Editor’s Note: This piece by Lauren Takao was given an honorable mention in our Emerging Writers Contest. We’ve sent her a check for $50.

“Hey, guys, can I ask you a question?”

Heads nod in agreement, up down up down.  Sure.

“Well, I’m just wondering, out of curiosity, what do you think is a big social problem our state faces right now?”

Crickets. Big eyes staring at me, vacant.

“You know, like what is a problem you hear your parents talking about at home when you’re eating dinner?  Or what do you see going on in your neighborhood that bothers you?”

More silence. Eyes have now shifted towards the ceiling, staring at the off-white paint, hoping that Mrs. Takao will stop her interrogation.

I am a high school English teacher at a private institution in Honolulu, and although it is a cliche, I believe true education is more than memorizing grammar rules or reciting memorized Shakespeare lines. Students should understand that actual learning transcends the classroom walls — it is their duty as lifelong learners, as community contributors, to recognize issues and problems in our society and actively find ways to rectify those dilemmas.

So when I posed the above question to a gang of teenage boys microwaving their tupperware bentos in my room during lunch, my heart sank to see their blank stares and silent responses.

Apple and stack of books

Yes, I understand that adolescence is a time of social, physical, and emotional change, when for the majority of these teens, life revolves around dating, grades, and video games. But sadly, as much as I want to think that the Socratic circle discussions we have in class make my students more thoughtful about the connection between a novel’s theme and modern-day cultural concerns, it is quite apparent that social issues — homelessness, the cost of living in Hawaii — are not even on these teens’ radars.

And this is a problem. The students I teach will be the islands’ future lawmakers and social activists. The state of our economic prosperity and cultural sensitivity is in their hands, yet at this young, impressionable age, these individuals are unaware of the very issues they will need to battle, amend, and rectify, when they enter adulthood.

Why is this so? How can a group of well-educated 17-year-olds who have access to the latest local events at their fingertips (thank you, Smartphones and social media) not have a clue as to the big social, economic, and environmental issues facing our state?

I see my students three times a week for a total of 210 minutes. They also have six other teachers besides me they see Monday through Friday. So for a total of 1,260 minutes every school year, these teens are surrounded by educators devoted to growing and molding each student to be one who contributes to the well-being of his community.

That is a lot of learning, a lot of time each scholar spends immersed in the educational environment. The amount of classroom instruction one receives should translate into a more well-rounded, more culturally sensitive outlook, yet sadly, that is not the case. Could the reason why this is so lie in the fact that it’s not how much we teach children, but more what we are choosing to devote class time to teaching students?

Hawaii is one of 13 states involved in the Smarter Balanced Assessments, a national test which scores students based on their mathematics and English Language Arts/Literacy aptitude. Presented earlier this year by Rodney Luke, the Office of Strategy, Innovation, and Performance Assistant Superintendent, results from the Department of Education indicate from 2016-2018 there was a 3 percent rise in eleventh-graders’ English Language Arts/Literacy proficiency and a 1 percent increase in their math comprehension.

How can a group of well-educated 17-year-olds who have access to the latest local events at their fingertips not have a clue as to the big social, economic, and environmental issues facing our state?

Those numerical increases are small in nature, but the trend toward all students being well versed in these subjects is on the upward swing. According to these numbers, teens should be growing in their acquiescence of knowledge, namely because they are adept at determining what is a comma splice error and solving complex algebraic equations.

But how do these statistics serve as an accurate reflection of a student’s true understanding of his place in his community? What type of standardized test measures the amount of one’s compassion towards the homeless or creativity to plan solutions for our high cost of living? We have yet to find a bridge and balance between teaching students how to perform adequately on a national exam and showing teenagers how to apply that knowledge to rectify real-world problems.

And what about the rest of the time when adolescents are not in school? Do parents spend as much time with their child discussing the important issues of the day as they do sending emails via their electronic devices? Or are families segmented into different rooms, each on his own phone until it is time to go to bed?

According to national statistics, between 2015-2018 cell phone usage has steadily increased from 4.15 billion to 4.57 billion. With close to 76 percent of the population owning Smartphones, that number is sure to increase, and with that rise in usage comes more quality time between parent and child being eclipsed by social media scrolling and YouTube watching.

Although it is true that individuals can learn about local issues via electronics, the parent-child relationship is key for teenagers in being able to process what they see happening in their communities. Adults, parents in particular, can and should help youth build a strong moral and ethical base.

In my classroom I see how face-to-face conversations with peers have fallen to the wayside because it is easier to text or message. If it is already challenging enough to get teens to talk to one another in real time, how much more problematic is it to prompt them to talk with their parents about major issues within their communities? Thus, lack of communication leads to a student’s lack of awareness about major cultural issues, resulting in said teenagers learning about statewide concerns via social media or blog posts instead of through hands-on experience and conversation.

Real world issues are titled as such for a particular reason — truth about a cultural problem cannot be fully understood without a person seeing and immersing himself in it. How much more compelling and impactful is talking with a parent about how to help a classmate who lives in the park and cannot afford lunch versus reading an article about it on a website?

Real life experience is much more compelling, yet sadly, many teens are not connected or have no interest in knowing about local issues like the high cost of living or hotel strikes — what they are consumed with seems to be the images and propaganda on the cell phone screen they are looking at and not the local issues staring them in the face.

So did I stop my interrogation of the boys during that fateful lunch hour? Did I let them go on their way, forks in hand, rice and chicken on their plates?

No. Instead I leaned against the table where they sat and started a conversation with them about homelessness and what they see as they make the daily commute past Aala Park to the pristine school campus.

And we talked. We talked about little actions they could do the next time they drive past a man situated on the side of the road, begging for money.

And we talked. And talked. And we talked because social change can happen. The upcoming generations have the ability to make the neighborhoods and communities we live in places of security and joy and peace and fellowship, but we must prompt it.

We must ignite the fire within these young ones to see that there are issues they can change. And maybe, just maybe, with some guidance, some conversation, some care, that fire will catch and grow into an all-consuming flame.

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