I don’t believe in the image of teenagers. I don’t believe they’re lazy, disillusioned, materialistic, superficial, or oversexed. I don’t believe that they’re going to ruin this country one day or that they’re ungrateful. I don’t believe in what I see on MTV.
I believe in real teenagers. I believe because I see them five days a week.
I teach high school English and these teenagers are my students. Whenever I tell someone what I do for a living, most react with a mixture of surprise and pity. They tell me that I look like a teenager myself and so my students must walk all over me. They tell me that I must be the most patient person in the world to deal with teenagers all day by choice. They tell me that at least I get the summers away from my students. Sometimes the really considerate ones tell me that I’ll burn out after a few years, get married, have lots of babies, and never enter a classroom again.
I used to correct them but it’s not worth it to me. I’d rather not waste my breath or energy.
I don’t tell them that teenagers are just like every other person I have ever met. Some are very good, some are very bad, but most have the right intentions are heart. The only difference between my middle-aged father and the 16 year olds in my classroom is the optimism. The idealism. The hope.
I believe in teenagers because I need them more than they need me. When I graduated college, I felt lost. And scared. And uncertain for the first time in my life. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in the future. I had never planned beyond getting my degree. I had hoped that everything would simply fall into place like it had throughout the majority of my charmed life.
But it didn’t. And I felt frustrated and confused. I felt unhappy. I felt, for the first time in my life, pessimistic.
And then I found a teaching position.
The first year of teaching almost killed me. I was up late grading, planning, and having the occasional panic attack. I would break into a sweat when the morning bell rang and cling to my novel while teaching so the students wouldn’t see my hands shake. Sometimes I’d sit in my classroom after the school had emptied out for the day and cry. Or fall asleep on my desk. I didn’t know what I was doing but I knew I was in over my head.
But of course, I slowly figured it out. I planned, graded, and left the school building at a normal time. I stopped just surviving every day and started wanting to do a good job. And I realized that in order to do a good job, I had to get to know my students.
So, I learned about their hobbies, their friends, their sports. I talked to them before school and after school. They made me laugh. They made me look forward to coming into work. They re-energized my life.
Teenagers are funny creatures. They seem naïve and immature but in reality, I think they have it together more than any of my so-called adult friends. They can brush off the crap in life and focus on what matters – family and friends and doing what makes you happy. Making each day a new day. Laughing at the silly things. Expressing affection openly. Making mistakes and learning. Feeling each and every emotion to its fullest – triumph, sadness, and everything in between.
I love my job now. I miss my students over the summer. I look forward to the first day back, not because I’m excited about another year of teaching but because I’m excited about another year of learning about the Tao of teenagers. The art of adolescence.
At 25, I’m a bit cynical. I know there’s not always a happy ending. I haven’t figured out exactly what I’m supposed to do with the rest of my life. But I’m okay with that. I know I’ll figure it out.
I’m at an age where I don’t believe in much but I believe in teenagers.