Very Smart Writing on Teens

There should be a literary award for the author who writes most intelligently about teens. The person who best rejects mindless stereotypes and embraces their humanity. My nomination for this year, Rachel Cusk, author of a New York Times Magazine essay titled, “The Mother of all Problems: On Raising Teenagers“.

My favorite paragraphs:

But now my daughter’s friends encounter me in the kitchen, in the hall, with barely a word of greeting. They are silent; they look shiftily to the side. They move on fast, up to my daughter’s room, where the sound of talking and shrieking and giggling resumes the instant the door is closed. Quickly they forget I am there; when occasionally they emerge for reinforcements and supplies, they talk in front of me as though I am invisible. Invisibility has at least the advantage of enabling eavesdropping: I listen to them talk, gleaning knowledge of their world. They talk with striking frequency about adults, about the people they now encounter in shops and on buses, the people who serve them in cafes or sell them things. They talk, less mystified, about their teachers. They talk about their grandparents and aunts and uncles. They talk about their fathers, usually with an experimental air of equality, as if they were trying on a pair of shoes that were slightly too big for them. But most of all they talk about their mothers. Their mothers are known as “she.” When I first heard about “she,” I was slightly puzzled by her status, which was somewhere between servant and family pet. “She” came in for a lot of contempt, most of it for acts of servitude and attention that she didn’t appear to realize were unwanted, like a spurned lover continuing to send flowers when the recipient’s affections have moved elsewhere. She’s such a doormat, one of them says. When I forget something I need for school, I just text her and she comes all the way across town with it. She’s so — pathetic. I don’t know what Dad even sees in her. Why doesn’t she get a job or something?

The talk of these girls brings on a distinct queasiness. I think of the many women I know who agonized over work when their children were small, who curtailed and compromised and very often gave up their careers, sometimes in the belief that it was morally correct and sometimes out of sheer exhaustion. Dad, meanwhile, is revered for his importance in the world. I hear them discuss, with what I am guessing is a degree of exaggeration, their fathers’ careers and contacts and the global impact of the work they do; unlike “she,” their fathers are hardworking, clever, successful, cool. They describe them as if they’d only just met them; they describe them as if they’d discovered them, despite the conspiracy to keep these amazing creatures hidden.

When the girls go home, they leave a scene of devastation behind them. The kitchen is strewn with dirty plates and half-eaten food and empty wrappers; the bathroom is a swamp of wet towels, capsized bottles, crumpled tissues smeared with makeup. The smell of nail varnish upstairs is so strong it could knock out a horse. I tidy up, slowly. I open the windows.

Six months later, my younger daughter, I notice, has changed. She has refined her group of friends. There are fewer of them, and the ones that remain are more serious, more distinct. They go to art galleries and lectures together; on Saturdays they take long walks across London, visiting new areas. My daughter has become politicized: At dinner, she talks about feminism, politics, ethics. My older daughter has already made this transition, and so the two of them join forces, setting the world to rights. When they argue now, it is about the French head-scarf ban in schools or the morality of communism. Sometimes it’s like having dinner on the set of “Crossfire.” I become aware of their verbal dexterity, their information, the speed of their thought processes. Sometimes I interject, and more often than not am shot down. This, in my own teenage years, would not have been tolerated, yet I find it easy to tolerate. They’re like a pair of terriers with a stick: they’ve got their teeth into the world and its ways. Their energy, their passion, their ferocity — I regard these as the proper attributes of youth. Yet inevitably the argument overheats; one of them storms away from the table in tears, and I have to go and talk her into coming back.

Strange as it may seem, they are still children, still having to operate bodies and minds that are like new, complex pieces of machinery. And indeed, at meal’s end, it is I who rises and clears the plates, just as I always have. It would be far too easy to gibe at the skin-depth of their feminism. Besides, I don’t see that anything has fundamentally changed in the contract between me and them. For the first time, I am glad of the flaws in our family life, though at times I have suffered bitterly over them, seeing in other people’s impeccable domestic lives a vision of stability and happiness I have absolutely failed to attain. But in this new territory, we perhaps have less to lose: no image is being defiled, no standard of perfection compromised. The traditional complaint about teenagers — that they treat the place like a hotel — has no purchase on me. In fact, I quite like the idea. A hotel is a place where you can come and go autonomously and with dignity; a place where you will not be subjected to criticism, blame or guilt; a place where you can drop your towel on the floor without fear of reprisal, but where, hopefully, over time, you become aware of the person whose job it is to pick it up and instead leave it folded neatly on a chair.

Teenagers Today

Set the record straight whenever curmudgeons spew knee-jerk antipathy towards teens.

Based on a massive new study on America’s health by the Center for Disease Control, the teen birth rate has plummeted in recent decades. Same with teen abortion rates. They’re also drinking less, smoking less, and barely using cocaine. The one thing they’re doing more of. . . exercising.

Despite conventional wisdom, the world is not going to hell in a handbasket.

