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At ENGAGE Conference Students Study Adulthood

Community members share their experience with students at Mount Vernon.

“Here I am,” said Dr. Douthard R. Butler, George Mason University Associate Athletic Director for Community Relations, “Go Mason.” “Here” was the Little Theatre at Mount Vernon High School. It was not, as Butler pointed out, Indianapolis, where the George Mason Patriots would be playing for a previously unimaginable trip to the finals of the NCAA Tournament. The game was scheduled for the same day as Mount Vernon’s ENGAGE Conference, and Butler had committed to being the key note, a commitment he felt was too important to break.

His task was to offer advice for young men and women poised between adolescence and adulthood. Teenagers who had studied years to pass standardized tests, but had not been given the same education on how to handle the responsibility of being a man or a woman.

Butler offered them a series of lessons. “The difference between stupidity and ignorance,” he said, goes back to “the British definition of ignorance – simply something you’re not aware of” and is not an insult. “There’s nothing wrong with being ignorant, but its pretty bad to be stupid – you’re aware of it but you do it anyway.”

He encouraged them to travel abroad and to appreciate democracy.

“Your job as I see it… is to develop a strong appreciation for the word ‘tolerance.’”

He often used his own life as an example. He told them he had dreamed of being a pilot since the age of five. He accomplished that dream by flying for the military. As a pilot: “Two elements that will not forgive you for making a mistake: the sea and the air.”

So many people spend so much time trying to figure out what death is. It’s behind you… don’t waste time looking over your shoulder for it.”

“Happiness is what everybody looks forward to but unfortunately life doesn’t run that way. Its like a piece of glass, broken into many pieces and strewn along the path of life. its only at the end when you’re able to put these pieces together. This is how I understand why my grandmother was able to sit in her chair, sit there with her eyes closed, and just rock and smile.”

About 60 students, many accompanied by their parents, attended the conference. Donna Piscitelli, Mount Vernon’s Director of Student Services, conceived of and organized the event after coming to the school last year. “My first concern was the dirty dancing kids did” at school dances, she said. “But when you turn on MTV, that’s what they see… On TV kids have their world defined by sexuality… You’ve got to smell right, look right, your body’s got to be perfect… that’s not the whole story… They need to go out into the world and live what they believe.”

She organized the conference with a panel of students drawn from every grade level, who would get together to do things like choosing topics and inviting speakers. They met once a month at first, then once a week as the conference drew closer.

Civic organizations in the community contributed money for the conference. “This couldn’t have happened except the schools, the civic organizations, and the community are totally working together to make this even possible for the kids.” Piscitelli said she had no trouble finding presenters. “I put it out there to the community and the workshops flooded in,” she said.

OCTAVIA MOORE, a student in charge of the publicity committee, was helping out with the conference for the second time. “It’s really helpful,” she said, “because I’m about to graduate and its helping me with my leadership skills.”

“It’s helping students to understand you can do whatever you put your mind to, and showing kids they can empower each other.”

Moore cited her experience at last year’s ENGAGE Conference, which was exclusively for female students as motivation to participate this year. “It made me feel some type of way just seeing all the ladies show up and embracing the education” on adult skills.

Cici Ward also gave her reasons for coming to the conference. “I came here to find my inner strength, I guess.”

Ryan Deneault, a sophomore, said that he would be attending the seminars “Good Preparation is Key to a Great Job Interview” and “Finding the Leader Within.” He said he saw the conference as “an opportunity to expand horizons.”

During the first fifty minute time period, Marilyn Wellington, the Director of the National League of Junior Cotillion, taught a class on how to be a lady. “We want to make sure we are coming across in positive way,” she told the class of half a dozen girls. She asked how many had had the experience of feeling “like an idiot” after arriving at an occasion either under- or over-dressed. She advised the young women to consult an etiquette book or call the hostess if they were ever unsure about the formality of an event.

Eileen McLaughlin, of Safe and Drug Free Youth, conducted a seminar entitled “Protect Your Reputation and Your Image.” She asked students whether they knew people whose social lives revolved entirely around being intoxicated. She said that many people post pictures on the Internet of themselves in compromising situations, such as the middle of an alcohol binge, then later come to regret allowing these pictures into the public domain. She said that many colleges and employers will search applicants’ names on the Internet to see whether any damaging information pops up. This information has usually been posted by the applicants themselves on sites such as myspace.com.

