Billy Planer logs more hours with teenagers than anyone I know, many of them spent on a bus.
Planer’s Etgar 36 Jewish-themed (but open to all) summer trip begins in Atlanta and rolls from coast to coast, visiting historic sites and meeting with people of diverse opinions who are engaged in the major issues of the day.
On weekend trips that focus on Southern civil rights history, the passengers may be teens and parents from Jewish congregations (some 50 thus far) or groups from churches and schools.
The 51-year-old Planer, who grew up at Ahavath Achim Synagogue, created the Etgar (Hebrew for “challenge”) program in 2002.
Planer doesn’t romanticize teenagers, who make up about half the 1,800 people who ride with Etgar 36 annually.
“Youth is celebrated in this country — over-celebrated, in my opinion — … and revered and worshipped,” he said during an hour-long cup of coffee. “I don’t worship the kids. I think they’re neat. I think they’re interesting.”
Planer admires an entrepreneurial spirit — “You can chart your own course. And, by the way, it’s socially acceptable” — that has imbued teens with an astounding degree of confidence.
He also sees deficiencies, some owing to “parents who have connected their own identity to their kids way too much” and others to technology that makes staggering amounts of information and entertainment instantly available yet diminishes personal communication and problem-solving skills.
A conversation with Planer is particularly interesting at a time when activist teens are being fitted with a halo and receiving more than the proverbial 15 minutes of fame.
But respond they have, in Parkland, Fla., and beyond — motivated by grief, anger and an arrogant belief (which may be age-appropriate) that their time is now and that they will fix what adults have broken.
Those who remember the Vietnam War protests will recall the derision heaped on the “long-hair, pot-smoking hippies” who clashed with various forms of authority. Such generalizations made it easier for “the establishment” to dismiss both messenger and message.
The 58,318 names carved into the black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial cover a period of almost 20 years.
With 15,000-plus deaths attributed to gun violence in each of the past two years, it would take fewer than four years to accumulate the same number of names for a memorial to those victims.
Where young men and women, generally college age and older, were the face of war protests 50 years ago, high-schoolers have become the face of the gun control movement.
Those inclined to patronize boys and girls who watched classmates die in front of them might consider this caution from David Bowie’s song “Changes”:
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.
These children will be voting soon (some this November) and seeking public office not too many years after.
This iGeneration, hard-wired to social media, is finding its voice.
“They’re cynical but yet don’t feel powerless,” Planer said. “I think it’s a healthy combination of it all, from self-absorption to caring to having the spotlight. That’s quite a cocktail you got there.”
The Parkland students and their peers elsewhere may not have been vocal activists the day before, but the Valentine’s Day massacre gave them “skin in the game,” a fear that they are at risk by merely showing up for school.
What will become of their activism when the spotlight is off, of course, remains to be seen.
Should their elders have faith in them?
“As much as we had in any generation,” Planer said. “The kids are all right. But let’s not forget they’re kids. Let’s not make them any better than they are. I think it would help them to realize that they don’t know it all, not yet.”