Teen Post: Why Does Diversity Matter?

One of my goals for the Hippodilly Circus has been to give teenagers a place to speak and be heard.  Salem is a fantastic person who is thoughtful, brilliant and reads more books and remembers them better than anyone I know. I am honored that she has chosen to share this story with you on Hippodilly Circus. I hope that she’ll find a great and supportive response. 

Thank you, Salem! 

I’ve been in love with books for as long as I can remember. From Junie B. Jones to Mia Thermopolis, every phase of my life has been marked by a snarky heroine going on adventures. Often, readers talk about how books make them feel more connected with others, that someone else is out there like them; but that hasn’t been the majority of my experience. These characters and I go through many of the same emotions and problems, but I rarely see myself in them. Growing up, I read more about synesthesia or talking dragons than black kids. The only time there was a real black protagonist was when it was a historical novel about slavery, but black children didn’t have voices the way white children did, and neither did I.

This isn’t to say that black or other minority kids can’t properly relate to white stories, it’s the opposite. White kids aren’t expected to relate to kids of color, aren’t expected to see us as human, and so they don’t. This isn’t just a YA problem, it’s a media and societal problem with dangerous real world applications, such as when when black children are viewed as older and less innocent even after their murder, or paramedics believing black people feel less pain. Black Boys Viewed as Older, Less Innocent Than Whites, Research Finds and Racial Bias in Perceptions of Others’ Pain and many other studies reveal this to be true.  And the burden for this problem doesn’t rest entirely on the shoulders of YA, but the media we consume does greatly impact our worldview and how we treat others. It’s important for people in positions of power to be taught empathy and the struggles facing others who aren’t as privileged, and novels are a great way to impact people, especially youth.

But more importantly, minorities (racially or otherwise) need to see themselves represented. YA does a great job of amplifying women’s voices, but not a great job for really any other group. Recently I’ve been trying to actively search for less represented groups in the media I consume and it’s been hard. A big advantage of works written online such as fanfiction is that it becomes much easier to find a wider array of characters, as the authors are often people who don’t find themselves represented in the canon work. YA can be frustrating, and the bar is so, so low. Once, I saw a black girl with natural hair displayed prominently on a shelf at Barnes and Nobles, and it made me want to cry. I didn’t even buy the book, but just the fact that she was there on the cover, smiling, meant the world to me; especially knowing how hard it is to get cover art with minorities on a novel, not to mention having them marketed publicly.

There are a lot of people working hard to change this, from organizations like We Need Diverse Books to different tumblrs spotlighting diversity (such as DiversityInYA). Some of my personal favorite diverse authors include Julie Anne Peters and Randa Abdel-Fattah. Diversity matters, to both the people seeing themselves and to the privileged, and it’s our responsibility as consumers to work for the kind of fiction we want to see, and make it a reality.

Salem is a 16 year old student from Burke, Virginia and she is very excited to be given the opportunity to be published in Hippodilly Circus! She reads far too many books to choose a favorite author or book.


The Need for a Moving Circus

I think a lot about teenagers and what their lives look like.  One thing that’s glaringly obvious to me is that in the area where I live, Fairfax County, Virginia, there is NOTHING for teens to do when they’re not in school.  It’s a huge problem. Nearly all of the Middle School kids whom I’ve taught have two parents who work. Those kids leave school and go straight home where they stay alone until the next morning when they come back to school.  Some of them are the only caretakers for younger siblings until they put those young kids to bed.  It’s a lonely and frustrating life.

Oh sure, some teens are scheduled every minute of the day with sports practices and games, music lessons, dance teams, community or church activities or academic enrichment opportunities. The only teens who are involved in these things are those whose families have the money and the time to make those opportunities happen.  It’s truly a feast or famine. The teens whose families don’t have the money or time for these opportunities end up going home after school and during the summer and literally sitting in their houses for hours alone with their internet connections.   Not much good comes from these hours of isolation and waiting.

Some communities have done a great job developing “Third Places” for adults to go to and socialize and feel like they belong.  For adults those are places that are not home or work.  For teens, that place would be somewhere that isn’t school or home.  Adults can go to coffee shops or bars or sports clubs where they find their tribe and feel comfortable.  Where are those places for teens?  Why don’t we fund them?  We don’t have Boys and Girls Clubs or many YMCAs where I live.  I wish we did.

