A Generation Finds Its Voice

Some kids wanted to call it the War Club. Which made sense, since it was meant to be an alternative to the Peace Club. But the principal didn't approve, so Jeff Bombardier and like-minded classmates at South Hadley High School in western Massachusetts instead called it the South Hadley Alliance of Republican Conservative Students. Not as pointed, maybe, but the important thing was to create an officially sanctioned group like the Peace Club to spread their message. "I felt that only one side of the issue was being represented," says Bombardier, 18, a senior. "I wanted to get my opinion out there."

Mission accomplished, by Bombardier and other teenagers galvanized by the Iraq war. A new wave of activism swept through America's high schools this past year--from Petaluma, Calif., where 52 students were suspended in November for walking out of class to protest the impending war, to Orlando, Fla., where debates at a Model U.N. program in March were infused with urgency and relevance as students found themselves arguing about a war that started just days later. "I want society to know that my generation has a voice," says Linda Chau, 18, student-body president at San Diego's Serra High School, and an outspoken supporter of the war in Iraq who attended pro-troops rallies.

That's a welcome change from the 1990s, when prosperity seemed to trigger an epidemic of detachment among young people, and voter turnout among 18- to 24- year-olds dropped steadily. But will today's high-school students remain politically active now that the war is over? Will these kids, who have lived through so many extraordinary events--the contentious 2000 presidential election, 9-11, Afghanistan--grow into civic-minded adults?

It could be that the Iraq war came along at the right time to make that happen. As they mature, teenagers commonly experience a window of idealism, experts say, around 15 to 17, when they begin to apply the values they've learned at home and in school (such as a sense of fairness) to the larger world around them. They often develop an almost utopian belief that the world ought to be as good as it can be, and that they can help make it happen. If this noble impulse coincides with a big event like war, it may lead to lasting changes in character. "What begins to develop is the sense of moral identity," says William Damon, director of the Stanford University Center on Adolescence. "Kids begin to think: 'Doing something about this is important for who I am, for how I think about myself. This is part of who I am'."

That's what happened to Anthony Fantano. The 17-year-old at Wolcott High School in Connecticut discovered politics the old-fashioned way--listening to music at a friend's house. There, he learned about Jello Biafra, former lead singer of the band the Dead Kennedys. "He picked his name because Biafra was a country where thousands of people were going hungry and Jell-O is an everyday household food," Fantano explains. "It makes people think. He's pretty much my political idol." Fantano, whose myriad modes of self-expression include an eye-popping mohawk, took part in a massive antiwar march in Manhattan--the high point in his political life so far. "I thought it was a great example of people power," he says. The debate continues at home: his father, Ken, supports George W. Bush and says his son "needs a full understanding of the problems, and you don't have a full understanding of much at 17." He worries that Anthony is headed for disappointment. "I'm afraid he's spending too much energy and too much emotion on something that, no matter how hard he tries, he can't change."

Of course, that's not something that occurs to teens, says Damon, which is why they're able to hang onto their idealism. What high-school kids have going for them is a healthy egocentricity. "They're still at the center of the universe; the world is playing out on a stage of their own," Damon says. Later, youthful idealism is modified by experience. If teens have developed what Damon calls a "core of moral concern," facing limitations will make them more realistic about what they can achieve. "But if they don't start with the idealism," he says, "then cynicism fills the vacuum."

Though the urgent buzz of war has faded, there's no denying that for high-school kids, the world is a bigger and more complicated place today than it was last fall. Anxious parents--and politicians--watch and wonder whether this means a new age of activism or the same old apathy. As for Anthony Fantano, he's looking forward to his 18th birthday in October. "I'll be able to vote," he says. Jello would be proud.