I spent the last weekend with an extraordinary group of young people at an international high school called The United World College-USA . It is a magical place–the manifestation of global peace educators, activists, and philanthropists dreams. There are eleven such colleges (actually 11th and 12th grade in American parlance) across the world, and each houses and educated about 200 students from over 80 different countries. The only one in the U.S. is in Montezuma, New Mexico, of all places, and was originally founded in 1982 and largely funded by Dr. Armand Hammer.
I’ve done work with the school off and on, thanks to a serendipitous meeting I had with one of its great teachers, Selena Sermeno . This weekend I created and taught a storytelling workshop for a small group of enthusiastic students (largely based off of community organizer Herbert Ganz’ work on Public Narratives ). The students originated from countries as far-ranging as Iraq, Poland, Singapore, Spain, South Africa, Chile, Vietnam, India etc. etc.
One of the things that was so striking to me was the amazing paradox that these diverse teenagers inhabit. On the one hand, they are extraordinary. They tell stories of war, political upheaval, loss, and death that will make your stomach literally burn with outrage at the state of our world and the way that children suffer as a result of adult violence. The image of one young woman from Iraq talking about how she lost 200 fellow students when her college was bombed will never leave me.
On the other hand, many of the stories these students tell–even the ones from war-ravaged regions–are about parents fighting, first love, the loss of a grandparent. They could not be more ordinary. And these stories, too, will stick with me. The image of a bright-eyed boy from Poland talked about taking the train for 40 hours to see about a girl will also never leave me, for very different reasons, of course.
These kids have experienced unparalleled lives, but they are also–ultimately–just kids. They are self-focused and ambitious and fearful and in love and admire their mothers and wish their fathers would show more emotion and crave to be understood. Nothing could be more universal, perhaps, than the ache of adolescent searching.