Teenagers are creative, visionary, engaged. They are immersed in the passion of discovery of life. They have a driving need to understand life in a way that is real and visceral. They want to find the wrongs and right them. Teenagers are like a mirror, reflecting adults and our culture, inviting us to see who we really are. We need them. They also need us, because they are (as we all are, at all ages) still learning about our world. We need each other.
But rather than being honest about this mutual need, we routinely shut teenagers out of our adult worlds.
When people ask me why I do what I do or how I got into the field, I usually start with graduate school, because starting further back seems arduous. But I actually got into this work when I was a junior in high school. For a number of reasons, including a botched attempt at being an exchange student in Germany, I found myself at loose ends rather than being enrolled in school for my junior spring semester. So I figured out what credits I had to get that semester in order to graduate on time, signed up to take them in a variety of off-campus ways, got a part-time job, and continued to attend a few of my favorite classes at my public high school. I had to sneak into the school for them – AP Chemistry with Mr. Lehman and Creative Writing with Mrs. Nauert. There aren’t many school cops who pay attention to the age-appropriate white girls trying to get onto campus so it wasn’t really a problem. What I learned through keen observation that semester was how insulting the public school system was to me. On campus I was treated with distain, disrespect, authoritarianism, and dismissiveness. And the only reason I realized it was because I spent most of my time working and learning off campus that semester.
And so, without knowing it would lead me to talking about vulvas, HIV, sexual pleasure, and sexual assault, I decided that my life’s work would be spent helping teenagers find their voices, live their truths, and ideally become culturally respected and understood.
I’ve veered a little way, perhaps, from that calling, but ultimately all of my work continues to be guided by these principles.
Because we’re still, generally speaking, treating teenagers as children who are incompetent, uninformed rubes who need monitored potty breaks, sharp questioning if they are wandering free without strict adult oversight, and who can’t think past the next goldfish unit of attention span. All of those things are true, perhaps, of some teenagers, just as all of them are true for some adults. But if our goal is for all adults to have autonomy, integrity, and agency, and I hope it is, we can’t get there by way of the negativity that our culture paints all over teenagers.
Rather, we must see the beauty in the age of adolescence.
In this time of cultural unrest, where so much negativity pervades every corner of our lives, it is the teenagers who we need to look to for inspiration. Teenagers are what we have going for us.