Lankenau seniors

Lankenau High School graduating seniors, from left, Ricardo A. Montiero III, James Jackson, Taylor Peoples and Yuliana Rengifo.

On Friday, May 31, some 76 high school seniors from Lankenau High School, the school district’s environmental science magnet school on Spring Lane in Upper Roxborough, will march down the aisle at the Keswick Theater in Glenside to graduate and receive their diplomas.

Last week, I had the absolute pleasure of sitting down with four of them, talking about their high school experiences, and hearing them discuss the state of the world they are marching into. I found them sharp, thoughtful, funny – and a little scared about what’s next for them.

None of the four came to Lankenau because of its environmental science program, interestingly. All came because it was recommended by others –counselors, for example, and eighth-grade teachers – most attracted to the small size. But the environment has grown in importance to them.

James Jackson, for example, a 17-year-old senior from North Philly, has been “helping with the botany club,” one of the core programs of the high school, “and it helped me realize how much of a green thumb I have – we grow cucumbers, pumpkins, lettuce, potatoes, squash, herbs like lavender …” and the rest of the group began throwing out names of other plants they grow on the campus. James wants to be a game designer, with a career in the environment as his fallback – and he’s undecided about where to head to college next year.

Yuliana (pronounced “Juliana”) Rengifo, 19, a senior from the the Northeast who will be heading to Rutgers Camden in the fall to study international business, says “the environment will not be my major, but a hobby. I was in the botany club in 10th grade,” she says and currently helps her mom grow plants at home. “I know how to grow plants right off the bat,” she said proudly, “and how to maintain them.”

Ricardo A. Montiero III, 18, a senior from West Oak Lane who is heading to LaSalle for computer sciences, offered that he’s taking his Lankenau skills home too, as “me, my father, and my stepmom are really into herbs and growing them - that’s something we will be doing in the future.”

Nineteen-year-old Taylor Peoples, a senior from the Northeast who will attend Penn State Abington to study psychology and social sciences, noted “I did my Senior Exit Project on climate change-- it’s a big thing. We’ve only got to 2050,” she said, referring to key studies that use that date for modeling purposes. “That’s crazy. I want to live here a long time-- I feel like people know about climate change, but they aren’t taking action.”

She would be right.

“We have too many short-term goals,” thought Ricardo, and not enough long-term goals. The process of moving from nonrenewable resources to renewable ones is hard. Our generation is struggling, our kids will be worse, and their kids…” and his voice trailed off.

“Even though I live in a technology era,” Yuliana said, “I’m not a fan of technology –  it just messes us up,” and the other digital natives all surprisingly agreed.

“Society was more successful before technology was a real thing,” concluded James. “I personally think we need another Ice Age, to reset the world,” and the group agreed again, going into a short digression about the plight of polar bears, poster children for the changing climate. “The polar bear is about to go extinct,” summed up James.

“I still have some hope,” said Ricardo. “There are people out there trying – but there has to be a greater outcry. If people and government are not on the same page, there will never be unity.”

Taylor chimed in, “We all have to take a part, and move together on the same page. We need to move as one.”

“People are trying to do something,” agreed Yuliana. “As I grow up, I plan to do more –  start an organization to help the world.” She wants to move to Europe and “learn a lot of languages.” Maybe she’ll start her nonprofit there.

“What will graduation be like for you all?” I asked. “Bittersweet,” replied Ricardo, and they all agreed. “We’ve all been here for four years, have learned so much, gone through so much. Now we go out into the real world to learn …”

“And pay bills,” added Taylor, and the group cracked up. “It’s like the real world has been a movie,” she continued, “and we’ve been in the audience watching. Now we’re a part of the movie. We’re in the cast.”

They are graduating into a fast-changing, climate-challenged world that completely lacks unity. But if this foursome represents the future, we’ll be fine.

Best wishes to them, the other seniors at Lankenau, and all seniors across the region graduating soon. Godspeed.

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough, can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org, and tweets @SCEEMike.

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