Earlier this month, I took my fifteen year old son, his best friend and his friend’s mother to the wonderful Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington DC to hear Jason Reynolds and Brandon Kiely speak about their important new book All American Boys. The book is a fictional account of a racially motivated police brutality incident told by two narrators, one written by each author. Their talk was emotional, compelling and charming. The two authors have been traveling the country to speak to students in their schools about racism, police brutality, and hope. The audience at the bookstore was made up of nearly all adults. There were four actual young adults in the Young Adult book event. I wished there had been more teens at the event, but I was happy that I had brought half of those in attendance.
After the readings by each author set the scene, the discussion got really interesting. All the adults were intensely interested in how the visits to schools had been going and asked the authors to tell us about how the teens they’d spoken to have been reacting to the news of police brutality and racial tension. It was heartening to hear that Jason and Brendan had visited both posh private schools and inner city schools in their book tour. They are doing such important work by just showing up to these schools and even more so by talking to and listening to the students whom they encounter. Their report was that most students remain hopeful and engaged. They want to grapple with race and violence and are eager for adults to help them untangle these issues with them.
Then, Jason Reynolds said something that stopped me. He said that he always tells students that they are a part of the most extraordinary and important generation to ever live. They typically are skeptical of this pronouncement. He then went on to explain to us that he tells them honestly that if someone had come to him and his friends and asked them, “If I asked you to answer any question, could you find the answer?” People in Jason’s generation (and mine) would have said, “Maybe.” However, if you ask teens today the same question, their answer would be, “Of course!” That is a dramatic difference. It’s something that I had never thought of in precisely those terms.
So, we have a generation of teenagers with the amazing knowledge that they are able to answer any question that is put to them. They can satisfy their own curiosity. What have we asked them to do with this kind of power? When it comes to vital issues that confront young people like police brutality, we haven’t asked them to sit at the table and discuss things. We haven’t given them the practice to talk to each other or to discuss things civilly. We’ve thrown up examples of screaming “debates” and uncivil discourse. Their only “jobs” in the eyes of the schools “system”, their communities and often their families are to get the best grades they can, pursue impressive looking extracurricular activities, and try to graduate high school with as little psychological or physical damage as possible. It’s not a blueprint for an active, engaged and passionate citizenry.
The problem is that teenagers have opinions. They have passionate and sometimes ill-informed opinions. They like to see how their opinions feel and sound by loudly declaring them in their speech, on t-shirts, and in the groups that they pledge allegiance to. In a time where high school grades and test scores are widely considered to be the only measure of a teenaged person that matter, it takes something extraordinary like authors visiting a school to ask what they really think to make teens willing to risk stating their thoughts when they’re not sure they can come up with the right answer. In classrooms around the country, teachers lament every day that they don’t have the time to allow their students to look for the answers that make the most sense to them. Teachers know that students can’t know what they really think or how to figure out the world without the opportunity to wander through answers that may not be right, to make mistakes and readjust, and to consult other people, sources, and experts that will allow them to refine the answers that make the most sense to them. There’s no time for that in the era of testing and data.
The danger is that the world outside of the school buildings where students spend their whole day is full of problems for which there is no multiple choice answer. The stakes out there are as high as life or death. Where can teens exercise their incredible power of finding answers to help them to decipher a world in which the answer is never as simple as A, B, C or D?
Of course, there are books. Books allow students to consider and spend time in worlds where they can consider how other people feel and see how conflict can play out in a safe way. This is why I believe that Young Adult fiction can save teens. There are also still sports teams, clubs, arts, community, religious and other outlets that teens can find to support and accept them while they work together to achieve a common goal. Though some of these programs have their drawbacks, they provide a place for teens to see complexity and nuance.
There are also adults who want to listen and find a way to help. Trusted teachers, parents, mentors, book authors, and other leaders can make a huge difference even one teen at a time. I know that you’re out there. I know that grades, extracurricular resumes are important. Please, listen to a teen and let them make mistakes. Let them say outrageous things and express their thoughts. Engage them in conversations instead of shutting them down.
Barring that, teens, look for people who understand you. Find them and let them listen. Listen to them. Stay curious and know that as I have said before, school is not real life.