Monday, November 21, 2016
I remember thinking, fall of '76, that there wasn't a significant difference between high school kids I'd taught and the college kids who that fall walked into my college classroom. Not in intellect anyway. Wasn't day-and-night. Not at all.
What was striking was a difference in psyche. A high school teacher was half-time teacher and half-time therapist because half the kids were basket cases half the time. When the drama shut down, the other half took the stage. Someone was always bawling. A high school English classroom was as much about literature as crisis.
I don't remember falling apart when I was in high school. I didn't have time. I was always slinging something around on a court or a field and I just wanted to win. There was no Greek tragedy in my life, nothing remotely Shakespearean--just ball games and cheerleaders, a great life.
As a high school teacher I was a shoulder to cry on during all that high drama. Somewhere in my army surplus file cabinet, I've got yellowing notes galore from kids, most of them overexercised about some catastrophe, often petty, sometimes not.
But college kids didn't need me, and for some time that business-like attitude bothered me, not because I wanted to play the outsized role that came with high school teaching, but because I felt as cold as an information kiosk. Kids walked in, stayed awake, took some notes, asked a few questions, and walked out. End of story. No harm, no foul. No tears, no drama.
My own adolescence is a half-century behind me, all that high school teaching forty years of wilderness wandering ago. I remember my children's adolescent dramas, still carry a grudge against some kids who made my kids cry or scream, even though the whole bunch is forty years old today. No matter. This dad is still mad.
My granddaughter is midway through the second act of high school drama. I asked her about her friends not long ago. Specifically, I wondered whether young women--because the problem belonged primarily to young women--still suffered through eating disorders like they did a couple of decades ago. Social worker friends used to talk about "Siouxland Syndrome," a debilitating condition created--mostly in young women--by high expectations they picked up on their hair-trigger radar, expectations created by family and friends and community that expected nothing less than righteousness.
"Still true?" I asked her. She shook her head no, not that she knew of.
They're all liars, of course, kids that age. But this one is my granddaughter. I took her at her word.
So I'm thinking that progress has been made here, but then Time breaks that spell with a huge story about fried teenage psyches. Two million teens tell researchers their depressive days sometimes shipwreck happiness, and those kids are only the ones who talk. Not all do.
What's more, Susanna Schrobsdorff says in that article, today kids live in "a cauldron of stimulus" unlike anything I ever felt, in part because they have not only their own tempestuous lives to calm, but a seething social media life they carry along in a pocket or purse, another life that's capable, at any moment, of exploding. They're on-line all. the. time., in ways no kid in Oostburg, Wisconsin, in 1966 could even imagine. "Every fight or slight is documented online for hours or days after the incident," she says. "It's exhausting."
She says all of that, in a morbid way, helps explain "cutting," an awful behavior I knew nothing of in ye good old days. "Starting in the late 1990s," she says, "the body became a kind of billboard for self-expression--that's when tattoos and piercings went mainstream." Today the billboard body often carries self-inflicted scars. When kids "can't cope with anxiety or depression," studies say, some--many--engage in behavior we've begun to call "self-harm."
Not every kid cuts. Not every kid starves or deliberately tosses cookies. Not every kid locks him or herself up in anxiety. What I think I know is that high school teachers deal with kids at a time in their lives when the world seems a cliff and every step a fearful risk. Some things don't change. But back then there were never knives and certainly no blood.
Saturday morning, standing up on a looming cliff above the Missouri River, I came up on one of those roadside memorials that grow where friends died--you know, flowers and ribbons and toys. But this one was a hundred yards from the highway. Had to be a suicide, I thought, and somehow had to be a kid.
This morning, all that drama behind me and that long and difficult Time essay in my memory, I am thankful, deeply thankful, for men and women, young and old, information kiosks with broad, soft shoulders, who stick it out and simply are there for kids whose crackling live-wire psyches are often hard to live with. I'm thankful for teachers who are there for all the kids.
Just promise me you'll keep an eye on my precious granddaughter.