Lest We Forget Our Teenagers Are Children
We have a wonderful tradition at Webb, just prior to our students leaving for winter holiday. Our boys line the walkways to the girls’ dormitories with candles in preparation for an evening of caroling, hot chocolate and, of course, Santa Clause (actually one of our revered venerable teachers but, then, no one is telling). They practice heartily before going off to each girls’ dorm. The girls, of course, love it even more so when the tradition ends with the boys inviting them to their annual Christmas party. They all march together to be welcomed by one dormitory’s courtyard bristling with lights carefully draped over the trees, some neatly so and some others… well, you get the point.
I am quietly huddled in my coat and scarf – yes, even California gets cold at winter – watching all that is going on with a sense of nostalgia and admiration. Here are fourteen to eighteen year olds – boys and girls – gleefully taking in the music, hot cider and cocoa, and doing nothing but just being with each other. They happily mix regardless of age and it’s not uncommon to see a budding innocent relationship as one boy carefully cradles his new found girlfriend’s hand. It is the happiest of moments.
At the appointed time, Santa appears. We, or course, know who it is but that doesn’t take away the moment. The gleam in their eyes and sense of sheer anticipation is just palpable. They are students from every imaginable belief system, culture, nation, and experience. Some speak a remarkable four languages but there are no differences this night. It’s Christmas in America – Christmas at Webb – and the occasion brings them all together full of smiles and anticipation.
The highlight of the evening is the annual reading of one of the many familiar Christmas tales. In this case, it’s excerpts of The Polar Express. Suddenly, our teenagers very much become the children they really are. They gather in expectation around the stage while two of our teachers alternate the reading. There’s a hush in the crowd and they listen almost enraptured. I just take in all in while leaning on a nearby tree and begin to reflect.
We tend to forget that teenagers are, in every way, still children; yet we are pushing them far too quickly to become adults. We have expectations of them that our parents rarely had for us thirty or forty years ago. We have them overscheduled; over protected; and pushed to goals that may or may not be realistic or healthy. We pick colleges from mythical rankings that only fuel magazine sales and have nothing to do with matching the child with his or her passions. Instead of allowing them to play touch football or ultimate Frisbee in the local park, they are on club soccer or volleyball teams with “Olympic” part of the title. We have them preparing for the SAT before they are even in high school and piano lessons are about achieving another level of the Royal Academy whatever that is. Ask them if they ever clink out the melody of their favorite popular tune and they look at you blank. And every child, of course is enticed to summer programs that have the ubiquitous term “gifted and talented” attached.
I am not suggesting we should not have goals for our children as long as they participate in that decision. I am myself a product of a father who thought it would be a good idea to play an instrument and expected me to at least give it a chance but he then left me alone. It changed my life. But that doesn’t seem the way it is nowadays. In our zeal to create the certainty of success for our children, we forget this is their life not ours. And we forget about the importance of just sheer play in their life. When I hear of a student going home every weekend to be tutored for calculus or SAT’s when that student is already an “A” student and it means they are missing the winter formal or must forego the opportunity to join in our recent “WinterFest” that brought ten tons of snow to this Southern California campus so the students – teenagers all – could create their own sled runs, I want to cry. Sooner or later that student is no longer is going to be a teenager. Adulthood will be upon them without them having had the chance to join in all that those teenage years require – silliness, laughter, loss, discovery, and, yes, play. I can think of few things sadder.
Let us rethink our current concept of “teenager” and remember that we were, yes, teenagers ourselves. We all agonized over that decision to ask our imagined love to the prom; we reveled in “hanging out” and thought that Paul was just the best of the Beatles. Music defined us and getting to know who we really were was just over the horizon. We played sports because we loved the activity not because we thought we’d get a college scholarship. SAT? Who cared? College? I’ll think about that later. Harvard? And why?
The remarkable irony of all this is that we adults who enjoyed being teenagers are just fine. There is no empirical evidence that we have been damaged. We did find a college that gave us a good education, met the love of our lives, and have unforgettable memories. So why is it that we have such different expectations of our own teenagers – children all?