In his “Some People Call it Guts” seminar, retired General Dick Bowman was discussing Rosa Parks. He asked students to imagine what it was like to live in the Jim Crow South so that they could understand “why it was a courageous act on the part of the blacks to stand up to this unfair treatment… That’s another kind of courage,” he said, “That’s what we were talking about when we were talking about moral courage.”

Sam Proctor, a sophomore, was one of two students in the seminar. He had a question about Neil Armstrong, “Is he a very important person we should remember?”

Bowman replied that Armstrong’s willingness to ride a tiny craft perched atop thousands of pounds of ignited fuel into outer space in order to land on the surface of the moon “obviously demonstrated great physical courage, doing something you’ve never done before.”

Bowman addressed the complexity of guts. He stressed that having guts does not necessarily mean doing the right thing, citing the Nazi soldiers as an example. “You have got to have some moral judgments” along with courage, he said.

When Proctor revealed that he had a part-time job at Pizza Hut. Bowman told him that he too had held a part-time job in high school. He cleaned out cages in an animal hospital. “I was treated better than the [black] man who came in to clean up the offices. We became good friends. We were both doing menial labor,” but Bowman said, he had the chance to get out, while his friend did not.

“Think about these things,” he said, “Notice when somebody does something and you could say – ‘that took some guts.’ Don’t pass on a chance and think, “Why didn’t I do something?’” He said the he regretted not doing more during his service in World War II to protest the segregation of black and white soldiers.

He said that he taught the seminar, because “I was asked, and when you reach a stage in life when you are through all the career pressures and you reach a point where you think, ‘If I can give a little back, that’s the greatest thing I can do.”

Students “study subjects in school but they’re under all the pressure trying to get adjusted to the basic requirements of living and that really doesn’t get discussed much.” He said that he enjoyed preparing his lesson on courage. “Things came that I hadn’t thought of for 50 years – things that happened early in life that really set patterns.”

DURING THE SECOND PERIOD, Wellington taught four boys, “How to Be a Gentleman.” “Good manners are never optional. They are always mandatory,” she told them. “Manners are also very logical. Why you look at a table you can always figure out how to use the silverware.”

She said that 58 percent of first impressions are non-verbal. 30 percent are based on voice. And only 12 percent are based on what is actually said. She related this to a discussion of dress. The first rule of clothing, she said, is that “it should be clean.” Later she talked about hairstyles. “Make sure if it is long, it is clean and combed. If it’s short, just make sure it’s clean.” She had students practice good sitting postures, stressing the difference between pride or attitude, and confidence. When shaking hands, one’s grip should not be limp, she advised. And the double-handed clasp is “very inappropriate,” though not in Europe, where it would be followed by a male-male kiss. “Manners are coming back,” Wellington said.

James Martin, a George Mason University ambassador, listed various organizations college students could become involved with. He suggested Greek organizations as “a good opportunity for people who want to get to know a lot of different people.” He also described various cultural and spiritual organizations on the George Mason campus. “Be open to opportunity,” he said. “Be a visionary.”

Iris Beckwith discussed Internet safety. She said that sexual predators use two techniques while trying to find victims in online chat rooms. First they “mirror” the victim, telling the child what he or she wants to hear in order to establish a friendship. Once a relationship exists, the predator will begin “grooming” his victim, trying to subtly plant the idea that one day the two should meet in person.

Beckwith described the myriad ways that information about who you are, where you live, what your interests are and what you look like can be accessed on the web, particularly if you are not careful about setting privacy controls on your Internet chat features or you post information about yourself on web-log, or “blogging” websites.

“When young people click into things it launches them into a world it’s hard to get out of,” Beckwith said, citing an intriguing invitation from a stranger to click on his Internet messaging (IM) identity that was designed to appeal to curiosity of youths.

Lisa Carter drove up to attend the conference with her son, even though he attends West Springfield High School. She said she was disappointed more students from other schools in the area did not take advantage of the opportunity to attend the conference. “It’s unfortunate other kids didn’t come from other schools,” she said. “I came because they offered the workshop on the first six weeks of college. I believe it was very helpful. The presenter spoke to the kids in a way they could understand. That’s what we need.”

That presenter, Mike Andrews, left an impression on many of the ENGAGE participants. Andrews graduated from Mount Vernon in 1994. He is now an Assistant Dean of Students at Catholic University. “We didn’t have stuff like this 12 years ago,” he said. “I think the students need it. I like to present to students on their way to college.” When asked what he might have done differently with his first six weeks if he had been given some guidance beforehand, he responded, “There’s too many things. I would have been a little more focused. I was too sidetracked by the freedom.”