By Se Kim, 16, Pacifica Christian HS
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Se says that by knowing what’s going on in the world, teens can try to change things.

One day last summer I was in the car with my dad when we started talking about President George W. Bush. I criticized Bush for being a bad leader. I said jokingly, “If George Bush wants English to be the international language then he needs to learn to speak it properly.”

My dad laughed and said, “Bush has some flaws, but is a decent leader.”

I was stunned that he would call Bush a decent leader. He is worse than Herbert Hoover, who helped cause the Great Depression. I accused Bush of fraud by mentioning that the nation did not elect him as a president, but rather the 2000 election was decided by the Supreme Court and some of the judges had strong relationships with the Bush family. My dad struck back by calling Bush a “genius.” He mentioned the struggles Bush had to endure as president, such as the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina. He said Bush won two elections, which shows he’s popular among Americans. I was speechless. My dad was right and there was nothing to argue against. My dad laughed because he knew he had won.

My dad is conservative and I am a little more liberal. It’s fun when I debate him because he brings up different viewpoints that help me better understand the world.

My mom, who was in the back seat, asked me how I knew so much about Bush and current events. I said that I read articles in the newspaper or on the Web. Then I started thinking about it. I didn’t know how I got interested in current events. The question kept popping up in my head throughout the boring car ride. Before the car stopped I realized it was because of my seventh grade history and social justice teacher at Los Angeles Leadership Academy.

Although I took the class three years ago, I remember it vividly. We started class during sixth period, the hottest time of the day. Although everyone was exhausted from his or her other classes, we really liked the teacher, Shawn. He was down to earth, laughed a lot and treated his students like adults, like asking us to call him by his first name.

It wasn’t always like that. At the beginning of the year, the class was boring. We learned about ancient history, like Mesopotamia and hunters and gatherers. Then one day he talked to us about garment workers. It was odd because we usually started our class with a history lesson and I didn’t even know what a garment worker was. He gave us articles that told us about the challenges faced by garment workers—many who are illegal immigrants—like working long hours, being crowded into one room and getting paid less than minimum wage. I barely listened. I thought, who cares? They’re going to get a better job somehow.

One time at the end of class, Shawn told us that we were going to have a debate about garment workers. No one spoke because everyone was bored. We sat for three minutes staring at each other until the bell rang. Another time we took a field trip to a factory downtown where a speaker talked about the poor working conditions, but I wasn’t interested.

Illustration by Sarah Evans, 16, Temple City HS

Talking about current events in class was weird at first. I’d never thought about current events unless there was a huge issue going on, like Sept. 11th. But as time passed, I started to like the class. What really got me involved was the Iraq War, which began second semester. At first, the war was like all other battles I had studied, cool and funny. As a kid I had liked to see people get their heads chopped off when I watched movies about World War II. I didn’t take wars seriously.

A different perspective on the war

Before we started talking about it in class, I knew nothing about the war except that America was going to war with Iraq because it had weapons of mass destruction and was linked to Al Qaeda. I thought Bush was cool because he had lots of confidence. But Shawn showed me a different perspective by providing us with information about what happened to the Iraqi civilians once the war started. He even came up with bizarre, yet true, statistics about how with the money America spent on attacking Iraq, we could feed millions of starving people. Shawn helped me understand the seriousness of the war.

Shawn told us he was against the war. He said he felt there was a better way, to negotiate peace. He would say our tax dollars are like water—it’s getting wasted so fast.

He’d hand out articles from newspapers. A typical question was, how do you feel about how Bush is handling Iraq? I usually responded by criticizing Bush because the facts were so startling. I even demanded a change to the war. But I still trusted Bush because my parents liked him.

My favorite part was the debates. There were two sides—one for the war and the other for peace. There were rules, like only one person could speak at a time. Students would give their opinion and back it up with facts they learned from class. Some people felt that Saddam Hussein was really bad so we should attack Iraq, others felt we shouldn’t. Some would say Iraq has weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and others would say it doesn’t. I defended my opinion that we shouldn’t attack Iraq.