Our family just got back from a short trip to New York City. Here’s what we saw that really got me thinking.

We went to Central Park and spent some time in the huge playground there.  My twelve year old son, Lance decided to join a group of five kids playing soccer on the big circle in the middle of the playground. He asked if he could play, they said yes, then the teams were modified to accommodate a new player and as other kids joined or left, the teams were reconstituted and play resumed.  The score wasn’t kept.  Each goal was celebrated individually.  When we left, Lance thanked the kids and said goodbye.  That was it.

We have also hosted three open mic parties locally with my daughter and her friends.  Georgia Mae has invited her friends to a local restaurant that loaned us their upstairs space and sound system.  Then, the high school students just went ahead and took over.  Taking turns singing, playing songs, performing monologues and then dancing.  Various adults hung out and talked among ourselves and the teens who didn’t perform, had a great time supporting the music and other performances of those brave enough to take the stage.  It’s been enormously fun.

Here’s what these two events had in common.  The social stakes were very low.  All that was required was that you show up and play while you’re there.  The kids who came in and out of the events were welcomed without question and accepted for whatever they brought to the game.  Nobody asked if they were good soccer players or if they had an audition tape before they took the field or stage.  I didn’t hear any arguing.  I think that’s because the kids on the playground and the teens at the restaurant realized that their time to play together was so limited and they had to spend as much time as they could playing and not arguing.

I think that this is one of the reasons that teens develop such strong attachments to Young Adult books and their authors.  Books give teens a place to belong and characters to befriend without judgement.  The safety of these relationships offer comfort and connections that are lacking in their ‘real’ lives.

I can’t stop thinking about this idea of just showing up to “play” as a terrific way for teenagers to interact.  If they had the opportunity, would they?  I don’t know.  I know that when I was a teacher at Lake Braddock, I had my classroom doors open to kids who wanted a place to hang out and talk to each other or to me.  Some would come every morning (You know who you are.), some would just drop in when they felt like it and some only came in once or twice.  When I was a senior in high school, a small group of us would eat our lunch every singe day in our history teacher’s room.  Mr. Wilson was our junior year teacher and he must have had that period or at least that lunch period off.  We would stay in his classroom every day. David’s mom even started sending in cookies for all of us to share after a while.  It was the absolute best time I ever had in high school.  We all knew it was special and I don’t think many of us hung out socially after school.

Maybe this isn’t a need that is unique to teens.  My own teenage children think it would be highly suspicious and potentially weird for me to host a “teen party” and I would have to say that I agree – to an extent.

So, how could we make this kind of thing happen?  Could we have a ninja gig?  Amanda Palmer hosts what she calls “ninja gigs” where she announces the location of a spontaneous concert that she’s holding the same day that she’ll perform.  She shows up with as many of her friends and fans as can get themselves to the party and then music, companionship and partying ensue.  A Hippodilly Circus?!!!!  If I announced a circus event in a nearby park, would people come?  Not just teens, but anybody who wanted to come throw a Frisbee, blow some bubbles, play a pick up game of basketball, sing some songs, exchange some books, and meet some new people?  Maybe with such limited expectations, people would come and have a good time.  How could that be a bad thing?

Could it become contagious?


You Are Not a Fraud and You Are Not Alone

I remember being in high school and hearing advice from adults that were variations on this theme: “Find out who you really are.”  It gave me fits of terror and confusion.  First of all, what the hell does that even mean?  I was a teenage American girl who had no idea what she was doing.  I was unhappy and frustrated with my lack of self-determination and my restricted freedom.  I was a good student.  I had some great friends.  Other than that, I had no idea “who I really was.”  The fact that I heard this call to action repeatedly from all adult corners of my life made me feel even worse.  Did everyone else understand what this meant?  Were all my friends and classmates out there finding out who they really were while I was hanging out at home, studying, watching MTV, listening to music, scheming about how to stay out later and get to parties I wouldn’t enjoy, and talking on the phone for hours with them?  How did everyone but me figure out what this magical process was when I had no idea how to even start?  Why didn’t I have any idea what I was doing?

