Before I get started, I’m happy to announce that I’ve expanded yet again, and this time, to Twitter! I’ll be trying to reach out on that front and post links to new posts there, as well as hope to perhaps engage a little bit more. You can find me by the handle @keypopuli, and if you want to pitch me questions or comments you can do so there. That being said, if you’re new to my blog, I post to a Tumblr as well as to a WordPress, and you can find my about page here. Now that that’s out of the way, I’ll move into today’s post.
As of the beginning of the school year I started a new job as a substitute instructional aide for some local school districts, and the last month or two have been both frustrating and rewarding. You can read some of my initial thoughts in my posts “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” and “The Weight of Lies.” The whole process of stepping back into elementary and high schools and dealing with students who encompass a wide variety of personalities and developmental stages has been eye opening to say the least. I realized quite early on that the most challenging part of working with children and teens that are products of our contemporary society is fighting feelings of jadedness and judgment toward them. The two posts I linked to above make a point of a recurring theme in the high school of apathy and willful ignorance on the part of the older students, and dealing with that on a daily basis becomes tiresome and frustrating.
This afternoon, as I was coming home from church, the song The One popped up on my playlist, and it got me thinking about thoughts and feelings I wrestled with when I was in high school. The One is a song by The Who off their Quadrophenia album. It’s one of my all-time favorite albums, and I listened to it incessantly while I was in high school. I also listened to American Idiot by Green Day, and The Wall by Pink Floyd. The common thread between all three albums is that they’re all rock operas, and tap into ideas of paranoia, inner turmoil, anxiety, change, social pressures, and so on and so forth. While at the time I was unable to articulate it, looking back I think I used these albums to cope with my teen angst. Thankfully, I think I was able to internalize most of that angst and thus present myself as fairly competent, if still fairly awkward, though I’m not sure how well I succeeded.
Anyway, that brings me back to the song that serves as inspiration for this post, The One. As I was listening to this song today, it struck me that every adolescent, every teenager, and even every adult wants to be “THE ONE.” We all have this ideal person that we want to be. We all want to dress a certain way, we all want to talk a certain way, we all want to have certain things, and we’re bound and determined to achieve that image and prove everyone wrong. While teens are still spurred onward toward their goals by raging hormones uninhibited by a not yet fully formed brain, most adults eventually peter out of the chase due to a variety of circumstances. And yet, sometimes adults still don’t give up the chase.
What’s the difference? Well, I think adults who give up the chase come in two forms: The first, is an adult who realizes they cannot obtain their ideals and learn to accept living in contentment with what they do have. The second, is an adult who realizes they cannot obtain their ideals and give up in jaded frustration, allowing their hearts to harden in bitterness. Then there are adults who cannot give up the chase and they lead a discontented life guided by sheer impulse and distraction (i.e., Internet, TV, etc.). They are, for all intents and purposes, perpetual teenagers.
The interesting thing in all of this is that there is a degree of science and psychology behind it. There’s a part of your brain called the prefrontal cortex, and its purpose is to help with decision making while it works with the limbic system to sift through emotions and other stimulus from the outside world. What’s more is that the prefrontal cortex does not complete its development until a person’s mid-twenties at least. So, when people talk about how moody, emotional, and unpredictable teenagers and emerging adults can be, there’s actually a legitimate, developmental reason, even if a person cannot articulate their thoughts or feelings, or rationalize their reasoning for doing something. Now, that doesn’t excuse them if they behave in an unbecoming way, but it does play in as a factor.
Where am I going with all this? Well, I work with teenagers a lot. Not just for work as a substitute, but I’ve also been leading a youth group at my local church for the past couple years, and I’ve also worked several summers as a camp counselor. In all that experience, I’ve found that you don’t engage a child or teenager based upon who they present themselves to be, but rather upon the potential that you see in them of who they can become in time. If you engage a teen with the former mindset, then jadedness and contempt are sure to follow. If you engage them with the latter, then undoubtedly it will be some of the most rewarding interactions you will ever have. That doesn’t mean that it will be easy or your patience won’t be tried, but in the long run you’ll be able to see a beautiful bloom of humanity. However, the latter mindset also brings with it intense risk as success and positive growth is not guaranteed. In fact, you might see a teenager make choices that irrevocably set their life down a dark, dangerous path leading you to heart ache.
Of course, what I have been presuming this time is that you are in my shoes as a teacher, leader, friend, and mentor. This relationship is special in so many ways, and as I said before, incredibly rewarding. So the next time you’re dealing with a teenager who’s giving you a hard time, remember where they’re at in life, and then try to remember that love is a choice; it’s an act of the will, and if you want to have a positive, lasting impact on their life, you need to choose how to love them well right then and there. It’s my job as a mentor to help them through these times and become more than “the one” they think they need to be, and instead to become “the one” that God has designed them to be. I want them to stop considering their audience of friends and family, and to begin to consider an audience of One that has predestined them with a potential and a purpose far beyond their wildest expectations. And, at the very least, if they reject God and faith, I hope that from a more humanist standpoint, they try to eke out the best they can and bring out the best of their humanity.