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A great thing about teenagers - Tom Eblen

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A great thing about teenagers

by Tom Eblen

A great thing about teenagers is that if you ask them an honest question, you’re likely to get an honest answer. Unless, of course, you are their parent, but that’s another issue. 

As part of the “Our Breathitt” project, I taught a series of writing workshops to six classes at Jackson Independent and Breathitt County high schools. I didn’t know any of the students beforehand — although some of them are surely distant cousins. In many cases, I found their writing honest, thoughtful and perceptive about a place they obviously love. 

My last assignment for them was a “persuasive essay” or “argument piece.” I wanted the students to learn to express themselves by marshaling facts and well-reasoned opinions. I said I wanted them to write the kind of essay people would admire enough to share on social media. They could think of it as a “letter to the editor” or even as a newspaper column, like the kind I wrote for the Lexington Herald-Leader.  

Everyone has opinions, I told them. But unless they are rich or powerful, nobody will pay much attention to their opinions unless they can express them well enough to make people think. 

In previous assignments, the students interviewed elders about their memories of growing up in Breathitt County, and they reflected on positive qualities of their culture and heritage. Now, I wanted them to focus on a problem or challenge facing Breathitt County. I asked the students to choose a local issue they cared deeply about. Their essays were illuminating. I won’t name names, but I thought you might like to know what’s on their minds. 

Several students wrote about things you would expect from teenagers. There were concerns about local “school choice” — who can go to Jackson, who can go to Breathitt, and the politics behind those rules and boundaries. Others complained that there wasn’t much for teenagers to do in their free time, a common complaint in small towns. They lamented that the theaters, the skating rink and the public pool were long-gone. Jackson is surrounded by beautiful mountains, one boy wrote, but there are few hiking trails.  

Other students wrote about bullying, prejudice and discrimination against people who have different interests, religious beliefs, skin color or sexual orientation than most people in Breathitt County. 

Some students wrote about wanting more local job opportunities beyond fast-food restaurants — both as part-time work for them now and for future careers that would keep them in Breathitt County. Many students wrote about poverty and the need for more economic development, especially more locally owned businesses.  

“I believe that if Breathitt wants to keep most of its population,” one girl wrote, “then we need to have something here worth staying for.” 

Many students were bothered by how Jackson looks — and smells, because of the sewage treatment plant. There were complaints about litter and junk and abandoned property. One boy lamented the beautiful old buildings that are being “left to fall apart.”  

But the problem most students chose to write about was drug and alcohol abuse. Some quoted research and statistics, showing they had taken my advice about how to find facts to support their opinions. Others wrote more from the heart — and painful experience.  

Students reflected on the toll substance abuse is taking on Breathitt County’s families and children. They worried about drug-related crime, child abuse, domestic abuse and homelessness. “You can’t even go on a nice walk without coming across needles,” one girl wrote. 

Some students argued for more law enforcement and stricter rules on prescribing narcotics; most suggested more treatment options. Many saw the connections between substance abuse, poverty and the lack of good jobs. They described grandparents raising grandchildren and children whose parents have overdosed or gone through withdrawal. “No kid deserves to watch their parents do that,” a girl wrote. “Breathitt County is slowly falling apart because of this opioid crisis.” 

Several students noted the need for more adult leadership in the community. “People have to work together but I don’t see it happening any time soon,” one boy wrote. “I hate to feel this way because I and my family live here, but it’s the truth.”  

Is it the truth? How should adults work with engaged youth to make Breathitt County a better place to live? As one girl noted in her essay, “The youth today is tomorrow’s future.”

Tom Eblen is a journalist, writer and photographer recently retired as metro/state columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader.  He is descended from Samuel Haddix, one of Breathitt County’s earliest settlers.  

This column is brought to you by Our Breathitt, a community arts and health experience bringing together artists and Breathitt Countians from across Kentucky. Project is organized with IDEAS xLab (an artist-led nonprofit), and supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. Starting in August 2019, five collaborating writers, each with their own perspectives and ties to the county, will offer weekly columns and audio stories for radio and podcasts. Contact us at 859-397-1317 to join this conversation by leaving a voicemail with your response to the questions we raise and adding thoughts of your own! You may hear your responses incorporated into future posts and narratives! You can also email at ourbreathitt@gmail.com. We hope you will mark your calendars and join us at the Our Breathitt Summit, October 11-12 in Jackson, Kentucky. Information at www.ideasxlab.com/ourbreathitt