Here’s the good news:  I still have no idea what I’m doing and I don’t think that anybody truly does.  Any adult who tells you otherwise is, as the adage goes, trying to sell you something, or thinks that teenagers are beneath their time and energy.

Teenhood is arguably the most difficult time in life.  First, there’s school which takes the majority of your waking hours and your brain power just to meet your academic obligations.  Then, there’s the minefield of your social life and your family relationships, which are changing daily.  Add in the personal interests you have or would like to try plus the gaping maw of your basic sexual, racial, gender, philosophical, and religious identities, and it’s like a constant nightmare run through fun house mirrors.

The further complication is that your choices are scrutinized constantly at school, at home and not least of which, by you.  Judgments like: “Oh, so you’re a goth now?” or “Wow, when did you decide to wear frilly dresses all the time?” are not helpful and only add to the confusion.  Again, as I’ve written before, school is not real life.  In my adult life, when I have changed my hair or dyed it purple or decided to wear skirts after months of wearing only pants to work, people may notice and say something about the change, but I am not accused of trying to “be something I’m not,” or any other such nonsense.  As a teen, the judgments come fast and directly – to your face or behind your back.  The typical response to this from adults is: “Your REAL friends will accept you for who you are.” Or “You shouldn’t care what anyone else thinks.”  Teens, how helpful is that?  Adults, do you remember how unhelpful that was?

In some of the best YA books, characters struggle with this same challenge.  Ari in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz struggles with finding himself in a family that doesn’t talk about their feelings.  When he uses the word “inscrutable” to describe his father, he feels like he’s putting on airs, since he doesn’t consider himself an intellectual like his friend Dante:

“I felt like such a fraud using that word.  Maybe that was the thing about me.  I wasn’t a real boy.  I was a fraud.”

                Ari struggles through the story to accept himself, his parents and his friend Dante.  His struggle rings so true to me as does his sense of being a “fraud.”  The confusion of adolescence had always seemed to me such a muddle that was too complex and individual to name, but when I read Ari describe himself as a fraud, it really rang with recognition for me.  That’s what it feels like!  Like you’re perpetrating a fraud, and it’s just a matter of time before everyone finds out.  That terror can be absolutely debilitating.

I’m obviously not the first person to think about this concept.  In her book, The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by rock star and writer Amanda Palmers she discusses how she struggles with not feeling real her whole life.  Then she made a life changing discovery – nearly everybody feels that way.

“I didn’t know until recently how absolutely universal that feeling is.  For a long time, I thought I was alone.  Psychologists have a term for it: impostor syndrome.  But before I knew that phrase existed, I coined my own: The Fraud Police.

The Fraud Police are the imaginary, terrifying force of “real” grown-ups who you believe – at some subconscious level – are going to come knocking on your door in the middle of the night saying:

We’ve been watching you, and we have evidence that you have NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE DOING.  … we are taking everything away and we are TELLING EVERYBODY.”

                Reading that passage set of a series of realizations in my brain and my heart.  It’s a lie that we as adults continue to perpetuate.  We tell students starting in Middle School and throughout their teenhood that in order to do X you have to first have this and that credential.  You must do things in this order and you can’t just go out there and start making things up when we know perfectly well that many successful people have done just that.  They are made to fear their own instincts and doubt themselves even when they’re successful.

Why not just let them see what they can do out there?  Why not unleash them?  Are we afraid of them being disappointed or embarrassed or that we will be proven wrong?  Adults are so invested in maintaining their status as authorities on how things are done that we handicap teenagers at just the point in their lives where they should feel the most free and need the most encouragement.

Here’s what I want you to know: You are not a fraud.  No matter what you’re doing right now, it’s your thing to do or try or own.  The ridiculously elusive process of “finding yourself” isn’t a journey to locate and accept your “authentic self.”  In my experience, it’s been much more of a process of elimination.  The more I give myself the space to say, “No, I really don’t enjoy XXX,” the closer I get to paring down to what I genuinely, honestly love and want my life to be.

