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A Constitution for Teenage Happiness Ruby LaRocca

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Photo illustration by Laura Weiler for The Free Press

Back in June, when we announced our first-ever high school essay contest, we invited teenagers to describe a problem troubling American society—and how they would fix it. We told young writers that we were especially interested in hearing about challenges older generations have misunderstood, missed, or maybe even created. 

More than 400 teenagers entered our competition. Yesterday we introduced you to two promising young writers: Caleb Silverberg, 17, who wrote “Why I Traded My Smartphone for an Ax” and Isabel Hogben, 16, who wrote “I Had a Helicopter Mom. I Found Pornhub Anyway.” 

But out of the hundreds of essays we read, one writer really stood out: 17-year-old Ruby LaRocca from Ithaca, New York. 

Ruby is a homeschooled rising senior. She told us she entered the contest because she believes in our mission of finding “the people—under the radar or in the public eye—who are telling the truth.” In addition to a lifetime subscription to The Free Press, Ruby’s essay has won her a $2,000 cash prize.

The Free Press high school essay contest winner Ruby LaRocca.

When we tried to reach Ruby to tell her about her win, she gave us the number for her mother’s cell phone because she doesn’t have one of her own. And when we asked her to respond to some of our edits, she said she’d tackle them as soon as she was done “putting in 15-hour days at a Latin program. I translated about 500 lines of the poet Propertius today!” 

All of which is to say: Ruby lives by her ideals, as you will see below. We look forward to seeing what she does next and we’re sure you’ll understand why. —BW 

When people ask me why I sacrificed the sociable, slightly surreal daily life at my local school for the solitary life of a homeschooled student in 2021, I almost never reveal the reason: an absence of books.

For many students, books are irrelevant. They “take too long to read.” Even teachers have argued for the benefits of shorter, digital resources. Last April, the National Council of Teachers of English declared it was time “to decenter book reading and essay writing as the pinnacles of English language arts education.” 

But what is an English education without reading and learning to write about books? 

Many of our English teachers instead encouraged extemporaneous discussions of our feelings and socioeconomic status, viewings of dance videos, and endless TED Talks. So five days into my sophomore year, I convinced my mother to homeschool me.

Distance from high school affords a clearer view of its perennial problems. As I head into my final year of homeschooling, I often think about the dilemma in American education, which perhaps should be called the student crisis (it’s also a teacher crisis). Students and teachers are more exhausted and fragile than they used to be. But reducing homework or gutting it of substance, taking away structure and accountability, and creating boundless space for “student voices” feels more patronizing than supportive. The taut cable of high expectations has been slackened, and the result is the current mood: listlessness.

Like human happiness, teenage happiness does not flourish when everyone has the freedom to live just as they please. Where there is neither order nor necessity in life—no constraints, no inhibitions, no discomfort—life becomes both relaxing and boring, as American philosopher Allan Bloom notes. A soft imprisonment.

So, here is my counterintuitive guide for teenage happiness:

#1. Read old books.

In Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, the profoundly human (i.e., imperfect) teacher, Hector, reminds his students that “The best moments in reading are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

Today’s teachers and students talk a lot about “relatability”; they want to see their own lives and experiences reflected in the books they read. I, however, am electrified when a book gives me the feeling Hector brilliantly describes—words from someone who is not at all like me, from a very different time and place, yet speaks words that feel written just for me.

Books that are “representative,” that are more easily “absorbed,” undermine the main reason to read them: to push readers beyond themselves in uncomfortable and productive ways.

Bloom wrote about the disappearance of books from our educational lives back in 1987. Books, he argued, “are no longer an important part of the lives of students. ‘Information’ is important, but profound and beautiful books are not where they go for it. They have no books that are companions and friends to which they look for counsel, companionship, inspiration, or pleasure. They do not expect to find in them sympathy for, or clarification of, their inmost desires and experiences.” 

The worst part is that we students are blind to the extent of our loss.

#2. Memorize poetry. Learn ancient languages.

In another scene from The History Boys, one English schoolboy preparing for Oxbridge entrance exams, Timms, asks Hector why they are reading the poetry of A. E. Housman instead of doing something “practical.” 

Timms: I don’t always understand poetry!

Hector: You don’t always understand it? Timms, I never understand it. But learn it now, know it now, and you will understand it. . . whenever.

Timms: I don’t see how we can understand it. Most of the stuff poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet.