For most of second semester we discussed Iraq. For a while, we even covered an issue on Taco Bell. Taco Bell was taking advantage of farm workers by paying them only 45 cents per 32 pounds of tomatoes picked. In support of the workers we got our pickets and marched to a local Taco Bell, where we screamed “No quiero Taco Bell” (I don’t want Taco Bell).

At the end of seventh grade, I found out Shawn wasn’t returning to the school the next year. There was a rumor going around the school that he was fired by our principal. No one believed it at first, but we found out it was true when our principal discussed the situation in an all-school meeting. The principal wanted Shawn to teach more history. Shawn thought that since it was also a social justice class, there should be equal amounts. I was bummed out. He taught me a lot about the realities of life. I never thought there were people making very little money doing a lot of work. The discussions on the war in Iraq taught me that a lot of people had died and civilians had been the unintended victims. Shawn also taught me to think more intellectually. I learned to look at an issue from different perspectives, ask questions and judge what is morally right.

The newspaper was like a foreign language

After that, I started reading the newspaper when I was bored. I read the sports stories, the front page and sometimes the inside of the front section. It was hard to understand. I didn’t know that the stories jumped to another page. The beginning of the stories were easy but they got harder as I kept reading. They’d go back into history and I wouldn’t know what they were talking about. I had to look up vocabulary, like the word paradigm (values and assumptions about something). Sometimes I stopped reading an article. But as time progressed, more articles seemed to be good because I got used to the writing and watched more news on CNN so I knew what was going on. A few months later, suddenly, boom, I knew what they were talking about.

Se’s tips on how to read a newspaper

Se had trouble understanding newspaper articles at first, but it got easier once he got used to the writing and learned more about news events. Here are his suggestions for reading a newspaper:

• Attack it. If you’re not familiar with the topic, don’t know some of the vocabulary or there are references to things you don’t know about, read it slowly so you can understand it more. Don’t let an article scare you.
• If you don’t know a word, look it up in the dictionary.
• Read the topics you like, such as sports, entertainment or current events.

I read that there were no weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). As Shawn repeated in class, Bush lied about WMDs. I started to question Bush’s integrity because until then, I thought everything he said was true.

There were other stories in the news that caught my eye. I bought TIME magazine when there were interesting cover stories. I read one article that said 30 percent of students in America drop out of high school before graduating. What was surprising was that of the 30 percent that drop out, 50 percent have a passing grade. I freak out when I don’t get an A and to think of people dropping out of high school was surprising.

Reading news articles helps me understand the world. I enjoy talking to adults like my dad, my cousin and my teachers about current events. I can make fun of politicians, like Bush’s decisions and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s accent. Also, my scores in SAT prep class went up because my grammar and vocabulary got much better.

I recently wanted to get back in touch with Shawn, so I Googled him and found his home page at a MySpace-like Web site. I read through his page and decided to send him a message. I asked him why he taught current events and told him how I had changed my views. The next day Shawn e-mailed me back.

Shawn, who now lives in Seattle, said his main goals were to help students learn “that to understand our society we need to look beneath the surface and ask questions” and “that ultimately the kind of world we live in is not fixed by fate, but it is up to us.”

He also said, “I think if more schools had classes that encouraged students to ask questions about the way society works, that encouraged students to think about and act about issues of fairness and justice in their own lives and in their community, that we would soon create a much better world.”

The news does affect you

I feel everyone should know about world events. The decisions politicians make will affect you. For example, if there’s another war and the government starts a draft, you could get drafted. 

If enough people stand up for what is right, change can happen. For example, I feel the Bush administration is not doing enough about global warming. It’s letting companies use a lot of oil, which is destroying the atmosphere and polluting the environment. This issue makes me angry. I tried to help by joining the Recycling Club at my old school.

Growing up in a conservative family, we never talked about social justice. If it wasn’t for Shawn I would be like many kids, uninformed. But now that I am informed, I form my own opinion about what is right and what is wrong.

Click here to read teens’ tips on how they keep up with what’s going on in the world.