Troubling Teens

One of the schools I attended as a child was a boarding school in New Hampshire. I look back on it as Lord of the Flies meets Animal House because the institution was geared to kids like me who overflowed with attitude. We were those who fit no mainstream milieu, in fact we had contempt for it. For various and sundry reasons, many of which neither ourselves nor the experts could identify, we didn’t trust authority, had no time for rules, and tended to be self absorbed. Today we would be called Troubled Teens and would have strong familiarity with drug abuse, promiscuity and the juvenile justice system.  I dislike the label Troubled Teen; I think it’s a misnomer. A better term would be Improperly Challenged.

Societies in general appear to hold the individual in reverence. One person can make the difference! is a common refrain. However, while regurgitating this we tend to try and pound away the rough edges of individuality anywhere we see them. Society has a look and feel and individuality goes cross purposes to that. Individuality is which color of Old Navy’s product line we choose, which beer brand we choose, or what kind of car we drive. Underlying it all is that we have to color within the lines and be Old Navy wearing beer drinkers who drive. Those who stray from the unspoken parameters instantly overload the system and become a problem. In the case of kids, we call them troubled when it’s actually society that’s troubled by them -because it isn’t geared to individual needs. Our institutions are all set up for a specific criteria and special requisites sit with our institutions like a pool hall coming to River City in the Music Man.

Objectively, of course, society isn’t capable of individual attention. There’s just too damn many kids and our society has other fish to fry besides youth. So we slap a label on the square pegs circling the round holes of the mainstream and decide that the hell being raised by this or that child is a matter for child psychologists or juvenile justice. That’s where schools like the one I was fortunate enough to attend come in. It and other programs oriented towards the kids who don’t fit.  These systems all have a few things in common: they try to teach personal responsibility, decrease ignorance, and tax the high energy of kids to slow them down. The school I went to was less concerned about getting me into a classroom as allowing me to find things I was curious about. When I found something, the school exploited my passion for the subject by showing me how to master it. This provided the opportunity to teach me science and mathematics, english and history, geology and geography. Very clever. They let me ply my interest without schedule (for the most part), focusing on cramming me full of education and experience rather than insisting on regimentation. There was more to it, of course, but that hits the highlights.

As un-profound as it sounds, the less ignorant I became, the wiser I became.  The wizening showed me things like there being more ways than one to skin a cat, that honey catches more flies than vinegar, and patience and perseverance really can allow one to succeed. Of course, it’s not always a simple matter to teach kids these things. They have to absorb and properly apply the tools given them and not all kids have that ability. Some simply can’t learn and then extrapolate on and build on the foundation provided. Some kids have issues beyond the emotional and into the organic. Some kids will be allocated the needed resources while others won’t. The programs and institutions that accommodate the square pegs are limited in number and rather expensive and so rarity and cost will leave a lot of kids behind.

Children who struggle at life while others skate across it come from all walks of life. While many emerge from dysfunctional households or familial situations, portions come from stable and loving circumstances as well. Even the dysfunctional environments aren’t necessarily to blame for failing to appropriately challenge and equip young people. It’s my belief that society is often much more responsible for the emergence of youth issues because of the tremendously mixed messages it sends. In my early teen years life was a much simpler matter with fewer methods of self-defeat available and a much less complex interaction with peers. Then too, society was much less interested in protecting us from ourselves which had a tendency to enforce common sense. I broke skin and bones any number of times as a child and as a result I make much better judgement calls as an adult. Sometimes it’s better to point at the stove and say “Hot!” and then step back and let reality prove the point that sometimes it’s wise to listen to the adults. Saying “Hot!” and then building walls is really only going to delay the inevitable contact between stove and finger.

There is no question that life is vastly more complex today than it was as I grew up. We didn’t face things like school shootings –although bullying was as prevalent then as it is now. Thanks to technology bullying is more pervasive and can intensify it though. My youth was replete with cliques and vicious competition, but there was a different quality to it. I believe that society today enforces greater self-absorption than in my younger years. Robert Ringer’s 1978 book Looking Out for Number One was a harbinger for a change in focus, a narrowing of it which is visible everywhere. The concept of the public servant has fallen away to the concept of leader, public service deteriorated into self-serving advancement. Even our sports heroes have become tarnished as self-indulgent behavior puts them in the news for very unsportsmanlike conduct.  The cream of the societal crop offers a poor example, economic depression disparages the future, ubiquitous advertising pressures us towards instant gratification that’s obviously unobtainable. It’s difficult to be an adult never mind a child, and even more daunting when the children demand individually tuned challenges and guidance.

Yet that is what troubled teens must have if they’ve any real chance at success. Society must realize that the castaways of the mainstream are simply a category of youth that should be included in the targeting of health care and education. Just as we’re waking up to the concepts of autism and Asperger, and redefining the issues of attention deficit into specific syndromes and disorders, there needs be a category for kids who struggle besides juvenile delinquency.  As a child raised Catholic I asked the priests and nuns in catechism how far did space go, and when it stopped, what was there. “What is space in?” I asked. I was invariably told that it was one of God’s mysteries. I refused that answer. “Well,” I would say, “You talk to God, so ask him. I’ll wait. Go ahead.” and then stand there with my little arms crossed and my toe tapping. I have the same impatience with those who say “I don’t know what the problem is” and discard a child’s needs. Just as the nuns and priests held themselves up to me as the authority for things celestial and then failed to walk the walk, I see education and health care managers similarly. I don’t want to hear euphemisms for “I don’t know and I don’t want to take the effort to find out.” I want to see all kids appropriately challenged, regardless of who it troubles.