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?