Many people wince at the thought of turning forty or fifty years old, while others celebrate the twenty or sixty year birthdays. While I never paid attention to the onslaught of decades gone by, I was astute enough to recognize one birthday held a special meaning for me. I knew when I turned twenty, I was missing out. I did not balk at the fresh milestone friends and family coveted as a hopeful sign of maturity and independence; but, I knew that no longer being a teenager had consequences. I remember privately sulking at the twenty year mark.
While I did not fear “growing up” like Peter Pan, I was heartbroken that I was no longer a teenager.
I believe in teenagers. Their dreams. Their mistakes. Their insistence. Their uncertainty.
My own teen years were not any “glory days” to reinforce my ongoing belief in teenagers. I had my share of good and bad teen experiences. Being a teenager gives license to dream. When I was convinced my small hometown was holding me back or when I had argued with my parents, I spent time dreaming of a new town and new opportunities. With fresh hope, I researched and sent letters to boarding schools and foreign study programs. My mother laughed. While I ended up leaving my parents’ home right on schedule to attend college, the dream of “someplace else” gave me time to deal with small town conflicts and family tensions. As a high school teacher, I now recognize the dreams of my own students. Some share their imagined futures of fame and fortune. If I learn they have a parent encouraging the anticipated life of luxury, I try to offer realistic advice. If the student has a parent pushing a safe bet of a future, I try to allow the dream of an outlandish lifestyle. Teenagers may share dreams with trusted family and friends, or they may harbor dreams as a silent finish line that propels them from a problematic life. But, a teenager finds a way to dream.
Being a teenager is also synonymous with making mistakes. The range of mistakes that a teenager makes is large enough to spark growth that is unparalleled in a person’s development. Some mistakes are made without notice, and teenagers are also guilty of making mistakes after they have been warned about consequences. Scientific studies underscore the contributing factor of biological development to highlight why mistakes are a part of a teenager’s life. Today when I leave at the end of a school day and my mind clicks through all the interactions, I am still left with optimism. Everyone understands that teenagers make mistakes. And that understanding fosters cautionary tales, urgent pleas, and dire warnings. The stage is set with opportunities to learn before mistakes are made as well as the chance to survive mistakes after they have been committed. The irony is that as teenagers learn from their mistakes, they also learn to identify mistakes. An early lesson in my own classroom was not to deny my own mistakes.
Teenagers are self-centered enough to insist on attention. Teenagers will hone skills to get the attention they are seeking. So, they develop and finesse their listening skills and their verbal skills to make sure others hear and see them. I laugh now at the quiet respite my parents enjoyed when I was developing my own skills. I quickly realized that my closed mouth did not garner their attention in our loud, rambunctious house, so I quickly started sharing stories. Stories were treasured in my home. Teenagers are savvy enough to adapt to different situations when there is a need. Certainly, I have seen a few of my students try desperate ways to get attention. However, I’m left thinking it is wonderful that teenagers think they deserve attention.
Teenagers understand uncertainty is a part of their life. Dates, grades, and futures all seem uncertain territory. Some of my own students are not certain if a parent will be in jail or at the house waiting on them when school gets out. Others are not certain where they will get the money for their college choice. Because uncertainty is a part of their life, teenagers understand options and can quickly maneuver through best and worst case scenarios. I came to understand and appreciate one teenager’s desire to help out after school when others were clamoring to get out of the brick school building. If you are not sure that a parent and supper are awaiting you, you go home late enough to assure you have a safe spot to return after a few restless hours. Teenagers use uncertainty to make certain they have what they need in life.
The end of teen years does not mean the end of personal growth. I look back and understand my own disappointment at turning twenty did not hinge on the number. Parents, siblings, and others understand being a teenager is a chaos of confusion. And, this understanding granted me the freedom to feel worthy enough to dream. I made mistakes and I planned for uncertainties. I was not sure that I would be allowed to find that support when I left my teenage years. I am still not sure that adults feel they are entitled to the same generosity, and so we lose sight of the value of making mistakes, recovering and heading in another direction. It is this loss that I sensed when I turned twenty. But, like a true teenager, I found an ingenious way to keep that creative chaos in my life.
I believe in teenagers, so I spend my days with teenagers. Sharing dreams. Making mistakes. Feeling uncertain. But insisting on being heard.
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