Two months ago, when the first invitation came by e-mail, there was no reason — or excuse — to refuse.
Tom Clemmons, identifying himself as the 12th-grade civics and government teacher at The Classical Academy, wrote simply: "I would like to invite you to speak to our seniors on Friday, January 14. Each year we have special seminars for our senior class which cover literature, worldview, civics, etc. We have about 100 seniors, and we like for them to think critically about the issues facing our community and country."
This wouldn't be like other classroom visits, cramming a talk with questions into a quick 45 minutes. Instead, this would mean speaking for about an hour, taking a short break, then returning for a second hour of questions. Oh, and in this group of Academy School District 20 students, probably 80 would be college-bound, perhaps more.
There's nothing like a room filled with bright, attentive, inquisitive teenagers — in this case, at Colorado's largest on-site charter school — to challenge a grizzled newspaperman. After all, these kids were born in 1992 or '93. To them, nothing could be more ancient than to hear from someone who grew up with the Beatles and forced integration and the first astronauts, with no computers, Internet, cellphones or cable TV.
But I couldn't say no. I wanted to ask them questions, then listen to theirs. I wanted to know how intelligent 18-year-olds viewed the world. At the same time, I didn't want these teens to think of their guest speaker as just another out-of-touch fossil talking about the good old days.
So when the moment arrived last Friday, I was prepared. We quickly established that most of these seniors were keeping up with the news on some regular basis, mostly online but quite a few via TV. Around half of them already are registered to vote, and the rest haven't turned 18 yet.
We talked at length about the upcoming Colorado Springs election, and how they could help determine the first strong mayor, plus six City Councilors (one from their district, five at-large positions). I mentioned the likelihood of a ballot question about the future ownership of Memorial Health System, and that's when the smart questions started. They wanted to know why the city might sell its hospital and what nonprofit status would mean, with the same uncertainties as most adults. They could see that a nonpartisan city election might be a good place to get involved in some way.
The subject eventually turned to what had happened a week earlier in Tucson, Ariz., and suddenly the whole group was fully engaged. The shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords clearly had an impact on these students. They wanted to know if I blamed the media, right or left, and the angry rhetoric that has permeated national politics. I offered my view that the rhetoric might not have directly caused this tragedy, but now that the precedent is set and the idea is out there, it definitely could influence the next lunatic, and the one after that.
So, a few wondered, should this lead to stricter gun-control laws? Possibly even the government limiting the media's right to speak out from either side? That's where I had to share more than just analysis, suggesting that any gun-control changes should come well after the dust settles, perhaps simply preventing people with known psychological issues such as Jared Loughner from easily obtaining weapons or ammunition. As for limiting media discourse, I had to defend the freedom of the press. From their expressions, it was apparent that many agreed, but not all.
There were many other questions, from the 2012 election to how our city government might look in the future. My challenge to them, in terms of civic involvement, was this: Find a way to go from being an outside spectator to getting into the audience. Then, someday, they might make it onto the stage, perhaps much faster than they would expect.
All too soon, our second hour was done, and I still had more questions than they did. I couldn't help but think there might have been a future governor, mayor or member of Congress in that group.
As long as they care about the world around them, that's an impressive start.