as you and your mates learned more Swahili and were able to communicate better, naturally your students began to respect you more.
Another part of the trip was meeting your host family: a kind bunch, with a grandmother, a 22 year old named Carles, and a few other children. Here came a vital lesson – perhaps completely unintelligible by Western notions – in humility. This family – and by extension, much of Tanzania’s people – lack many basic things we take for granted. Food, a shower, a bathroom. And yet, their capacity for kindness and amicability is unsurpassed. Having yawned once, you were immediately offered to sleep in one of the family home rooms; having fallen by your own misstep, you were immediately offered aid as if someone else had to have made sure you weren’t hurt. Happiness, it seems, transcends even basic living accommodations, perhaps even to the point of folly – Carles has malaria four times a year, so pilgrimages to the hospital are mundane excursions for him and other Tanzanians.
Back home, well before your departure date, concern regarding your welfare on the trip was widespread: from your parents, to your friends, to your teachers. Many lampooned your expressed desire to go on this trip, others thought it fundamentally risky. It took a lot on your part, but also some on theirs, for them to be at peace with this very unique field trip.
And upon being put on a hike by the Masai tribesmen – rural folk well away from the townsite you and your friends were staying at – some of their concerns possibly rang true. These African tribesmen are used to walking through the desert at high temperatures for hours on end – but your “kind”, the white people, were reaching a dangerous point of exhaustion that Saturday afternoon as you kept walking through the sandy dunes and cliffs iconic of this part of Tanzania.
Surely, the way of life in a place like Tanzania is too removed from our Western way to even bear comparison. While some similar rituals exist – such as your experience strolling through the town market and being pleaded, almost, for your money in exchange for some salesman’s jewelry – the whole of it is color black to our white. Take the Chagga women, for example, and their experiences with female genital mutilation. You ask yourself, how can they talk about this so nonchalantly, almost cynically or sarcastically, when the subject matter is so genuinely appalling, disgusting? Why does it happen?
Yet other confusions are more cultural, more aesthetic in nature. You said people are happy there. I asked, is it simply because they don’t know there’s something better out there? Well, education is key to that, you said. Carles, for example, goes to school and is getting an education. He is aware of the problems that plague Tanzania, and that they are circumstantial in nature, not impossible to change. He agrees that education is almost solely the way to societal progress, particularly in Tanzania. If people knew that something better is out there, they would become cognizant of the relative condition of their lives.
So is ignorance what keeps these people happy? Perhaps it is. But you told me that there’s something beyond that. There’s another factor that may be what keeps these people in such good spirit. It’s something intrinsic, something intangible. When you had a Swahili lesson with Mama Simba, a local Tanzanian leader, she brought you all together when she said “we are all one family” and “you are all my children”. When you hung out with your host family, you were treated as another one of their children. It is such demonstrations of unrestrained love and companionship that both characterize these peoples and set them so fundamentally apart from our own Western notions of individualism and self-sufficiency, which, while economically sound, have visible social shortcomings. There’s something beyond the “ignorance” clause – something from the heart, something from the culture …if only we really knew what it was.
And as the last word, you told me, Kira, that this experience showed you what you want to do with your life. You named joining the Peace Corps and continuing to travel as some of your future aspirations. Less remotely, you plan to travel to India this coming summer. I can’t help but give my own positive evaluation of this. While you may not yet stand alongside the great humanitarians of our time, you’re definitely headed in the right direction. The realizations and experiences you’ve had as a result of this trip – before, during and after – are bound to serve you well in many ways beyond choosing a suitable career.
Yet the questions posed here remain unanswered. How can these people be so blind? Are they blind? Are they simply so strong-willed as to smile in the face of plight? Your experience, both for yourself and I, is but the beginning of a long road of understanding the world, of understanding its people. It’s sure to be a road worth traveling.
Tomas Monzon
June – October 2011

Young Seniority

As a senior in high school, you’re bound to feel some sort of superiority over the lower grade students. Whether that seniority remains genuine or turns snobbish is your call. 

For me, the seniority remains quite genuine, and quite easy to comprehend, too. You see, the term “seniority” (excluding legislative or categorical uses) is quite a silly term. In this situation, it means having experienced something before the person before you, who has yet to experience that which you’ve already experienced. 

Seniority, thus, is incredibly easy to achieve since it’s relative to your experiences. Suppose there’s a new ride at the local fair. The group of four riders in front of another group of four riders will build their seniority quick, in 10 minutes or less, over the second group. 

The first group is the natural fit for a mentor to the second – with respect to the ride, of course. 

And so, when I apply such thinking to my grade level in comparison to those of my younger classmates and friends, I find myself brimming with the seniority I once never had. Just the other day, I was talking with a couple of freshmen about some of the issues they were having in school, from academic ones in their courses to social ones in their lives and relationships.

Some of their concerns were legit, but others were pure rookie mistakes: freaking out about ONE subpar test grade, worrying about ONE failed relationship … I could’ve dismissed everything they were saying as insignificant concerns that won’t really matter in the long run … but I played along. I played along and did my best to sympathize with their concerns and offer the most serious advice I could. 

I wish I could be more explicit as to what they were saying, but I had this realization a while ago so I can’t remember too many details. The point is that I stopped short of vitiating their worries because I didn’t want them to experience things too hastily. There’s beauty in making rookie mistakes. If I were to reveal to them the secrets I was never told as a freshman growing up, their experience would be less than half what mine was. 

And I can’t injure them so.