Having said all that, I have been accused by my students and others as “loving everything.”  It’s true.  I fall in love easily and with many things.  I am a romantic.  Teenhood isn’t the only time when we go through “phases”, life is one long series of phases, if you keep an open mind and give yourself room to change.  As an adult, I love hearing about friends’ new passions – books, music, art, politics, travel, etc.  As a teen, I always felt that I had to immediately judge their interests, ideas, and friends, and decide if I was going to join them in their enthusiasm or demean their passions as frivolous or stupid.  That’s what my parents and other adults did.

With my own children now in middle school, high school, and college I feel the pressure for them to find “their passion” and I have to check myself to make sure I’m not encouraging them solely for the purpose of adding their accomplishments to their college essays or applications.  My son, who is entering high school this year, is an amazing athlete.  As of now, he has not decided to play on any of his high school teams.  I love him and I want him to be happy.  I absolutely believe that playing on a high school team instead of the club teams that he’s played on up until now would probably be rewarding socially and physically.  Do I also think about how it might affect his options for colleges?  Of course.  Everything you do or don’t do in high school affects your college prospects.  However, one of the other perils of the pressure to “find out who you really are” is deciding not to decide or deciding not to take a risk.  Balancing the desire to find your passion against doing it for your own reasons and on your own terms is another circus act.  Walking a tightrope or flinging yourself whole heartedly off a trapeze to find out how far you can go?  Guiding a child in this search as a parent isn’t much easier than doing it for yourself.  We talk and talk and check in with each other again and again to make sure that we understand our motives and dreams as well as we can, but ultimately it’s his choice.


How Are You Listening?

Hippodilly Circus Contributor AS King is one of my favorite authors.  When I recommend her books to people, which I do often, I say that she is so honest with her characters’ voices that I often read a paragraph and feel like I’ve been punched in the gut. She captures the feelings of adolescence so honestly and without sentimentality that I am yanked right back to my teenage life and emotions. Her books heal my teenage self and let me know that someone else out there understands how I felt and still feel.  She is also passionate about changing the way we treat teens and wrote this post for Hippodillly Circus for which I am very grateful. 

I have this page-a-day calendar—it’s a Zen calendar and it’s ironic. Here’s why. I can never keep up with my page-a-day Zen calendar. It’s always yesterday when I arrive in my office. More accurately, it’s usually three days ago and then I have to find today’s page, rip off all the days in between and process centuries-old wisdom in a minute versus having a whole day to think about it. I’m kinda kidding about that part. Sometimes I don’t read the old ones at all. I was away for six days recently and ripped off six days of wisdom and put them in the trash because I just wanted to have the right date on my calendar. Not very Zen at all, if you ask me.

Yesterday’s quote, though, relates to something I’ve been meaning to write about here at Hippodilly Circus.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”—Steven Covey

Last time I wrote here Get Over It I said: “Why do adults separate themselves so much from the teen experience? I have my theories. I will explore them in future posts.”

In that post I talked about the undermining of teenagers and the subsequent expectation that they will arrive at “adulthood” with great self-esteem after years of being told that what they say and think is silly. I talk about this a lot when I do school visits and I tell students that many adults seem to have this disconnect and disrespect. I ask students to please resist it. I ask them to stay strong and believe in themselves and their dreams no matter how many adults roll their eyes at them. Students often approach me after my presentations and tell me that I was the first adult in their life who called out this appalling treatment of teenagers and their dreams. While this makes me happy, it also makes me sad. I don’t want to be the first adult who has taken any teenager seriously.

I am not a scientist, so I can’t come up with a solid reason for this teen-bashing culture. Like I said earlier, I’ve been thinking about this for decades and have theories. I’d like to bounce this one off you and see what you think.

There is a barrier between adults and teenagers. I believe it was built by adults because they saw their teen years as embarrassing and disposable. Off to college classes, keg parties, and eventually responsible jobs, and BAM, suddenly, I am an adult now. Right?

But teen years are not disposable.

Teen years are recyclable.

I believe teen years are constantly recycling. As we start working regular jobs. As we react to situations as adults. As we make decisions. As we date, marry, parent, live. I believe that who we are as adults developed in our teen years.

