Like most teen-agers, I hate to be told what to do. I chafe at curfews, refuse to patronize restaurants that tell me what to wear and complain daily about the braces that my parents and dentist want me to have.
Yet I look forward to the "forced opportunity" for community service my high school requires. While criticism mounts against Maryland's action in becoming the first state to mandate students to perform 75 hours of community service over seven years, it is well to look at the experience of local school districts that have instituted similar programs.
For five years, every student at the Concord-Carlisle Regional High School in Massachusetts has been required to perform 40 hours of community service in order to graduate. Conventional wisdom would have us believe that this would be an especially burdensome task, perhaps an impossible one, for students who hold outside paying jobs. But the graduation requirement may be satisfied within the school by securing jobs as teacher's aides, library assistants or tutors. Outside school, the requirement may be met by working at hospitals, nursing homes, senior-citizen's centers, soup kitchens or for the town's park service or recreational department.
To be sure, it would be wonderful if students volunteered such service. But the great benefit of the mandated program is the responsibility it places on the school to work with community leaders to locate the places where students can best make a solid contribution. It is unrealistic to expect students to roam from place to place in search of service opportunities. Once the arrangements for those opportunities are made, the student needs only to decide which kind of service best fits his or her personality.
Those who oppose the community-service mandate fear it will interfere with the regular school curriculum. But what more important class can a student take than one that teaches values and responsibility? Is it better to require students to listen to long lectures about the plight of the elderly and homeless, or to have them provide hours of warmth merely by reading the newspaper a senior citizen.
Some say that schools should not be in the business of fostering civic concerns among its youth. But what more important role can a school play than in shaping values -- respect for the elderly, patience for those younger, compassion for those less fortunate -- among its young. These and related values used to be taught in the home. Now, they must be learned elsewhere, since we live in a world in which many families have two parents working long hours every day and many more have just a single parent.
There has been much talk about the decline of American society, the disintegration of the American family. Yet, when those who find pleasure in lecturing about this decline are faced with a solution that would help strengthen society, they fall back on the past. It is this negative attitude toward change that has caused the country to reach the point of such neglect.
Today, the passion and commitment that marked my parents' generation -- the 1960s -- is gone, replaced by an ominous silence. I listen to my parents talk of their experiences with the civil-rights movement, the sit-ins, the war on poverty, and I am impatient for the time when my own generation is similarly involved in the great public events of our day. Though 40 hours of community service is not very much, it is a beginning.
My abstract desire to participate became tangible this past spring. While on a class trip to the Science Museum in Boston, a group of students in my eighth-grade class were involved in an altercation with another group of students from a largely black school in Roxbury, a neighborhood near downtown. Taunts were exchanged, a fight broke out. It was unsettling.
The following week, teachers from both schools arranged a day-long meeting of a representative sampling of students at each school. The discussion that resulted was an extraordinary experience. As I listened to black students describe their stereotypes of whites in the suburbs, as I heard one black girl say she cried herself to sleep the night of the schools' fight in fear and frustration that racial relations would never improve, I realized how far America was from the ideals of equality and justice. If community service could help to bridge the gap between these ideals and reality, I will feel happy indeed.
Joe Goodwin is a freshman at Concord-Carlisle High School in Concord, Massachusetts. He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.