I believe in my students. I believe they are shouting out, begging to be heard, but no one is listening.
I believe in the power of young voices. Teenagers experience injustice, rage, frustration, love, joy. And they write. They write in journals, on napkins, in instant messages, on blogs, and in one case that springs to mind, in their Blackberries. They write songs and poems, essays and stories. Despite what adults may say or think, young people do have things to say about their school, their community, their world.
I know that teenagers care, though they sometimes pretend they don’t. Even if a student is not an athlete, a cast member in a play, a student government representative, or a part of the orchestra, he or she is not disconnected. I have found that some of the strongest student voices are those that are silenced or disregarded.
Some of our young people live lives I cannot imagine. They sleep on friend’s couches after being thrown out by a parent. They work at Burger King to help pay the rent. They live in homes with fighting and anger, or worse, complete disinterest. Other students are more fortunate, and live in loving environments. Some have computers and cell phones and flat panel televisions. Others don’t have heat. Regardless of who they are or the way they have grown up, every teenager has stories to tell.
During the years I have been a teacher, I have been moved by my students’ writing. One student, a walking stereotype of the “bad girl,” who skipped class at least once a week and spent the rest in in-school detention, wrote poems about nature and her life that were truly inspiring. I remember the day she shared one of her poems in class. After she read and shyly asked for feedback, there was a moment of stunned silence. And then the room erupted: “I wouldn’t change anything. That was amazing.”
Another student, a confident and popular jock, wrote several pieces about the moment he found out he had cancer. He was twelve at the time. As the school year went on, he worked through many issues about being a cancer survivor. His fear was still palpable, but his voice was overwhelmingly positive.
I have read so many pieces about the pain of growing up. Students are remarkably candid, when you are willing to listen. They write about abuse, abortion, rape. Others write about more typical teenage issues: falling in love, family fall-outs, break-ups, friendships. It is our responsibility to value what our young people have to say. If we expect them to lead this country, we should at least listen to them.
Open your ears. Listen to the stories of our young people. They’ll astonish you.