Teen heroes amaze, delight and kindle hope

Love 15: Coco Gauff beat Venus Williams, Alex Mann wowed Glastonbury, Greta Thunberg stood up to oil barons.

Do teenagers deserve more respect? The news is suddenly full of amazing young people, whose energy and idealism is taking the world by storm. So, how come adolescence has such a bad name?

Who are the greatest teenagers in history?

Joan of Arc, maybe, who was only 13 when she led the French army in a massive victory against the English at Orleans, making it possible for her king to regain his throne in 1429.

Or perhaps the young inventor Louis Braille (blind since the age of three) who, aged just 15, came up with the Braille alphabet in 1824, which has revolutionised the lives of millions of deaf and blind people to this day.

Or what about Mary Shelley, who wrote the classic novel, Frankenstein, in 1816 when she was still 18? Or Barbara Johns, who was 16 when she started a student strike over racially segregated schools in the USA?

Futile to compare. All are astonishing.

And now, this summer, a dazzling new clutch of teenage comets has burst upon a cynical world and cheered up a weary public. They have exhibited hard work, confidence, modesty and a powerful touch of genius.

Today, many papers pay tribute to the 15-year-old US tennis player, Coco Gauff, whose amazing run at Wimbledon came to an end when she was defeated by former world number one Simona Halep, 12 years her senior.

The American prodigy earned her place in the tournament as a wild card, setting the record as the youngest ever player to enter the main draw. Ranked 313th in the world, she saw off her idol, Venus Williams, on the competition’s first day.

This weekend, climate activist Greta Thunberg (still aged only 16) was back in the news, facing up to powerful oil industry chiefs who branded her climate change campaign the “greatest threat” to their profits.

Last Wednesday, 19-year-old Joao Félix signed the fifth-most lucrative football transfer in history.

Dubbed Portugal’s most exciting player since Cristiano Ronaldo, the striker’s £113m deal with Atletico Madrid has fast-tracked him straight into the record books.

On a lighter note, only a week ago, 15-year-old Alex Mann wowed Glastonbury with his star turn when he was plucked from the crowds by rapper Dave. His performance on the Other Stage has been viewed more than 2.5m times on YouTube, leading to an interview on Good Morning Britain, a potential modelling contract for BoohooMan and a personal appearance at a Newcastle nightclub.

And if that wasn’t enough, this Friday is the birthday of Malala Yousafzai, who was aged just 15 when Taliban gunmen boarded her school bus and shot her in the head. That didn’t stop her winning the Nobel Peace prize in 2014 and becoming the UN’s youngest ambassador for peace, at the same time as studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford.

Teen sheen?

Don’t worry, the gloss will soon wear off this story, say the sceptics. Here you are talking about people who are one in 10 million, the total exception to the rule. And the rule is that most teenagers are doomed to suffer the “awkward age” or adolescence, neither child nor adult, touchy, emotional, full of angst and self-importance.

Such unfair, negative stereotyping can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, argues Margaret Rooke, author of a recent book about teenagers. Teenagers don’t have to be famous to be amazing. Many are “everyday heroes: volunteers, social entrepreneurs, fundraisers, campaigners or simply young people making the right choices in difficult circumstances”. They are not yet world-weary or jaded by constant rejection. If they have a vision for the change they want to see, they are well-placed to articulate it. We should listen.

You Decide

  1. Is it great to be a teenager?
  2. Are the examples in this story inspiring or merely daunting?

Activities

  1. Who is a teenager you admire or regard as a role model? List three reasons why.
  2. What is one cause that you would like to be remembered for championing during your teenage years? Write three to four paragraphs explaining why it is so important to you.

Some People Say...

“Society has the teenagers it deserves.”

JB Priestley, English novelist (1894-1984)

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Young people have had a bad press. They stand accused of being prickly, over-sensitive snowflakes. It has been said that they are surly, reluctant to get up in the mornings and are obviously not as well-educated as their saintly, hard-pressed parents.
What do we not know?
How to account for Coco Gauff. The teenage tennis star has brought this year’s Wimbledon tournament to life. She has not only won against the odds and accepted defeat generously, but she also shows maturity and grace off the court (unlike a certain adult player: yes, Nick Kyrgios).

Word Watch

Orleans
The Siege of Orleans (12 October 1428 – 8 May 1429) was the watershed of the Hundred Years War between France and England. It was the French royal army’s first major military victory to follow the crushing defeat at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, and also the first while Joan of Arc was with the army.
Braille alphabet
Braille is a system that enables blind and visually impaired people to read and write through touch. It consists of raised dots arranged in “cells”. A cell is made up of six dots that fit under the fingertips, arranged in two columns of three dots each.
Frankenstein
Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus is a novel that tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a young scientist who creates a hideous creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment.
Student strike
On 23 April, 1951, 16-year-old Barbara Johns led her classmates in a strike to protest over the substandard conditions at Robert Russa Moton High School (now a museum) in Prince Edward County, Virginia, USA. The protest led to a court case that became one of five cases that the US Supreme Court reviewed when it declared school segregation unconstitutional.
Atletico Madrid
The main football club of Madrid, the capital of Spain.
Dave
David Orobosa Omoregie, known as Dave, is an English rapper, singer, songwriter, pianist and record producer.
Other Stage
Glastonbury Festival’s second-largest stage.
BoohooMan
A menswear collection and shop.

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