I believe in teenagers. All of them. The ones with blue hair and black lipstick. The ones with baggy jeans bundled beneath their hips. The ones with real Gucci bags. The ones with fake Gucci bags. The ones who smoke. The ones who study on Saturday nights. The ones who say “screw you” when I ask for a pass. The ones who stay silent when others around them speak.
I believe in teenagers because I work with them seven hours a day, 180 days of every year. Wearily, we all walk in to first block blurry eyed. But we’re there and we’re doing it. Every day. I am not their mother, or their friend or even someone they like very much. I am just their English teacher. But every day, they surprise me, make me laugh, make me cry, make me worry or make me mad. And every day they make me learn, make me grow and make me realize that the cliché about children being our future is only the half of it. They are our present as well.
I believe in teenagers who make it through the limbo between childhood and adulthood with dignity, self-awareness, and empathy for others. For all the bemoaning about a current generation of text-messaging, video game-playing, pot-smoking selfish children, I can still see incredible potential for humanity – even from those doing some, if not all, of the above.
I believe in teenagers because every day I witness their expressions of gratitude for the small stuff. Nearly 100 students walk in and out of my door each day and at least one greets me with a good morning. At least one will ask how my day is, or another will say thank you when I hand him, of all things, a test to take. At least one will make me laugh at some point during a class, catching me off guard and causing ripples of giggles to spread through the room. Laughter in a classroom matters. A lot.
I believe in teenagers because every day at least one will speak something that’s true to who they are, and, in doing so, expose some vulnerability to their peers, or at least themselves. That can’t be taught. But it’s always welcomed and encouraged. At least one will have done the reading assigned for homework and come in excited about it. At least one will quietly confess “I’ve read ahead” or “I really like this book.” At least one will come back after graduation, looking so much more adult even after just six months, to say hi and make small talk. But really what they are saying is “Thank you” and “you and your class mattered to me.”
I believe in teenagers because every day I see a child who is smarter than I was at her age. I read an essay that shows an insight into literature that I have never myself thought of, or a view of life filled with an astuteness that belies their age. I believe in teenagers because so many of them are forced to confront cold and hard difficulties that even I as an adult have not yet faced: The death of a parent, poverty, substance abuse, unplanned pregnancy, homelessness. There but for the grace of God go I.
I believe in teenagers because every day I am blessed to witness some positive and unexpected act of kindness, charity, intelligence, humor, compassion or faith. The negative behaviors are there, yes, but they are expected in how scripted and stereotypical they almost always are. It is the spontaneous, joyful energy of the unscripted positive actions that make the present seven hours of each year’s school days the reason why there is hope for the future, and why yesterday’s, today’s and tomorrow’s teenagers are it.