One of the really charming things about adolescents is their ability to be playful about serious things while still taking them seriously. I saw this in mid-October as I was trying to give my students some context for the dueling rebel and loyalist pamphlets we were reading from colonial Massachusetts. I was explaining that the Tea Act of 1773 had actually reduced the price of imported tea in the New England colonies, but the colonists hated the Act anyway; they saw it as a sort of “camel’s nose” maneuver by Parliament, to bribe the colonists into accepting in principle Parliament’s right to levy taxes on the unrepresented Americans.
You’re probably at the edge of your seat now, right? Okay, it was a small point, and I was hurrying through it to get to the texts. But one of the sophomores had a question.
“What’s ‘sawitasa?’” he asked. I was flummoxed and asked him to repeat the question.
“What’s ‘sawitasa?’” I still had no idea what he was talking about and asked him to explain.
“After ‘Tea Act of 1773,’ you wrote, ‘colonists sawitasa.’”
The seniors figured it out first, and they hooted with delight. In fairness, I had been in too big a hurry while scribbling on the whiteboard. So there wasn’t much space between the words “saw it as a,” which the sophomore read as a single word. He was simply asking me to define the unfamiliar word he thought I was using. Much merriment ensued, and the sophomore endured it with equanimity.
But the joke didn’t end there, because with adolescents even too much is not nearly enough. At the end of class, several boys took their leave with exclamations of “sawitasa,” and it became a parting salutation. The next day we learned that, like “shalom” and “aloha,” “sawitasa” is not only a parting salutation but also a greeting. One of the seniors imbued it with a sort of yogic reverence by placing one fist against his vertical palm and bowing slightly as he bade me not “namaste” but “sawitasa.” The fact that these particular seniors have called me sensei for the past four years gave this version a surprising (and slightly disconcerting) plausibility. “Sawitasa” may not mean anything, but when a nearly-grown young man bows respectfully and says it in just the right way, one feels that surely it ought to mean something.
The fun with “sawitasa” lasted throughout the year, but its days are probably numbered. The seniors who promoted that particular gag are about to graduate, and the sophomores and juniors will move on to other jokes in other classes. And that will probably be that. As easily as adolescents make fun of the world around them, they also have remarkably short time horizons. If something in a high school happens two years in a row, it’s a tradition. If that “traditional” event then fails to happen three years in a row, it might as well never have happened. And so, I suppose, it will be with “sawitasa.” I’ll miss the joke, but only because I’ll miss the boys.
The Time Horizons of the Young
The short time horizons of youth were therefore on my mind last month when two eighth-graders from New York City stayed in our home while they and their classmates visited DC. My wife is a marvel at drawing people out of their shells, and as we were getting acquainted with our guests, one of them sighed and told us very earnestly, “All my life, I’ve been a hopeless romantic.” All her life! Can you imagine? How long a time did she imagine “all my life” to be? But perhaps more importantly, why “hopeless”? How can it be possible for someone who can expect decades of life ahead of her to be a hopeless anything?
Our young guest’s remark got me thinking about the connection between hope and time. Is it perhaps easier to be “hopeless” when “all my life” so far only amounts to a few years? Surveys show that young people are finding it harder to be hopeful, and far too easy to be anxious or depressed or resentful. When adults become anxious or depressed, we can fall back on past experiences when things looked bad but it all ended well—or perhaps when things really were bad but we learned about resilience and the love of God. For teens wrestling with these emotions, their limited experience makes it too easy to extrapolate badly.
Are we doing enough to help? We spend so much time trying to get the boys to remember last week’s reading and prepare for next week’s quiz, but maybe we should be more conscious of the need to speak of a very different timeline where things far more important than college happen.
What Else Happens in the Classroom
This calls for some delicacy; we can’t expect them to pay much attention if we simply tell them they haven’t seen much of life, because—as even eighth-graders apparently know—they have already experienced some things all their lives. But we can, perhaps, say more about the richness of what awaits them beyond school, beyond young adulthood, even beyond middle age. We can teach them great books that communicate some of life’s “beyond” experiences even now. We can teach them thousands of years of history, to expand their appreciation for human agency and to prepare them to exercise that agency with love and fidelity. They should know, when we are done with them, that the modern age is not the first and will not be the last in which it is hard to be good. It has never been easy to be good, and that has never been a reason not to try.
We can also relativize many of modern society’s relativizers. We can help them to understand that public discourse is more than Tik-Tok, that education is more than academia, and that politics is more than street protests. We can help them see that deploring popular culture is neither as brave nor as generous as improving it. We can help them imagine themselves as moral agents rather than passive victims, men for whom the evils of the modern world are not unavoidable vice-traps but are rather opportunities for greatness. In this way, we would be educating them for hope rather than for fear and anxiety.
The practical problem, I suppose, is that none of this is ever really on the syllabus for any particular day. If these are the lessons we want to teach, we really need a way to teach them as subtext, or to let them peek around the edges of whatever is on the lesson plan that day. Perhaps what we really need is a shorthand vocabulary for this whole constellation of hopefulness: a word or phrase that incorporates an entire worldview of human flourishing without diverting us from the material on the next unit test. It needn’t be more than a single word of admonition, provided that word communicates both sympathy and encouragement in bad times and good.
Could we, perhaps, repurpose “sawitasa” to mean something like this? “You just got into your dream school? Sawitasa!” “Big test today? Sawitasa!” “WCAC tournament tomorrow? Sawitasa!”
But also: “Tough break in the final minute. Sawitasa.” “Sorry to hear about your dog. Sawitasa.”
Unit tests are important, but not as important as a lifetime of moral agency. Life may be short or long, but either way we can live our destiny well. Whatever our challenges, we are capable of great love, indomitable goodness, and invincible joy. People always need the comfort, aid, and protection we can provide. Those are just some of the many ways life gets richer. And for all of that, we can and should be grateful every day. Sawitasa!