Why October is Youth History Month
The contributions of youth to our history are great, but they are greatly overlooked. Consider some of the children and teenagers who shaped our world but have been pushed out of the history books.
At age 16, Barbara Johns made the most dramatic contribution to the American Civil Rights Movement. She took over her black high school and shut it down, leading to the legal crisis that wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court as Brown v. Board of Education, the case that ended legal segregation in America.
Sybil Ludington's ride
Other parts of our history have been equally influenced by youth. Eliza Lucas (later Eliza Lucas Pinckney) was 16 when she took over her father's South Carolina plantation and made such brilliant decisions, she soon became one of the wealthiest business leaders in the American colonies. Her leadership enriched the colonies by boosting trade, and she later put her support behind the American Revolution. So great was her importance to our nation that when she died, no less than George Washington asked to be a pallbearer at her funeral.
Teachers told you endlessly about the midnight ride of Paul Revere, but did they ever tell you of the similar ride by Sybil Ludington? At 16, Ms. Ludington rode twice the distance Revere did — through a rainstorm no less — charging her horse over roads of mud to warn the countryside that Red Coats were sacking Danbury, Connecticut, seizing the foothold they would need to retake the colonies. Ludington alerted militia men, and the militia was able to stop the invasion, chasing the Red Coats back to their ships.
Shaping Our Culture
Youth have contributed as well to our rich cultural history. Horror novels were changed forever when a teenaged Mary Shelley penned Frankenstein (and in the process, invented the genre we now call "science fiction"). Young Adult novels were changed even more radically when 15-year-old S.E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders. These books are well-remembered, but the youth of the authors is often kept quiet, like some dirty secret.
One example of the ignorance this causes surfaced when a conservative columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle tried to ridicule a school board for proposing that English classes include literature by racial minorities, literature that might offer more appeal to minority students. Columnist Debra J. Saunders attacked this by drawing it out to its logical conclusion: "Since kids can only relate to books that address their lives, they should only be expected to read stuff written by other kids." She went on to explain this would be silly because "it limits the reading list" to four authors: 1) Anne Frank, 2) Drew Barrymore (who apparently wrote an autobiography after her career as a child actor dried up), 3) Rimbaud, and 4) Teen People. (Note to Debbie: Teen People is not written by teenagers; if it were, it would not have the dreaded word "teen" in the title.) (1)
The publishing industry has always been dominated by adults prone to trivialize youth. Despite this obstacle, dozens of children and teenagers have broken into print, and Drew Barrymore is hardly among the four most significant. The list of young authors includes Tennessee Williams (16 when he wrote "The Vengeance of Nitocris"), Edith Wharton (15 when she completed Fast and Loose), Jane Austin (14 when she wrote Love and Friendship), Phillis Wheatley (12 when she wrote her famous poems), and Jorge Luis Borges (9 when he wrote his Spanish translation of Oscar Wilde's "The Happy Prince") among others.
For centuries, of course, the blind could not enjoy literature by authors of any age. That changed in 1824 when 15-year-old Louis Braille created the Braille writing system. A student at Paris's Royal Institution for Blind Youth, Louis Braille taught his tactile writing method to his peers, who quickly embraced it.
Louis Braille tried to share his invention with teachers, too. The sighted teachers not only refused to learn Braille writing, many actually banned their students from using it, claiming the paper-punching note-taking was noisy and disruptive. Such an attitude should not have been surprising in a boarding school whose director once wrote:
All blind people have a decided taste for independence and liberty. Nothing, however, is more contrary to their real interests than the use of a thing which they could only abuse. The art of those, therefore, who are with them, consists less in satisfying them than in making them believe they are satisfied.
Despite the ban, these blind students found Braille writing so liberating they kept using it — even in the face of corporal punishment and food-deprivation — with older students teaching it to younger ones when sighted adults were not watching. Teachers and administrators could not suppress it; they could not make the students believe that illiteracy was satisfying. So administrators finally caved in and adopted the Braille writing system for the school.
Braille writing spread quickly to other schools for the blind, and throughout the world it opened doors of literacy and independence to millions. Helen Keller later wrote, "Braille ... made my going to college possible — it was the only method by which I could take notes... I use Braille as a spider uses its web — to catch thoughts that flit across my mind for speeches, messages and manuscripts." Millions more have enjoyed the same benefits of Braille.
Revolutionizing Math and Science
Math, too, has been shaped by youth. Mathematician Évariste Galois was 20 when he died in a duel, but he had lived long enough to create an entire branch of algebra.
Another mathematician, Carl Friedrich Gauss, made his first contribution while still in elementary school. His teacher attempted to punish him once by ordering him to take all the numbers from one to one-hundred and add them together. Rather than sweat over this task, the boy produced the correct answer in seconds by concocting the mathematical formula scientists now use routinely to solve any such arithmetic series.
These examples are far from isolated. Mathematics has been so shaped by children and teenagers that many mathematicians now believe if you have not made a significant contribution by age 25, you never will.
When Not Forgotten, Misremembered
Just as shameful as omitting the contributions of youth perhaps is mischaracterizing them. During the romanticized period of American history known as the Old West, one figure towered above the others. Billy the Kid was the one gunfighter who actually earned his fame. Others became legends because they were good at public relations. Jesse James wrote press releases magnifying his crimes. Wild Bill Hickock became famous when he murdered three defenseless farmers (because one made fun of Hickock's large lips), then lied, claiming they had attacked him with guns and he had single-handedly fought them off. Billy the Kid, an outlaw, lied the other way, claiming he was just a farmer who had done nothing worthy of note.
Filmmakers, novelists, and even the authors of shoddier "non-fiction" have tried their best to tear the Kid down. Often they portray Billy the Kid as a psychotic killer, giggling as he guns down helpless victims.
But historians who have examined the evidence and sifted fact from fantasy have found the truth very different. Of the gunfighters who became famous in the Wild West, Billy the Kid was probably the most humane. Outside of the Lincoln County War, the Kid is known to have killed four men, all in self-defense.
During the Lincoln County War, while his side was under the command of older men, the Kid did his share of the shooting, but no more than his share. (Not one person was killed by Billy the Kid acting alone.) Eventually the Kid took leadership as he overcame his older companions' ageism through many displays of cleverness and courage. Once in command, the Kid changed the tactics. He never once led his side in a violent attack, choosing instead to hit the enemy economically by stealing their unguarded livestock. While Billy the Kid did not start this range war, he was the man who initiated the peace process, sending out feelers to the opposing leadership and finally sitting down with them to forge an agreement.
Responsible and restrained, a warrior when needed but peaceful when possible: that was the real Billy the Kid. Historians know this, but the general public does not.
Why is youth history so widely unknown? Historians admit they are reluctant to examine the work of young people, fearing others will trivialize such research. We need Youth History Month to awaken people, to help them see that the contributions of youth are not trivial, nor are the possibilities for youth today.
If you are still in school, ask your history teacher to talk about Johns and Pinckney. Ask your English teacher to discuss Shelley and Hinton, your algebra teacher, Galois and Gauss. If your teachers don't know of these great figures, educate them.
If you are a teacher, talk about youth history. Experience has shown that students get more interested in learning when people their age are not omitted from the subject matter.
October is a month for us to recognize there are no age-limits on making history. And there should be no age-limits on being remembered and honored.