She asked “What are teenagers like today?” And I must have looked fluxummoned because she added “I mean are they optimistic? What do they think about?”
As a high school principal it isn’t unusual that I’d be asked about my job or my school, and I keep a raft of stories on hand to help explain why I like both what I do and where I get to do it, but that question, delivered so earnestly by a friend’s wife, caught me off guard.
“They are optimistic,” I answered, “and they think about all kinds of things.”
I shrugged. “College and what comes after high school.” I answered, “and what’s going on at school too. Just like we did, they talk about prom and classes and the school activities they do.”
She nodded, not sure.
“I think they talk more about their interests than what jobs they want to do, which makes sense I suppose when you look at all those studies about how many career changes this generation will have over the course of their lives.”
My friend and I looked at each other at that point, reflecting aloud on the fact that we’d both been in our specific careers for about two decades. The world was different then and the skills and attitudes we developed reflected an age now gone.
“A lot of the students at my school are more comfortable with adults than we were,” I added, “though I think the attitudes of the adults have a lot to do with that. And at San Dieguito the students really seem comfortable in their own skins. They’re figuring out who they are, and you see it reflected in what they wear: capes, suits, t-shirts handmade in our screen printing shop. It may not be the norm everywhere,” I acknowledged, “but at SDA the kids seem accepting and really kind.”
“Kinder than we were?” My friend’s wife asked.
A torrent of 1980s teen movies rushed through my mind. How similar was my own growing up to a film by John Hughes. Well, maybe not so dramatic, but the setting always felt familiar.
“I think so.”
Even with this culture of kindness, however, the usual teenage angst exists. Asking someone to go through their high school years without anxiety and self consciousness would be like asking a marathoner not to sweat, but…
I think teenagers today are more optimistic and better balanced today because they think more about who they are becoming than what they want to do for work.
The students I know seem to understand that line from Sartre: “We are what we are becoming.” They know that what they do at school helps to create who they will be in life beyond school. They think about all the petty dramas of the teenage years, as we all did in our time, and also seem to have a greater collective understanding (than my generation, anyway) that they can make a difference.
What are teenagers like today? The ones I know aren’t just optimistic about their own futures; the young adults in my life make me optimistic about our future.