A Love Letter to Teenagers


“The secret message communicated to most young people today is that they are not needed, that society will run itself quite nicely until they – at some distant point in the future – will take over the reigns. Yet the fact is that society is not running itself nicely… the rest of us need all the energy, brains, imagination and talent that young people can bring to bear down on our difficulties. For society to attempt to solve its desperate problems without the full participation of even very young people is imbecile.” –Alvin Toffler

Most working people get used to the same commonly given responses when asked what they do for a living. When people find out my husband works at a National Park, for instance, they more often than not say almost wistfully, “It must be nice to be outside all day,” to which he confides that in fact, he stares at a computer all day. When people find out I am a 9th and 10th grade English teacher, they more often than not give an almost sympathetic, “Wow, you’re brave!” (or something to that effect).

I know the intention is to give me credit for working with emotionally-volatile hormone machines, but I can’t help but get defensive by any suggestion that my students are anything less than charming human beings.

Granted, I haven’t yet been a parent to a teenager. Based on the fifteen year-old who lives beneath us, teenagers don’t present the same front to their parents as they do to the rest of the world. Thanks to our close proximity, we are entertained nearly nightly to hysterics of all sorts, eventually concluding with tears and a slammed door. Common provocations include: Facebook, cell phones, after-school plans, what other parents are letting kids do, and science class.

Teachers rarely get to glimpse that side of teenagers (unless they also happen to be a parent to a teenager), though we catch little hints from time to time. Every day when taking attendance, I ask my students to respond to a question of the day rather than just say “here.” It keeps things more interesting, and is an efficient way of getting to know everyone a little bit better each day.

Yesterday I asked the kids to give a word that they thought summed up their generation. Some responses: hashtag selfie, self-centered, screwed, twerky, stupid, blamed, lazy.

Student-designed peer feedback form

Student-designed peer feedback form

It’s a funny experience, that very first day going back to high school as an adult. I’ve since really fallen in love with the younger generation, but that first day back, MAN! The blatant insecurity, the obvious fronting, that hard, too-cool-for-school exterior belying such a transparent sensitive interior.

They ask for permission to go to the bathroom!

But even though I’m clearly far removed from the days when I was their age, thus I can’t entirely trust my memories of my own teenage years, I still believe there are some differences between my generation and this new one. Generation Z, the media calls them.

Generation Z has never known life without the Internet and cell phones. They started texting and using social media around the age when I was still playing with Barbies. They’ve never called up a librarian to find out the answer to a question. They’ve never known a world without 9/11 or Columbine. They’ve grown up much more accepting of gay rights and much less tolerant of our collective effects on the Earth.

So what effect does this kind of world have on teenagers? One high school teacher’s observations:

The Bad:

Man, do they have no patience. They expect results, and they expect them immediately. Writing a research paper is to many of them a hellish nightmare, because they get frustrated when they can’t become an expert on something in ten minutes. If there’s not a Wikipedia page for it, then it doesn’t exist.

They are distractable. Although, I don’t think that’s a characteristic of their generation so much as it is a characteristic of anyone alive and functioning in 2013.

The Good:

Some might disagree, but I think they’re more socially adept than my generation was. It seems counter-intuitive with so much of their socializing done behind a keyboard, but, I don’t know, maybe it’s that the keyboard allows them more time to strategize and formulate – to not get stuck in an awkward moment. They are just more savvy in general. They know what’s going on.

They have interesting taste in things. They’re more exposed and more discerning.

They’re more confident. Maybe it’s tumblr, but these kids know who they are and own it.

They’re fast. I guess it’s the other side of the coin. True, they can’t focus and have no patience, but they are incredibly fast processors of information. They want to get to the point.

They’ve got fantastically bizarre senses of humor. This can sometimes be disturbing, especially when they crack up from some random YouTube clip unicorn farts or whatever. But, typically, I find the things they laugh about endearing.

Anyway, Generation Z isn’t given much credit, just as the younger generations of the past weren’t. There’s a lot of doom and gloom predictions for the future, and not much faith in young people to provide a cure. But I don’t see how they’re any less equipped than anyone who came before, and in some ways, I think they’ve got strengths that older generations don’t have.

In any event, I believe it’s important to cultivate kindness – to demonstrate it and to value it in young people. Whatever they do with their skills, I fear a generation whose education system has had no time for kindness.

It’s student-led conference time at my school again – a routine where advisors get together with their advisees and parents, and the student guides us through their portfolio of course work, and we reflect on the student’s academic performance. I always, always, try to give some positive affirmation of the student’s character that has nothing to do with academics – their sociability, their generosity, their consideration. Ideally I have a specific anecdote to relay, such as a time he stuck up for a student or made the whole class laugh. Parents beam at this much more easily than they do about As. It’s amazing how easily guards come down when you’re one-on-one. A whole day’s work gets done in a one-minute face-to-face exchange with a young person.

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1 Response to A Love Letter to Teenagers

  1. Thanks for writing. I agree–teens are great. I get the same response when I say I prefer teaching middle school to elementary. I also have three teens, the oldest to be replaced by the youngest in a few years. They are indeed less filtered at home than in public (thank goodness), but that’s all part of testing where the boundaries are, seeing how adults handle challenge, authority, their own flaws and mistakes, on and on. They are all learning from us, and at the very least they ought to learn their immense value. Much courage to you, and a love that never fails.

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