Connecting With Teens

As a teacher, coach, father, person, I’ve always been pretty good at connecting with teens. Maybe for the following reasons:

1) I enjoy them, quirks and all. Well, the vast majority. I like their energy, goofiness, earnestness, naïveté. I don’t think of them as a separate specie that is up to no good. Sometimes I even abandon my peers, “cross over,” and sit with them at multi-family get togethers. Most teens rise to the level of adult expectations.

2) I look past outward appearances. I know they’re not going to look the same at 30. I don’t read much into funky haircuts, baggy pants, wild hair coloring, and piercings. Those things don’t reflect a lack of values, they’re just trying out different personas and learning to blend in with peers. One evening eighteen years ago, after a day spent exploring the Washington D.C. mall, my squeeze and I, with our one-year old daughter in tow, collapsed into chairs at a table at the Pentagon City Mall food court in Alexandria, VA. One minute later a group of about seven teens in black trench coats, with the requisite black hair, nail polish, and piercings started to settle into the table next to us. When they lit up, I walked over and calmly and respectfully said, “I don’t know if you guys saw the sign, but this is a no smoking area.” They apologized, got up and left. Exactly what I envisioned would happen.

3) I like some of the same aspects of pop culture as many of them. Which helps bridge the generation divide. Turns out many of Nineteen’s friends at the Midwest liberal arts college know the contents of my iPad. What a claim to fame, the geezer who likes pop music, hip-hop, and rap. Please understand though, I don’t listen to Eminem or watch Glee in order to bridge the generation divide. The “fake it until you make it” cliché does not apply to consuming pop culture in order to connect with teens. When it comes to teens and pop culture, fake it and forget it. The interest has to be genuine. It probably helps that my adolescent self is still alive and well. Just ask my family sometime, I’ve never completely outgrown my immature, stupid younger self. My arrested development helps me connect with teens.

4) I make fun of myself and joke around more generally. I haven’t met a teen yet that doesn’t appreciate self-deprecating humor. They live in perpetual fear of others laughing at them, so when I’m making fun of myself, it’s a much appreciated respite from their normal “people are about to laugh at me” anxiety. Ten weeks into my first year of teaching in inner-city L.A. I was at war with third period U.S. History. The class could have tipped either way when one day I yanked down the large U.S. map attached to the front board and it flew off the hooks landing across my upper back. Without thinking I went full Dick Van Dyke, grabbing said map, throwing it to the ground, and stomping on it. They thought that was the funniest thing they’d ever seen. Since I was human they decided to give me a break. Over the remaining thirty weeks I built a nice rapport with those students.

5) I anticipate bad decisions and am careful not to overreact when they stumble. More commonly, adults are surprised and disappointed by teens’ mistakes. Then they assert their authority and hand out strict punishments. From this teens learn more about adult power than what they might do differently the next time they have to make a difficult decision. Error prone teens always appreciate it when adults take the time to listen, talk, teach, and individualize necessary punishments.

Weekend Notes—December 18, 2010

Miscellaneous notes unrelated to the blog’s laser focus on questioning education conventional wisdom.

• Saw a great documentary on Yao Ming five years ago. He’s very personable and likable. Since seeing that film I’ve followed him. It’s disappointing to learn he’s out for the season and that he’s probably played his last NBA game. China’s Bill Walton sans the scruffy beard, unrivaled college education, and Grateful Dead vibe.

• The GalPal turned 50 recently. Sometimes a picture is worth a 1,000 words. Fifteen’s gift tells you everything you need to know about what it’s like to live with a teenager.

• For me at least, swimming is very different from running and cycling in that I have to think about my form all the time. I get lazy and revert to muscle memory which means my elbows aren’t high enough, I cross over a bit, my stroke gets too short, and I don’t complete my stroke underwater. The challenge is trying to change these flaws simultaneously. The obvious answer is to work on one at a time, but sometimes when I try to add an additional correction in, the previous fix unravels. And the harder the set and the deeper in a workout, the worse my form. I’d probably be better off just doing slow drills for a month. Whatever I do, I swim nearly identical splits. Today’s 100’s were 1:25’s with toys (paddles/buoy).

• Just when I thought Lance was over the 2009 Black Hills Triathlon, he wants me to commit to racing the Boise Half Ironperson with him. He’s dastardly. It has a noon start. I’d begin the run around 3:3op in Boise in mid-June. I was born in Boise and I love symmetry. Maybe, like a Pacific Northwest salmon, I should return to and die in Boise? I’d rather do this race.

• The more minimalist in orientation I become, the less I like traditional Christmas gift giving. I know I should focus on the spirit of the giving and be more appreciative, it just seems most gifts don’t fill any real need and unnecessarily contribute to clutter. If you’re still wondering what to get me, massage gift certificates are $47 at the Briggs YMCA.

• It’s nice having Eighteen home from college. She had a great first trimester. Proud of her and just hoping and praying I can hang with her in the pool Monday.

• In the shocker of the week, I created a twitter account (@PressingPause) and as of today, I have one follower. Look out Linkedin and Facebook.

Thanks for reading. Have a nice weekend.