Hector: But it will, Timms. It will. And then you will have the antidote ready!

Like Timms, I sometimes don’t understand what I’m learning or memorizing when I study poetry, but I believe Hector when he says it prepares us for the very real events of the world—going to war, falling in love, falling out of love, making a friend, losing a friend, having a child, losing a child. 

Understanding ancient authors as they understood themselves is the surest means of finding alternatives to our current way of seeing the world. It is what Bloom calls one of the most awesome undertakings of the mind. The first step to reading ancient authors is learning ancient languages—Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Old English. I have found the work of learning languages and the difficult art of translation to be the most taxing and pleasurable method of training my brain, combining technical rigor with poetic insight. It doesn’t matter if all the hours you spend studying gerundives, middle-passives, and semi-deponents seem to offer no immediate service. Learn them. It will serve you in a way you don’t yet know.

#3. Learn from the monks, and slow your pace—of reading, of writing, of thinking.

Someone once told me that I look like Martin Luther—you know, the sixteenth-century German clergyman who called for reformation in the Catholic Church. This comment referred to my bangs, which are somewhat short and monastic. I think it’s funny that my hairstyle echoes my lifestyle. I wake up at 6:00 a.m., work alone for many hours on subjects that seem arcane—Latin, German, applied mathematics—spend more hours caught up in an actual printed book, and get to bed at a very reasonable, grandmotherly hour (we have a family saying that “nothing good happens after 9:07 p.m.”). 

I used to think speed equaled competence. If you’re a motivated student, you may find yourself on the “accelerated” track. Instead of learning things that challenge you, you are simply rushed through the curriculum, “covering” concepts at a faster rate than your peers. Since I transitioned to homeschool, I never move on from a problem or subject before I am ready. I find knowing that I truly understand something—or at least, have spent time trying to know it, thus expanding my mind—far more rewarding than the fleeting frisson of being the first to finish.

#4. Learn how to conduct yourself in public.

It all begins with knowing how to arrange your face when having conversations with real, living people. No one wants to talk to someone who has a slack jaw and glazed eyes, who yawns openly, who doesn’t laugh at jokes or nod in recognition. Too many Zoom school sessions involved speaking into a void of faceless boxes.

So for my seventeenth birthday, I threw an intergenerational celebration of First World War–era poetry. I labored lovingly on a historically accurate chocolate cake modeled on the trenches and the waste of No Man’s Land. When I told my best traditional high school–aged friend to come with her favorite war poem, she said sarcastically, “It will be so hard to choose.” I invited my favorite teachers, family members, and friends of my parents. A little weird, but it was a great party, and the conversation flowed.

Part of learning how to conduct yourself in public is learning how to interact with people of different ages and experiences—who read different books, watch different shows, and grew up in a different time than you. 

#5. Dramatically reduce use of your phone.

The final key to being a happy teenager is to do away with the “machine for feeling bad,” as we call it in my house. Seriously, walk away from your phone. You’ve seen the statistics, you’ve read the Jonathan Haidt articles, and you’ve watched that Netflix documentary with Tristan Harris. You know it’s bad for you. 

But let’s make it more concrete. Having a phone in your pocket is like always carrying around a glazed donut that constantly tempts you to snack on it—but if you do, you know it will ruin your appetite.

Sure, the phone is a good way for people to get hold of you—just like smearing yourself with blood before you go swimming in shark-infested waters is a good way for sharks to reach you. Now how appealing is that?

My roommates at Latin summer school, a group of some of the kindest and sanest teenagers I have ever met, agree that most of their friends are unhappy and anxious. 

“I wish there were higher standards for us,” said one. Another declared, “I wish we had higher expectations for what we learn.” Teenagers actually crave self-guided, unstructured time and the kind of rigor in school that makes you feel energized, not enervated. 

My suggestions for teenage happiness are, I know, unlikely to appeal to the intended demographic. And yet I hope my peers will hear me: if you choose to take on three out of five of these precepts, I guarantee your heart will stop sinking. 

If you support our mission of nurturing the next generation of independent journalists, become a Free Press subscriber today:

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Also: We’re hosting our first live debate on September 13 at the Ace Theatre in Los Angeles! Has the sexual revolution failed? Come argue about it and have a drink. We can’t wait to meet you in person. You can purchase tickets now at thefp.com/debates.

