Teenagers Who Changed the World

This week’s blog is written by Artistic Content Curator Audrey Zielenbach.


Dria Brown in Saint Joan

In 1920, after centuries of being regarded as France’s own patron saint, Jeanne D’Arc (or as she’s better known in English: Joan of Arc) was canonized as a Saint by Pope Benedict XV. Joan’s name is familiar to most of us; she has reached mythological status as the teenager who heard the voices of saints and angels. What is it about Joan’s story that has been so enduring? I think, in part, it almost sounds unbelievable but when you really think about it, is it so hard to believe that a teenage girl from no extraordinary upbringing could become a leader who effected change, become reviled for doing so, and still be remembered centuries after the fact? Or was Joan simply the first in a long line of people who would follow in her footsteps?

Throughout history right up until today, teenagers have proven themselves to be venerable agents of change, oftentimes completely by chance. Like Joan before them, here are 5 teenagers who changed the world:

1. Anne Frank
“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”

All Anne Frank did was keep a diary. She could never have known the ripples her words would have, that her name and life would be known to students across Europe and the US for decades after her death. Anne was just 16 years old when she died at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. Since it was discovered, The Diary of a Young Girl has been translated into more than 60 languages and Anne has inspired thousands to stay hopeful even in humanity’s darkest hours.

2. Malala Yousafzi
“One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.”

When she was just 17 years old, Malala became the youngest person to win the Nobel Prize laureate. Inspired by her father’s humanitarian activism, Malala wrote a blog under a pseudonym for the BBC detailing her life in a Taliban occupied town in Pakistan where girls were banned from attending school. The blog led to her becoming a subject for a New York Times documentary and from there, she rose in international prominence. At 16, Malala was shot by a Taliban gunman in an assassination attempt. After her recovery, Malala became an international advocate for education, founding a non-profit, and writing an international bestseller.

3. Claudette Colvin
“I knew then and I know now that, when it comes to justice, there is no easy way to get it. You can’t sugarcoat it, You have to take a stand and say, ‘This is not right.’”

On March 2, 1955, when she was merely 15 years old, Claudette Colvin was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus. You might be thinking to yourself, “this story sounds familiar,” but Claudette was arrested 9 months before the similar, but perhaps more notorious incident involving Rosa Parks. After her arrest, Claudette became one of the five plaintiffs in the first federal court case challenging bus segregation. She testified in the Browder vs. Gayle case before a United States district court who then deemed the law unconstitutional, moving the case to the docket of the Supreme Court. The ruling was upheld by the Supreme Court and bus segregation in the state of Alabama became illegal.

4. Louis Braille
“We do not need pity, nor do we need to be reminded that we are vulnerable. We must be treated as equals — and communication is the way we can bring this about.”

When he was 11 years old in 1821, Louis Braille became aware of a secret communication method used by a French military captain that involved impressed dots and lines on a piece of paper. This became the groundwork for Louis Braille, who was himself blind, for developing a system that would allow blind people to read. By 15 years old, Braille’s system was practically complete and it was published in 1829. However, Braille’s alphabet was not implemented at the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris until two years after his death as the professors there were hostile to the idea of learning and teaching a new method.

5. Greta Thunberg
“You say that you love your children above everything else. And yet you are stealing their future. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.”

If you have been watching the news over the past couple of months, it’s very likely you’ve heard the name Greta Thunberg at least once. The 16-year-old environmentalist was initially inspired to take action because of the survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings who organized the March for Our Lives. In ninth grade, Greta began protesting outside her local government building and handing out leaflets explaining her cause. Since then, Greta’s action has garnered international attention, both positive and negative, and inspired hundreds of thousands of young people to join her cause.

Like Joan before them, these teenagers have followed their convictions and held true to their beliefs. Also like Joan, these teens are not always universally embraced. They are seen as controversial for their beliefs, often mocked and disregarded because they are too young or too ambitious. Even if we don’t agree with their beliefs or their methods, I hope we can at least admire them for their courage and dedication. History shows that no person is ever too young to make a difference.

Information and tickets are available for purchase at https://www.gulfshoreplayhouse.org/2019-2020-season/bedlams-saint-joan/.
Photograph by Matthew Schipper

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