Saturday, September 1, 2012

In Defense of Teenagers

A memorable March day before I retired from teaching,  I plunked my basket stacked with a gallon of milk, some boneless chicken breasts, a bunch of romaine lettuce and numerous other items onto the end of the conveyer belt at the grocery store. Suddenly, I was greeted by the mother of one of my students. We chatted about what her kids were up to as we waited. When I reached the front of the line, the checkout woman smiled and cooed in a voice reserved for those who teach the elementary grades, "Ooh, are you a teacher?"

"Yes," I said, grinning widely.


"What grade do you teach?"

"Seniors for English, but grades nine through twelve in my electives."

Immediately, she backed away from me and locked her arms across her chest as if to ward off any stray adolescent cooties that might be clinging to my clothes. Her voice dropped the saccharine tone, adopting a sneer as she stated, "Oh. How do you stand them?"

I bit my tongue from lashing out, "I sure hope you don't have any kids, honey, if that's your attitude," since I didn't want to wear the cherry pie she was scanning.

Why is it that so many people view teenagers as creatures from a two o'clock in the morning nightmare? Is it
the barrage of totally unrealistic movies from Hollywood? The way the print and broadcast news media plaster the newspapers and airways with stories about the gangstas, the druggies and the dropouts? Is it their frustration dealing with their own children at the age where all adolescents, to some degree, catch the crazies as they embody walking, talking hormones?


An old friend once told me that teenagers are wired to act as they do to make it easier for us to say, “Good-bye” to them when they leave the nest. Whatever the cause(s), I invite all those who think adolescents need to be neither seen nor heard until they are twenty-one to visit the nearest middle or high school. Once there, they need to look at the trophies for sports, ROTC, band, science fairs, and music, art and drama competitions (to name only a few) shimmering proudly on the glass shelves. Then they need to peruse the list of clubs and activities students populate covering every topic from Amnesty International to SAGA (Students Against Global Abuse), to tutoring, to various honor societies. They need to read the school's teen-written and run newspapers and literary magazines for more enlightenment on the lives of Real vs. Hollywood-inspired teenagers, and to chat with the school’s staff and faculty.


After they leave the school, they need to talk to the adolescent wait staff at their favorite restaurants, to the baggers at the grocery store, to the ticket sellers at the cinemas, to the girls who clean their offices, to the guys who wash their cars, or to any teens they encounter who make their lives a little bit easier. Many of these kids work 20-30 hours a week to help their families pay for rent, food, and other necessities as well as to save for college; not to pay for fancy cars, to party and to buy the latest fashions. The latter are gross misconceptions.


When I was still in the classroom, at the start of every period I’d let my eyes wander over each student right after the starting bell rang as I shook my head in awe. Behind their carefully constructed facades of boredom, hipness and insouciance dwelled young adults who were exhausted, scared, compassionate and courageous; who faced an ugly side of life that I truly couldn't even imagine. I mean who leaves school to work two jobs and to watch over younger siblings, just to stumble home at two AM to complete some homework, sleep for a very few hours, get to school on time every day and earn a 3.0 GPA? 

That was the life of one of girls I had the privilege to teach last year. And she was not alone in her struggle to juggle school, work and family matters. Classrooms everywhere are filled with students who survive similar lives. And that’s not to mention those adolescents whose personal and family lives endure serious health and economic issues, but who desperately depend on their school’s academic, extracurricular and social outlets to keep them putting on foot in front of the other every single day.


Could teens be irritating? Just ask my hair stylist, Theresa, who made my gray hair disappear for twenty years. Could teens make me gnash my teeth at yet another excuse for not having an assignment done? (My favorite was from the young man who said he didn’t have his homework because his house had been burglarized and the police took his essay for fingerprint evidence). Ask my dentist. Could teens make me wish that I had a magic spell to freeze their eyes into permanent eye roll positions even though my optometrist said this was not probable?

Yes, yes, and yes.

But could they make me laugh when I was so frustrated with life I wanted to crawl under my computer table? Or make me question my own thoughts? Did they challenge me to see life from their side of the desk? 

Yes, yes and yes.

Do they deserve our respect and admiration? They most assuredly do.


 Best,