 

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Iran Comes Out of the Shadows Bari Weiss

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Iranians celebrate Iran’s attack against Israel in downtown Tehran, Iran. (Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Over the past 24 hours, the war that has raged in the Middle East since October 7 took on a new dimension.

In a historic first, Iran directly attacked Israel from its own territory—launching more than 300 drones and missiles toward Israel.

As Free Press columnist Matti Friedman writes today from Jerusalem: “Like a flash going off in a dark room, the attack has finally given the world something valuable: a glimpse of the real war in the Middle East.”

Tehran’s strike on Israel—who thankfully had defensive help from the U.S., Britain, France, Jordan, and reportedly Saudi Arabia—should make clear, for those still in doubt, that this war is not about Gaza, or even about Israel and a single Iranian proxy in Hamas. It is about Iran.

“The importance of last night’s barrage was that for the first time, the full Iranian alliance gave us a practical demonstration of its scope, orchestration, and intentions,” Matti writes. “If you’d been watching from space, you probably could have seen the lines of this new Middle East etched in orange and red across the map of the region.”

READ MATTI FRIEDMAN HERE.

Some Americans understand that clearly—and aren’t condemning it, but cheering it on. Our Olivia Reingold found herself at a conference of anti-war activists in Chicago on Saturday. Activists were taught how to chant “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” in Farsi. Watch:

And, when news of the attack broke, the crowd cheered and burst into chants of “Hands off Iran.” 

READ OLIVIA’S DISPATCH HERE.

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April 13, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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Michael Oren: How Did the War Begin? With Iran’s Appeasers in Washington Michael Oren

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Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. As Iranian provocations have mounted, the Biden administration has refrained from holding Tehran accountable. (Photo by Andrew Harnik/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — Historians writing years from now about the Middle East conflagration of 2024 will undoubtedly ask, “When did it all begin?” Some will point to the Bush administration which, demoralized by its inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, rejected Israel’s entreaties to take out Iran’s then-inchoate nuclear program in 2008.

Others might cite Israel’s willingness to play by the mullahs’ rules, retaliating against their Hezbollah and Hamas proxies rather than against Iran itself, enabling it to emerge from each round of fighting utterly unscathed. 

But the bulk of the blame, fair historians will likely agree, will have to fall on the policies of those in Washington who sought to appease Iran at almost any price and ignore its serial aggressions.

Those policies began in the week after President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. In one of the forty-fourth president’s first acts of foreign diplomacy, Obama sent an offer of reconciliation to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. That June, in his historic Cairo speech, Obama became the first president to refer to Tehran’s regime as the Islamic Republic of Iran—legitimizing the oppressive theocracy—and stood aside while that republic’s thugs beat and shot hundreds of Iranian citizens protesting for their freedom.

Over the next four years, the White House ignored a relentless spate of Iranian aggressions—attacks against U.S. Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf; backing for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups dedicated to America’s destruction; and barely disguised efforts to undermine pro-Western Middle Eastern governments.

At the same time, Iran supported Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s mass slaughter—often with poison gas—of his own countrymen. Obama had declared Syria’s use of chemical weapons as “a red line” that would have “enormous consequences” on America’s involvement in the war. It didn’t.

In Washington, the administration overlooked an Iranian attempt to assassinate the Saudi and Israeli ambassadors (including me) and ended a federal investigation of a billion-dollar Hezbollah drug and arms trafficking ring in the United States. Most egregiously, Iran constructed secret underground nuclear facilities and developed an intercontinental ballistic missile delivery system that threatened the entire Middle East and much of Europe.

Why would any White House, even one devoted to rebuilding America’s relationship with the Islamic world, seek rapprochement with such a regime? 

At the time, there were multiple reasons. First, there was the desire of the United States, tired of Middle Eastern wars and no longer dependent on Arab oil, to withdraw from the region and focus on the Far East. Next, there was the belief that the U.S. had traditionally relied on its Sunni and Israeli allies only to discover that Sunnis perpetrated 9/11 and Israelis defied American policy in the West Bank. The Iranians, stronger, modern, and open to the West—so many American policymakers concluded—offered a better alternative if only their leadership were assuaged. Lastly, and ultimately most decisively, was the Iranian nuclear program, a burgeoning strategic threat that the White House refused to interdict by military means.

