I was an idiot as a teenager. I was not malicious, mostly, though prone to selfishness and the inherent narcissism of an only child in his teenage years. An athlete and solid student, I got the cultural approval of the suburban 1980s and took for granted that I was a white, middle class, and male.
That’s not to say that I flaunted my privilege, or was really cognizant of it, but I realize in retrospect that what I imagined to be confidence could have been seen by some as arrogance or even callousness.
One of the realities of reaching one’s forties is an acceptance, and occasionally healthy embarrassment, of our teenage years. It’s a luxury we deny ourselves in the moment, and a perspective gained only with the passing of time.
As a high school principal, I have the opportunity to watch amazing students transform from kids into young adults. They come to us wide eyed freshmen, described by a friend of mine, another site administrator, as “eighth grade a dayers.” They leave to professional lives in college, trades, and the military. It’s a transformation that can feel like a whiplash.
…and it isn’t always pretty.
Nor should it be.
Adolescence is a time of discovering identity, pushing boundaries, and students finding their own voices. That there will be missteps along the way is a truth as old as time.
It helps me to remember this when I work with students. Those teenagers so passionate about issues that mean so much to them now, and may be forgotten by the time they are thirty, are doing what they need to do to learn how to fight for a cause, stand up against perceived injustice, and speak their minds.
Listening to them does more than simply help the students grow; it can help adults like me become more thoughtful, patient, and purposeful educators.
And when they treat us or each other more harshly than we’d like, or speak before they think of others, or even act in ways that feel rude, perhaps because they are, those moments may just be the opportunities they need to learn. They also may be the opportunities we need to remember, remember our own adolescent years.
…and show empathy.
A wise parent, who had found herself in my office years ago because of a poor choice her child had made, once provided me with a line of perspective that has stuck with me for the better part of a decade. It was weeks after we’d met that first stressful time and we found ourselves standing next to each other at a ballgame, cheering on the freshman team.
We chatted briefly, and I made some kind of comment about her student’s improved behavior. Without embarrassment or anger she smiled and said: “Fourteen doesn’t look good on anyone.”
It’s hyperbolic, of course, but was certainly true of me, and it helps me keep in perspective that all of us do well when we remember that line from Shakespeare: “The quality of mercy is not strained.”
I was an English and Philosophy double major, but it took me until I was close to forty before I really, really understood what Shakespeare was saying. I needed life, not just school, to teach me that.
Truth be told, in the thick of things, when emotions are high and it would be a good idea for everyone in the room to take a breath and a big step back, it’s not always Shakespeare I think of.
I’d like to say I picture Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, or someone with far more patience and wisdom than I’ve ever had, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, and these are sometimes the best I can do, I simply whisper to myself: “Just remember your own idiocy.” Not perhaps the slogan I want to put on a t-shirt or get tattooed on my arm, but a prompting nonetheless to slow down and do better.
However we get to it, our lives and the lives of those around us, are better when we can apply to everyone we meet, empathy, understanding, and that unstrained quality, mercy.