Saturday, May 31, 2008

Intro and Five Things You Don't Know About Your Teen

I started this blog for a bunch of reasons:
(1) I like to write.
(2) I like for people to read what I write.
(3) I needed a place to self-promote, quite shamelessly, things I've written.
(4) Every living being west of the asteroid belt seems to have a blog, so I figured it was some kind of law or something.
(5) I'm a high school English teacher, and I have a few things to say-- about teaching and literature, sure, but mostly, about teenagers. And get this: I actually have good things to say about teens, which I know is a rarity nowadays.
(6) Did I mention the shameless self-promotion?

My First! Post! Ever! is actually a re-print of a piece that was published previously, back on March 7, 2004, in the Hartford Courant's now-defunct Sunday supplement, Northeast Magazine. They published it under the headline, "Five Things You Don't Know about Your Teen," but the piece is actually a lot more positive than the title suggests. (A few months later, in August 4, 2004, the delightfully-named The Louisville Eccentric Observer ran the piece under the headline, "Dear Mom and Dad...) Anyway, I give you...

Mark R. Dursin

I’m your child’s other parent.

That’s right: as a high school teacher, I am compelled, under the law, to act “in loco parentis”—a parental proxy, in other words. Now, the “in loco parentis” concept does allow for some subtle yet important distinctions between you, the parent, and me, the teacher. For example, while you may currently have two or three children, I have about one hundred and six. On the other hand, while I prepare your kids for college, you actually pay for college. As I said, subtle yet important distinctions.

Since we are conspiring in the raising of your child, I thought I might share some information with you about what your teenage son or daughter is doing weekdays from 7AM to 3PM. And so, for all unsuspecting moms and dads out there, here are five things you may not know about your teen, from your parent-partner:

1. Your child is smart but is afraid to show it. I graduated from high school in the late 80’s. Since then, a lot has happened: my electronic typewriter is no longer the most technologically advanced machine the world has ever known; Dennis Miller has gone from telling jokes to being a joke; and Michael Jackson put out four albums that no one bought.

But one thing has remained constant through the years: it’s still not socially acceptable for students to be too smart. So many times, I’ve seen students (males, mostly) make an important insight in class and then immediately follow it up with some sort of dismissive, goofy aside—as if to say, “Any relation between me and that smart thing that came out of my mouth was purely coincidental.” Cool always trumps smart, even in our post-“Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” era.

The thing is, I believe your teens really are intelligent. Especially in their written work (when they don’t have to worry about what their peers might think), they come up with truly thought-provoking ideas. Believe me, I’ve read Catcher in the Rye about twenty times, and they can still teach me something new about Holden Caulfield and the Central Park ducks.

Moreover, when they let the fa├žade of “cool” slip just a bit, they teach each other. All English teachers have triumphant tales of “those” discussions: those classes when everyone’s “on,” everyone’s contributing, and you can actually feel the energy of their ideas. Your children make that happen. I just wish they allowed themselves to let it happen more often.

2. Your child is tired and is not afraid to show it. The bad news (which I’m sure you’ve heard by now): adolescents don’t get anywhere near enough sleep at night. The good news: they do catch up on some shut-eye during periods 1, 2, and 3. According to the National Sleep Foundation, teenagers aren’t getting the necessary nine hours of sleep. Now, granted, I don’t know anyone out of Pampers who does; the difference, apparently, is that teens can’t help it. See, these things called “circadian rhythms” prevent your teens from going to bed earlier—that, and the fact that they stay up until 2AM instant-messaging their equally exhausted friends.

Of course, one could counter that teens aren’t getting enough sleep because teachers assign too much homework, and I agree that many students might stay up until the wee hours doing their algebra. However, there are probably just as many staying up late watching Office Space on Comedy Central for the nineteenth time this month.

Simple fact: teens like to stay up late, and I’m not sure what parents and educators can do about it. Even if school started an hour later, teens would probably go to bed an hour later.

3. Your child believes spelling doesn’t count. Blame it on e-mail. Blame it on the push in education toward “higher order thinking.” Heck, blame it on the hostile coup of Sesame Street by Elmo. Whatever the reason, many students have seemingly jettisoned spelling as something necessary to know.

Homonyms—for example, “it’s/ its”, “there/their/they’re”, “you’re/ your”, or “two/too/to”—remain unsolved mysteries of the universe. Capitalization has gone by the boards. And I’ve seen so many permutations of “beginning” that I’m not even sure if I spelled it correctly in this sentence.

On a related note, teens also tend to fumble parts of speech. I’ve even asked my classes, “How did you get to high school without knowing the difference between nouns and adjectives?” Their answer? “Every teacher figured we should have learned that stuff the year before.”

(Incidentally, I realize this “spelling” thing seems to conflict with my earlier observation, about how many great ideas your teens have. In fact, their ideas are great. The ability to express these ideas in standard written English— well, that needs some work.)

4. Your child doesn’t want to grow up. I know what your 18-year-old daughter says: she resents being treated as a child. She postures, swaggers, and asserts herself as a completely independent being who can vote, drive, and see R-rated movies. Guess what? In school, this same “young adult” is begging her teacher to let them play “7-Up” in class, just once.

You remember “7-Up”: the game where you put your head down and hold up your thumb, the one you probably played in summer camp when you were eight. Well, high schoolers love it. I’ve asked my colleagues about this, and they confirmed: kids clamor for “7-Up” in their classes, too.

Your teenagers—the ones going away to college in a few years—loved Finding Nemo. They love coloring and gluing. They love being read to. They take comfort in the experiences that remind them of their childhood, even as they insist they’re “all grown up.” They want to move into adulthood, but they’re frightened; they know a day will come when they won’t be able to play “7-Up” anymore, and it scares them. They don’t realize this in-between-ness ranks as one of their most endearing qualities.

5. Your child cares. According to prevailing myths, teens live completely self-absorbed existences; they care about nothing and no one outside themselves. And these are the people who are going to inherit the earth, the ones that are going to take care of us adult-folk when we get old. That thought gives a lot of people sleepless nights. These myths about teens are usually perpetuated by people who don’t actually know any teens personally.

As someone who has worked with students for eight years, I can assure you that your child is indeed capable of tremendous feeling. They care for each other, for their parents, for the suffering innocents. And yes, they even care for their teachers.

I know this firsthand: several years ago, my first high school teaching job was cut due to budget restrictions. When word of this got out, about twenty-five students showed up at a Board of Education meeting to argue on my behalf. They were not asked to do this, nor did they have anything to gain by doing so. They did this because they cared—about their learning, about their school, about me.

“These kids are going to watch over me when I’m old,” the mythmakers shudder. This thought keeps them awake at night. Well, I work with teens, and I sleep fine. You should too.

After all, someone in your house needs to get those nine hours of sleep.