I am going to make a bold statement here...
I believe that high school, as we currently know it in this country, is devastatingly not serving today's adolescents.
Now I apologize in advance to all of the high school teachers and administrators reading this, whom I KNOW are working tirelessly, thanklessly and unrecompensed to make high school everything everyone thinks it should be. But I have to say, as both a teacher and a mother, we are falling short in almost every way. Public, Private, Charter, Magnet… there are so many angles that are being tried and all of them are inadequate in reaching the teenager of today.
I could go into all the many reasons that I may think this is so, but that’s not actually the hope of this particular blog. In fact I think that’s absolutely part of the issue here. We all think we know what is best for today’s teenager. There is just one problem.
Very few of us are asking the test subject.
Consciously or not, we still hold a strong stigma in this culture about what teenagers are and most of those descriptive words are less than flattering. Rebellious, lazy, selfish, reckless, moody, tied to their phones, apathetic, shallow, irresponsible, obsessed with pop culture… this list goes on and on.
But I would like to shine light on a few things I have observed in my own 16 year old daughters (who, by the way, don’t fit into any of those afore mentioned adjectives):
They are brilliant. We have been homeschooling through the Pandemic. This has given me an opportunity to watch over my daughter’s academic education in a way that most parents of High School Sophomores don’t get to see. Their writing is beautiful, their understanding of vocabulary and sentence structure is sound. Of course they struggle with finding their own voice (because they’re 16) and they don’t particularly love the assignments that I give them (because they’re 16), but they do their work with grace and skill- integrating pictures, quotes, artwork and revealing a remarkable outlook on the world. When they do find something that ignites their interest, they devour it, research it, pick it apart and put it back together in their own way. They make art out of it, bring it up in discussions around the dinner table and read books to understand more.
They are wicked observant. If there is anyone who is going to motivate you to walk your talk, it is a teenager. I will ask my daughters to wash their dishes and they will look down at my dirty coffee cup with distain. I will limit their screen time only to find a post it note on the fridge the next morning with the exact amount of time I spent binging on Netflix. They notice everything and have a super radar for hypocrisy! And on top of that, they can watch -like- three things at once and comprehend all three images at the same time. Watching them watch the world is like seeing someone play drums on a trap set. How do they do something different with every limb and never miss a beat? If you want to know something - ANYTHING about the world that they live in, ask a teenager. You will get the real deal answer- whether you want it or not!
They are not interested in wasting time. If you don’t have a really good answer for a teenager when they ask the question “When will I EVER use this in real life?!?!” (And trust me, they WILL ask this question) then you should not be trying to get them to learn it. Now let me just tell you, Geometry, Art History and Ancient Literature - these are fantastic and interesting subjects. However, I don’t know about you, but didn’t love these things in high school. I took these classes because I had to and I retained almost nothing except how to watch the second hand go around an electric clock. What I did love in high school and what I DO remember was having a few really good teachers who believed in me and friends who waited for me in the hallway and after school. High schoolers are RAGING with hormones. It is not the right time to bring in Plato’s theory of Forms or Goethe’s color theory. This is the time to lasso what they are interested in and grow from there. The two subjects my own daughters can’t get enough of are economics and social justice. Their thirst for these topics helped me realize - they need to learn how to live in the world before they can start philosophizing about it. I’m not saying these other subjects shouldn’t be taught eventually. I am saying that they don’t reach the teenager where they are living in today’s world - and that is why they feel like it’s a waist of time.
They are ready to LIVE. Unlike my generation (X) of lost souls wandering the planet trying to find the meaning of life through sex, psychedelics and the stock market, today’s teens seem to have a pretty clear idea, really early on, of what they want. They want to buy land and run a horse rescue, they want to star in a Netflix Sci-Fi original, they want to live in a basement and game for a living, they want to start their own bookstore/hair salon/bar. The what’s are as diverse as we all are as humans but the when… well the when is NOW!
They don’t want to finish high school only to go to four more years of college only to find you need to go to at least two if not seven more years of more college so that someone somewhere can call you “Master” or “Doctor” of something. They don’t want to live for tomorrow, they want to live today! Right now! Don’t you think we could all learn from this? This urgency to realize the dream now, this almost reckless imperative to do away with unnecessary barriers and just truly live.
They are stressed out and anxious. I witness a lot of teens in my life and work, so I can tell you first hand - their stress level is higher than we can even imagine - especially in our girls. Take all the things you remember worrying about when you were a teenager and put it on a strong dose of steroids… then you might get a tiny taste of what it means to be a teen navigating the current academic/social/technological scene of the 2020’s. They are worried about many of the same things we might have been - how they look, how others think they look, grades, school, college or no college. They are worried about their parents, their friends, they are worried they are too smart or not smart enough, wether they have permission to dream or need to buckle down and get practical. They worry if they’re strong enough, tan enough, fit enough, thin enough, bulky enough, hairy enough, hairless enough… You probably remember that never-ending list of self conscious questions that plague the adolescent mind.
But unlike our teenage experience, this worry NEVER STOPS. They are worried about how many likes they do or don’t get and why, they are constantly creating posts, TikToks, Insta's and selfies in their minds to share on social media. There is probably not a waking hour in the day that they are living in the sweet relief of the present moment because their social world has no off button. It is utterly exhausting. This low and consistent rumble of anxiety that most teens tell me are “just use to it by now” affects sleep, eating, motivation and is such a sneaky and invisible drain on their well being. And yet…
They still care. This is perhaps the most important thing I have witnessed in my own teenagers. They really care. I mean DEEPLY care. They care about animals, they care about family, they care about inclusiveness, they care about Black Lives Matter. They care about friends and neighbors, they care about current events and justice. They care about their future and the future of the planet, they care about style and being on time and they care about me… their mother… Wow. Just Wow.
My teens are wiser than me. They are better than me. When I hand them the baton of life, they don’t throw it back in my face (like I might have at their age). They take it up with this brilliance, this witnessing, this importance, this urge to live, maybe a bit of anxiety but also this ability to care. After spending a year in captivity with teenagers, I have come to find that they just might be human kind’s most untapped resource for ingenuity and hopeful change for the future. They look at the world with eyes that are just getting a taste of what we adults call “reality” but eyes not yet jaded with impossibility, past trauma or barriers.
They may speak a different language than you, but they are still brilliant none-the-less.
What if, when we start school up again, we let our teens design the new high school? What if they helped create the curriculum? Wouldn’t that be an a mazing experiment? After homeschooling them this year I am absolutely convinced that they would create something that not only allows our teens to survive high school, but something that encourages them to thrive in it. Something that meets today’s teen. Something alive.
If you or someone you love has a teenage daughter that would benefit from our empowerment circle the next journey begins April 3rd! Click here for more information or to sign up!