"Knowing the difference between what's real and what's fake, who's real and fake is a survival skill where I come from."
Young people say it best. Forget the politics; let’s talk experience. Forget feelings; tell it like it is. The title is a quote from a college student panelist at the recent America’s Promise Grad Nation Summit.
Since hearing this, my mind has gone a hundred different directions thinking about why and how and where this plays out for a young man like this. He had been practically defaulted by his community into gang membership at age 12 and his unnamable, burning anger as a child for his life circumstances left him restless, fearful, combative, and often in school suspension (and yet making straight A’s).
Who was fake? What was fake? What does fake even mean to a student in these circumstances? Why was a 12 year old worried about his own survival?
At the end of the day, maybe the specific answers don’t matter that much. In fact, determining the specific answers for this young man would probably only do just that – give the answers specific to him.
But, here’s what we need to acknowledge: Too many adults in his school and community were “fakes”. And, this means there are likely hundreds of thousands of other youth out there who feel the same way, even if for varying reasons.
But expounding on the non-virtues that create a fake is a pretty useless effort. So, alternatively, how can we be real? After all, it’s a matter of survival!
To be real, we have to be willing to be abstract. We have to own and work toward something we cannot calculate or put in a chart or checklist somewhere and say: “hey, we did it!” And yet, we all know “real” when we experience it.
Being real isn’t an action, or even something you show. Realness is a mutual feeling, a oneness between people. It is the medium of a genuine relationship. It requires knowledge of the other and values his unique experiences. It shares power. It suspends judgment for understanding. It means getting dirty. Sharing pain. Sharing success. Being uncomfortable. It is presence. It is trust. It is humility.
Being real means seeing and believing and living such that my destiny and your destiny are inextricably linked. In the words of Dr. King: “I cannot be what I ought to be until your are what you ought to be, and you cannot be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” Now, that’s real!
And, the more we talk about young people as test scores, budget items, graduation statistics, or care for them only based on their buying power, we move from mutual destiny to otherness and individual outcome. We disentangle ourselves and relinquish that which makes us “us” – and something more than merely you and I. We make ourselves and others finite variables in an educational and economic discourse that we pretend we have little control over, and yet create and recreate every day.
Young people know this and feel this, and it feels fake. Thankfully, they will call it what it is! Now, we should listen and work with them to get real.
“In a real sense all life is inter-related…We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…this is the way that the world was made…I didn’t make it that way, but this is the inter-related structure of reality.”
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.