The Kids Are Alright
By John Hughes
These are violent and disturbing times. With war and terrorism looming over our heads, the economy slumping and personal depression seemingly at a new high, there is more than enough to worry about. Also, the roaring din of celebrity glitter and the avalanche of plastic entertainment can leave a person feeling estranged. Yet, there is always hope, and the root of our hope is in the human spirit itself, ever renewing, perhaps even evolving over the eons. As the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once put it, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things. “Perhaps that’s a little hard to see these days, but it is evident if you look hard enough.
Vital Source, in a series of three interviews with five Milwaukee teenagers, found glimpses of that dearest freshness. They are Sam and Simon Barcelona, Xanthia and Alexandra Walker, and Lee LaMar; a diverse quintet, who hold as a common trait their joie de vivre, their joy of life. They are remarkable young people in our midst, and their lives refresh hope.
There are good people in Milwaukee, who are ethical, fun, interested in life, making their own ways with thoughtfulness and sensitivity. They love their families, their friends, and each other.
The Barcelona brothers
Sam and Simon Barcelona, ages 17 and 14, are seated in their Wauwatosa living room, looking serious for the media. They are discussing conformity to peer pressure. They are against it.
“It’s more fun to be yourself than someone else,” says Sam. “I hate how you see kids at the school, and these people are from Wauwatosa, and they’re trying to be hip-hop heroes. That’s so overrated. It’s so artificial. And drugs are just huge at Tosa East. I don’t support that. It’s their choice, of course, but I’m not going to join �em. I watched other people and saw their mistakes, and I’ve learned enough about that. I don’t want it.”
He is a handsome young man with dark features and long sideburns that remind me of Elvis Presley’s. When I asked if they were in tribute to the King, he laughed and reported that he doesn’t like Elvis. He prefers punk rock, which he describes as good clean energy.
Simon, who attends Marquette High School as a Freshman, concurs with Simon about conformity. “It’s a bummer how everybody tries to fit in. Everybody’s holding back all the time. I don’t believe in holding back. Sam and I like to find people that don’t care what people think, and hang with them. It’s better that way.”
These two young men are talkative and serious, answering my questions with thoughtfulness and deliberation. As Simon tells me that he’d like to become a pilot, possibly after attending the Air Force Academy, the subject of the war with Iraq comes up. I find it telling about their character that one of them is in favor of the war, one against, and they discuss their differences without anxiety or anger. Each explains his reasoning in detail, while the other listens quietly, awaiting his turn. They respect the other for speaking his mind, and not trying to conform.
Simon, who appears a little less intense than Sam, reclines comfortably in his chair, and smiles largely when I ask them to describe what their childhood was like.
Growing up Barcelona
“We were always outside,” he says. “We played soccer, baseball, and basketball.” (At this point Sam interjects “I was terrible at basketball.”) Simon resumes, “And we liked to dig holes around the tree outside. We’d do that for hours. I don’t know why, but we loved that!” He laughs a little.
The boys have an older sister who is away at college now, and younger sisters, ages 12 and 9. Their parents Russ and Jenny have inhabited this bungalow home since 1990, and have refurbished it to the point that it is cozy and handsome.
“When we were little we helped our parents work on this house,” Sam says, smiling. �We got to tear the carpet off the stairs. We loved doing that. “And after loving sports during my childhood, when I got to a certain point they were too competitive. So now I work at Pick N’ Save as a cashier.”
I ask him why he wants to become a pilot. He pauses for a while, reflecting, searching for the words.
“I like to have a lot of responsibility. That would definitely be the case if I were a pilot. And no one’s looking over your shoulder. You’re up in the air, so they can’t. That’s a perfect combination for me. And besides it would be fun to see the world.”
Does the thought of terrorism in the air bother him?
“Not at all. That’s no big deal,” Sam says, mulling his words. “There are so many flights every day, that it’s a small percent that get hijacked. And I don’t think it’ll ever happen on the September 11th scale again.”
I ask Simon what he would like to have as a profession.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I can’t stand math or science. I like history and political science. I like to see how history repeats itself. Like, you know, Arab and Israeli problems go back to the Middle Ages as a great problem and they never get solved. I like to study that kind of thing. And I like to read books like The Jungle, and The Mothman Prophecies.” (Sam interjects, “The Mothman Prophecies is a very cool book.” )
I note that perhaps the career for Simon is as a professor.
“That would be ideal,” he says.
I know that Sam and Simon often shovel snow for older people in their neighborhood, free of charge. I bring this up.
“Yes we do,” Sam says, and neither has anything to add. They look at me impassively, as if shrugging their shoulders. I can tell it’s just a natural thing for them; no big deal. You just shovel for those who can’t.
The interview ends and the boys adjourn, having shaken my hand, but I remain in the living room to speak with their mother. Within seconds, I hear Sam’s electric guitar, beginning to wail. He’s been pretty serious during the interview, but now that he’s in his room, away from a reporter, his passion comes flying out. It’s a hot lick he’s playing; good clean energy.
Xanthia and Alex Walker
To spend time with Xanthia and Alexandra (Alex) Walker, ages 18 and 16, is to be reminded of just how enrapturing life can be. I recently met them at Fuel Café, and, as Xanthia drank her Rishi tea, and Alex her Mocha Cappucino, they wove a spell of intellectual fascination, mixed with teenage charm. With smiles and laughter and eloquence, they described their lives.
“My main interest is trumpet,” said Alex, a laid-back student at Milwaukee High School of the Arts, her voice serious but her eyes sparkling. “I love Wynton Marsalis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis, and I also like to listen to some rap, some rock, some underground. I think my favorite music to play right now is Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto.”
She says this without squirming, without interjecting slang, making easy eye contact and speaking directly to the point. She is a strongly appealing person.
“You see, I hate that,” she says. “Dizzy Gillespie is great. Britney Spears is not. It’s very hard to accomplish what he did, to play the kind of music he played. I love to listen to it and I don’t think Britney Spears is challenging at all.”
Xanthia is smiling broadly as she listens to her sister.
“I want to be an actress in live theater,” she says when I turn attention to her. She has more overt energy than Alex, giggles readily, but is an ideal match for her sister’s mind. A student at Rufus King High School, these days she is auditioning for college, she informs me, where she will study drama and acting. She mentions as her first choices New York University and Boston’s Emerson College, but adds that she has also applied at Fordham, DePaul, Boston University, and the University of Minnesota.
“I want to develop a strong technique. I want to be an actress on the level of Zoe Caldwell. Right now I’m reading a book by Sanford Meisner, an actor who developed a style of teaching, and this style was based on the insights of Stanislavsky. You take everything in your life and put in into your art form. You don’t come in empty. I love this and can’t wait to learn more.”
Wow. The girls are seated at Fuel, sipping their drinks casually, and they are prepossessed and cheerful. They are angst-free. They are sitting still (I’m a father of teens, and with teens constantly in my house; I’m amazed by the Walkers’ stillness). This conversation is more interesting than 98