How does this relate to the quote from my Zen calendar? If more adults listened to teens with the intent to understand, then they would not only understand teenagers better, but they would also understand themselves better. Growth—growing up—does not stop at 18 or 22 or 35. It is a lifelong thing.

Anyone who has ever planted a tree should understand this.

I’m pretty sure teens understand this even though they are constantly bombarded with this demand to grow up. And yet, I don’t even know what that means. What is grow up? It is some sort of finite thing the way we talk about it. It is a finish line. It seems to indicate that one day, one’s emotional, intellectual, and physical states will all suddenly be finished. Like the instructions on a boxed cake. (Stick a toothpick in the middle to make sure it’s done, y’all.)

Humans beings are not cakes.

We are more like trees.

And while I’d like my Hibiscus syriacus hedge to grow faster, I have yet to walk into my back yard and tell it to grow up.

Many adults have this idea that adulthood is achieved or earned by exhibiting a set of adult-approved responses to situations. Once these have been accomplished, you are done. Free from the shackles of teenhood. Free to start handing out advice and telling teenagers what to do in order to be more mature.

We cut ourselves off from our own former teenagers, stop listening with the intent to understand, but are more than happy to reply, reply, reply.

We tell teens that if they just listened to us, they would grow up faster. Which isn’t true at all. Because they are growing up just fine. And they are growing up at their own pace. Just like a tree. And words from us—whether it’s advice or scolding or explaining how they should think—mean very little because teenagers already have their own words, thoughts, and very fantastic ideas the same as we did when we were teenagers. Except many of us disposed of those things when we shed our teen skin due to this embarrassment of having once been a sapling. Many of us are not recycling ourselves. Many of us are not in tune with who we’ve been since we were born because we decide to toss out everything before that finite age—the age where we were accepted into adulthood by the adults around us. Which is ironic, really, because many of the adults around us were not all that mature.

When I shared a link on Facebook to my original Hippodilly Circus post, I said, “I want to spend the rest of my life talking about the systemic psychological hazing teenagers in our culture undergo. We’ve all said stuff. We’ve all rolled our eyes at teenagers who are learning to live life for the first time. Why didn’t we have the same attitude about our toddlers when they were learning to walk?”

I live next door to a kid who is learning to walk. Never once has anyone rolled their eyes at this kid for falling down. And yet those adults who clap and smile at this little kid will no doubt one day judge another adult for falling down at life—getting divorced, becoming an addict, losing a job, not being whatever their idea of mature is. A friend of mine is an alcoholic. When another friend of mine heard someone worry aloud about my alcoholic friend, she said, “People get what they deserve.”

What the hell is that?

That is a perfect picture of a person who is not listening with the intent to understand.

And they are everywhere. Picture this: A tree with all but its highest branches sheared off. That’s them.

I don’t know if this theory holds up for you, reader, but I know I’ve been watching and listening for a long time and it seems to make sense to me. I know that I can’t teach anybody anything because I am my own tree: growing, recycling, trying to survive cold winters and droughts. I want to listen because I don’t have a reply.

I have many journals from my teen years. I was recently reading them. As it turns out, I was struggling with the same ideas at age 17 that I’m struggling with now. Only now, because I took those ideas seriously enough to write them down during my teen years, they have grown with me as I grew. It’s not that I never grew up; it’s that I never believed growing up was finite and I never wanted to look down at anyone and believe myself bigger no matter how tall my tree got.

I never wanted to be a leggy tree with a trunk void of branches within reach from the grass. I want to be climbed. As I grow taller, I want to look at those lower limbs—my early limbs—and watch the squirrels play on them and watch the baby birds learn how to fly a bit closer to safety and I want to appreciate what those branches are for. They are as important (if not more important) than the newest of my growth. They are closer to my roots—to the ground. They are technically the oldest parts of me.

I believe they are also the wisest.

A.S. King is the award-winning author of highly-acclaimed young adult novels including Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, Reality Boy, the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize winner Ask the Passengers, Everybody Sees the Ants, 2011 Michael L. Printz Honor Book Please Ignore Vera Dietz and the upcoming I Crawl Through It. After fifteen years living self-sufficiently and teaching literacy to adults in Ireland, she now lives in Pennsylvania. Find more at www.as-king.com.