What I Can Do For My Country

Nylen lives in Ashfield, Mass.

I first heard about national service while my dad and I were shooting hoops at the town school court last fall. He asked me: "What if your country wanted you to serve, maybe in return for college money? You wouldn't have to enlist in the military; maybe you'd be a teacher's aide, or clean up the environment, or something."

I answered, "A sphincter says what?" having just seen "Wayne's World" for the 85th time. But after thinking about it, I said, "Well, I'd say yes. Definitely maybe yes."

I'm a 17-year-old high-school senior at a tiny school (88 students in grades 5 to 12, to be exact) in rural western Massachusetts (the boondocks to you). Next year I'll be going away to college (Haverford, specifically). By the end of my college career, I'll have thousands of dollars' worth of student loans to pay back. That scares me. So national service sounds interesting: perhaps I would work in a field in which I could get a real job eventually, or at least learn something, meet new people, pay back my loans and help my country at the same time. So, I'm thinking, Yeah, all right, sign me up! But then I think, Whoa, wait a minute here: I have lots of questions about national service, like, how much will I earn? (It doesn't have to be a lot, but I'd like to have an idea.) Where will I live? Will I be able to choose the program I want to be involved in, or could I wind up emptying bedpans at an old folks' home (when I really want to work as a teacher's aide, maybe in an inner-city school)? Questions like these have to be answered before somebody my age can get really excited about national service.

Here's what we know so far. In his address before Congress last month, President Clinton said national service is designed to help pay college tuitions for those students who serve their nation and their communities. He said twice as many people would enter national service within the first year of its operation as the number that participated in the Peace Corps in its whole history. Good, I thought, now the plan is big enough to grab people's attention in the bold way it should: the more people involved, the better it is for everybody. But now we learn it'll begin as a pilot plan with a thousand people. A thousand people! That's not exactly what I had in mind. But Clinton promises it will grow, and he's still talking about adding new adjuncts to military service, like a police corps, a teaching corps, a forestry or environmental corps and a health-care corps. That's cool.

My dad is excited about the prospect of a national-service program-maybe a little too excited. The reason he likes the idea (and keeps yammering at me about it) is that he thinks young people will get a chance to gain the kind of understanding of their country and what makes it work that he got during his own military service, and that my grandparents' generation did during World War II (and after it, thanks to the GI Bill). It's the kind of patriotism that we haven't seen during the past 20 years because there has been no big call to arms. My dad says that while he might not have been acutely aware of it at the time, because he spent a lot of time peeling potatoes and digging foxholes, he learned some very powerful lessons about other people and about his country while he was in the army, and I believe him. So he thinks my generation would learn a lot. That sounds hokey, so I really hate to admit it, but I agree. Does that make me a dork, too?

There are other reasons to be interested. We face awful societal problems today: crime, urban strife, drugs, racial and class conflicts, for instance, not to mention that this is the last season of "Cheers." The nation is coming apart at the seams and people don't connect with one another anymore. The future looks daunting. So maybe some of these problems could be solved or at least minimized a little, if people only understood each other better. A program in which the nation's youth could learn how to work together would help. Here's another good point: since I go to a school where virtually everyone looks, dresses and acts exactly like me, I wouldn't mind meeting other kinds of people for a change. Many kids might benefit from this kind of exposure.

Everybody wants to figure out how much all this idealism will cost, but if the program is going to work, we should first concentrate on what it will do, and then figure out the economic details. The budget should come after we reach a consensus about what we want to do. This program has too much potential to let politicians kill it before it even gets started.

Whoa, heavy stuff! Did I just say all that? Can a teenager have brain room left after all those hours of the very best bits from "Saturday Night Live" and all those Pearl Jam lyrics get lodged in there? That's another thing: national service would give teenagers and young people a great chance to prove themselves to skeptical adults. That may be the best part of the program. But the big problem with Clinton's plan now, judging from the vacant looks I see when I ask kids my age about it, is that the people this plan will affect most dramatically really don't know very much about it. Yet when I explained what I knew about it to my friends, they were intrigued.

So hey, President Clinton, use that telegenic salesmanship on us, and hold a nationally televised national-service summit. Don't rely on MTV alone, either, because we don't have cable here in the boonies. Maybe you could invite members of the earlier national volunteer organizations, like VISTA, and also war veterans, vets from the Job Corps and the Civilian Conservation Corps and representatives from private volunteer organizations. Most important, you should invite some of the young people who will eventually be enlisted to help mold the program that could end up changing their lives. Adults owe it to their children to take action on the subject, to give them a clear stake in their future. President Clinton, do it for Chelsea. But personally, I hope the Gore kids have to empty the bedpans.