Adolescents are the most maligned age group in our culture. In six years they have to go from being a carefree child to taking on the responsibilities of an adult. It wouldn’t be so bad if nature wasn’t playing tricks on them. First their nose, hands and feet start sprouting. Then hormones blast through their body like a run-away freight train.
It’s easy for us adults to shake our heads and roll our eyes when the teens in our life make mistakes. It helps to remember that adolescence is not a terminal disease – it is an incredibly vulnerable time for young people. We adults can make a huge difference if we try to ease their way through this sometimes painful passage to autonomy.
I taught English 1010 at Utah Valley University on Tuesday evenings. One fall semester, I noticed a quiet young man on the back row. He never said a word, never made a comment and never smiled. I worried about him.
My assignment was to teach everyone enrolled in my class how to write several different types of essays. I told the students to write about what was important to them and encouraged them to be honest. Many of the papers I read and critiqued were incredibly personal. One student wrote about being raped; another about his drug addiction. This quiet young man on the back row wrote an essay that helped me understand why he seemed so unhappy. He had dropped out of high school when he got his girl friend pregnant, had to go to work full time after they got married and was now providing for a family all before he was old enough to vote. The couple was having a hard time making ends meet. His marriage was on the rocks and this enrollment at the local college was a last ditch effort to prove to his wife that she would have a decent future with him. Going back to school had been a rough go and he was ready to quit.
At mid-term I had a private conference with each student to go over their work. When this quiet young man sat down in the desk next to mine, I took out the writing he had turned in and began discussing his work with him. I pointed out specific places in his essays that were beautifully written and expressed my sincere confidence in his potential. Quite unexpectedly this young man burst into tears. Obviously embarrassed, he didn’t say anything for a while.
“You’re the first teacher I’ve had in my whole life,” he said haltingly, “that told me something I did right.”
I was stunned. This young man had gone through his entire school career without even one adult telling him one positive thing about himself. It broke my heart.
Years later I was sitting at a restaurant when an older gentleman approached me. “You don’t know me,” he said. “You were my son’s English teacher. Your class inspired him to continue his education. The positive experience he had with you influenced his decision to become an English teacher so he could do for other young people what you did for him. Thank you.”
It’s so easy to look at our adolescents, especially those who have made mistakes, and only see what they do wrong. They are already acutely aware of their failures. Our young people need to be told they can accomplish their dreams even after set-backs. They can’t do this if we don’t take the time to tell them how wonderful they are. Because of this young man I always look at the teens around me and wonder, has anyone told them what they did right today? Then I make sure I’m that person.