Working with teenagers, I regularly get to hear expressions of ideas that I too once held: adults want to ruin all fun because they are dead inside; learning is pointless when the subject matter has no direct connection to one’s life; and life will always be like it is right now. These sad and unenviable presumptions, which have come to define the teenager á la Holden Caulfield, arise from a simple lack of life experience and from their disappointing interactions with adult authority figures.(Recall the darkly transparent lyrics to Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen.”) Looking up at the world from their distinctly un-powerful position, life must really seem that way.
Even though I rarely tell my students this: adolescence is not just a polishing process before adulthood. During these years, teenagers begin building the momentum that will carry them up the next hills, which are steeper and more cumbersome than they can possibly imagine. They have no knowledge yet of the heartbreaking falls from grace they will experience or witness, and they cannot fathom the selfishness and cruelty of fellow climbers who will step on them to get a boost. For all of the chicanery of mischievous teens believing they have outwitted their parents and teachers – á la Brer Rabbit – they have not yet begun to contemplate the intricate ruses that emanate from seasoned travelers, which will slow that momentum. Life is more than self-determination.
Teaching high school gives me an unenviable vantage point to watch this process. Encountering successive groups of young people, year after year, reinforces that unadulterated human truth: we try to tell them what’s waiting out in the world, we want to prepare them to face it, and like young people have done since the beginning of time, they have to see for themselves to know and understand. Like Neruda wrote in his “Ode to the Book,” you can’t learn love from a love poem. You’ve got to live it.
Reading and teaching literature from the perspective of archetypal human realities only reinforces that these cycles are eternal. Just read ancient works like Oedipus Rex, later ones like Hamlet, or modern ones like Hesse’s Siddhartha or Coelho’s The Alchemist. In modern fiction, these sad works called bildungsroman, which translates to “formation novel,” offer full-length narratives depicting a coming-of-age. They’re everywhere, though, from all times and many peoples. We all have to find out sooner or later that our forebears’ warnings were at least generally true.
Alain-Fournier, whose coming-of-age novel Le Gran Meaulnes I offer my students to read, proposed that adolescence is not the last portion of childhood, nor is it “young adulthood,” but its own stage of life, totally and markedly separate from what comes before it or after it. The longer that I teach high school, the more I agree with him. Teenagers are captivating for their ability to (ambiguously) combine joyous hope for the future and a complete sullenness about the fates of the people who’ve already done what they’re about to. They are notable for their paradoxes and for their ambivalence. What a foolish notion to disdain wisdom from so many people who have obviously traversed the obstacles you’re facing. What a pathetic kind of hope to believe you will be the first ones to outdo the facts of time and death. But they do it – and we did it – generation after generation.
But it has to be that way, doesn’t it? If the youthful generations didn’t seek out their own paths, foregoing our insistent pleas, innovation and evolution would hardly exist. If our young were predisposed to listening to their elders, would we still be cavemen? Maybe. Whatever the hypothetical truth could be, progress would have paced much slower if young people stayed on the safe and tested paths proposed by their parents and teachers. No, they have to rise and fall; they have to dive in the water to learn how to swim . . . and some are going to drown. (The New York Times recently ran an opinion piece, “The Case for Delayed Adulthood,” about the possible benefits for the ones who refuse to dive in until they’re good and ready.)
Every year, I watch them go forward with no clue about the world’s many faces. Strangely, I think of that scene near the beginning of the movie Gladiator, during Russell Crowe’s first go at the Roman arena, when the gates swing open and the first man through is wiped out by a shot to the face before his eyes even adjust to the sunlight. These young people foresee all of the joys – the friends and parties, the love affairs and fun, the victories and the ascendance – while only vaguely regarding the rest: unanticipated failure, trouble when there is no one to help, the terror of unexpected loss, acceptance of humiliating defeat. At this stage in mid-life, I have seen enough of my friends die young, or fail miserably, and I’ve already seen a few students go down those roads (way too young) . . . it’s hard to watch.
I teach about archetypes in my literature lessons about how humans never seem to learn the most obvious lessons. The Book of Ecclesiastes, which dates to about the third century BC, reminds us that there is nothing new “under the sun,” but also tells us this in chapter 5, verse 17:
So my conclusion is this: true happiness lies in eating and drinking and enjoying whatever has been achieved under the sun, throughout the life given by God: for this is the lot of humanity.
Despite the conundrum, we have to find the best in the things we encounter in life. In one of her Teaching books, bell hooks reminds her reader that a teacher will only really affect a few students among the mass of them. Those are the ones I look for as a teacher, searching for the brightest and most curious eyes as I scan the classroom. Which ones hear me? is what I want to know.