One benefit to being a Presbyterian minister is having lengthy summer vacations. When I go back to work, I’m asked the same question I was asked as a student - “What did you do on your holiday?”. In some ways not much has changed. In other ways, much has.
This summer I spent seventy hours on my computer, reading essays written by teenagers from around the world. These pieces were submitted to The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition, a competition which has been administered by the Royal Commonwealth Society since 1883. The reference to Her Majesty was added in 2015, the year of her Diamond Jubilee and The Queen is the Society’s patron.
This year’s competition theme was “A Connected Commonwealth”. I read essays from 28 of the 53 commonwealth nations, from India and Sierra Leone to Canada and the Solomon Islands. Most chose to write about the Internet and how social media brings them together. They talked about their many “friendships” with kids from around the world whom they have met online. One young man - a true entrepreneur – discussed how he started an e-commerce store in his native country of Malaysia and sold his mother and aunts’ handicrafts. Not only did he supplement the family income, he made more money than his father. However, he has since sidelined the business to concentrate on his studies. He wants to be an engineer.
These teens also know of the dangers of chatrooms and the like. I read every word of a 16 year old girl’s haunting account of how she was almost the victim of human trafficking. She was lured online to consider working in another city where she was told she would make enough money to support her kin. Fortunately, this young woman also knew of the dangers of sexual exploitation. She never kept her appointment with the future “employer.”
Other kids wrote about the pollution of the world’s oceans and about sustainable growth for a better tomorrow. These young people see the devastation of years of waste and neglect and they are committed to cleaning up the waters and land. They knew their statistics and they have been educated about ways to save the environment.
Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, told a gathering of Commonwealth youth that they “are the most optimistic, connected generation the world has ever known”. They are. These essays confirmed this for me.
In saying this, I must also add that not all of the entries were stellar. I read a lot of words like “should,” “must,” and “ought” - 15 year olds can sound very preachy and my generation got a thorough telling off. Other kids drifted off on tangents about themselves and their families, their dogs and their teachers. Most of it was neither readable nor on topic. I also read some really bad poetry.
Yet they tried and I commend them for it. Everyone will get a certificate of participation. Some will get a bronze, silver or gold seal. All their parents will be so very proud of them.
Every once in a while, just as I was about to and turn off the computer, I would discover a piece that filled me with hope. These young people have plans for the future of their countries, the Commonwealth, the oceans and the planet. Their dreams are grand, as dreams should be when one is young and filled with energy. They belong to a generation where a young girl in Pakistan can share her experiences with another young woman in Africa, Canada, or Australia simply by turning on a smart phone. They can converse and learn together. Regardless of country, they belong together.
These essays also brought me back to my youth. They made me remember my dreams and hopes. Some of them fulfilled, others not. This will probably be the case for these children as they look back. However, they are dreaming with more clarity and vision than I did 40 years ago.
It was tough to select just a few to be considered by the panel. I do not envy their job. From the best submissions, they have the task of awarding the top prizes in each category. Award winners will go to Buckingham Palace to receive their awards from the Duchess of Cornwall. They will spend a week in London and will have a chance to learn more about the Commonwealth and their connections to one another.
So this year when people ask me what I did on my summer vacation, I will say I travelled the globe. From Barbados to Bangladesh I went, stopping off in Cyprus and Nigeria. Not only did I connect with 200 young people from across the Commonwealth, I connected with a bit of myself from years gone by.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Commonwealth Society.