The nuclear agreement reached in 2015 between the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, Germany, and Iran—euphemistically called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—had three major objectives: to block Iran’s path to the bomb, ensure that Iran became what Obama called “a responsible regional power,” and, failing that, to kick the “nuclear can” down the road. The first two goals proved illusory. 

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei adjusts his eyeglasses after casting his ballots during the parliamentary and key clerical body elections at a polling station in Tehran on March 1, 2024. (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

Rather than block Iran’s path to the bomb, the agreement solidly paved it by allowing Iran to retain most of its nuclear infrastructure and to continue producing ever more advanced centrifuges capable of reducing Iran’s breakout time to mere weeks. The deal put no meaningful restrictions on Iran’s missile delivery systems or its clandestine weapons programs. And even then, the largely cosmetic limitations were set to expire in less than a decade. Well before that time, though, Iran harnessed the deal’s financial and strategic rewards to expand its sphere of influence across Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. So much for the responsible regional power.

In 2018, President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, reinstated punishing sanctions on Iran, and retaliated for Iranian attacks against Americans, indicating a different approach to the issue, but that policy proved short-lived. A centerpiece of Joe Biden’s 2019 presidential campaign was his pledge to restore America’s adherence to the JCPOA. No sooner had the Democrats regained the White House than the Iranians began to violate the agreement on a massive scale, gradually achieving military nuclear threshold capacity.

Of the original motivations for the deal—blocking Iran’s path to the bomb and transforming Iran into a peaceful nation—neither remained. All Biden was left with was the ability to kick the can down the road and to uphold Obama’s singular foreign policy achievement.

As the Iranian centrifuges spun, the Biden administration entered into intense negotiations to renew the JCPOA. The talks were headed by Robert Malley, who was evicted from the Obama campaign in 2008 for meeting with Hamas. Under Biden, Malley became America’s special envoy to Iran, but he was recently ousted for mishandling sensitive information. Though the initiative to reinstate the deal eventually failed, the U.S. still provided Iran with at least $10 billion in funds that had been frozen, and reportedly much more than that in quiet sanction relief. 

Meanwhile, the Iranian provocations mounted. An ally of Russia, Iran provided thousands of offensive drones and long-range missiles used to kill America’s allies in Ukraine. Since the start of the war against Hamas, Iranian proxies have launched more than 170 attacks against U.S. military bases in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan, and all but blocked international shipping through the strategically crucial Bab al-Mandeb Strait. 

Still, the U.S. refrained from retaliating against Iran directly, or even holding it publicly responsible. When, in January, three American soldiers were killed by a drone strike by an Iranian-backed militia, the U.S. struck back at the militia and not at the country—or even the factory—that produced the bomb. 

Then, on Sunday, a historic first: Tehran directly attacked Israel from its territory with hundreds of drones and missiles.

Historians will survey this inexplicable record and wonder how the United States not only allowed Iran to repeatedly assault its citizens, soldiers, and allies but consistently rewarded it for doing so. They may well conclude that in a desperate effort to avoid getting dragged into a regional Middle Eastern war, the U.S. might well have precipitated one. 

While America’s friends in the Middle East, especially Israel, have every reason to feel grateful for the vital assistance they received in intercepting Iran’s missile and drone onslaught, they might also ask what the U.S. can now do differently to deter Iran from further aggression. Press reports about President Biden’s refusal to support an Israeli counterattack against Iran indicate, sadly, that nothing substantial in the U.S. position has changed. He has reportedly urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to see the coordinated response to the attack as a “win.”

The Iranians, though, will not see things that way. Tehran will see this weekend’s direct attack on Israel as a victory—their own—for their ability to continue threatening Israel and destabilizing the Middle East with impunity. If Israel follows Biden’s advice it will send one message to the ayatollahs: “You can launch another 350 missiles and drones at Israel or try to kill Israelis by other means. Either way, the United States won’t stop you.” 

Israel, of course, must respond differently. Our target cannot simply be the Iranian proxies that surround our country and that have waged war on us since October 7, but, as the Saudis call it, “the head of the snake.”

The story of America can end only one of two ways: either it stands up boldly against Iran and joins Israel in deterring it, or Iran emerges from this conflict once again unpunished, undiminished, and ready to inflict yet more devastating damage.

Michael Oren, formerly Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Knesset member, and deputy minister for diplomacy in the Israeli prime minister’s office, is the author of the Substack publication Clarity.

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