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Adolescents and adolescence: the glass really is half-full

Recently I was invited to be the guest clinician for a school district’s new young men’s choral festival. The original composition of the festival changed over the course of planning and, long story short, I ended up with a group of 79 fourth- through ninth-grade male singers. It was a diverse group of boys and young men who were (mostly) excited for a Saturday full of singing. We discussed vocal anatomy and voice change; we danced to music; we used our voices in a myriad of ways. The singers were loud and wiggly, raw and polished, playful and serious, and as the day progressed, the endearing odor of sweaty adolescent filled the space and we concluded the day with a wonderful concert brimming with adolescent sincerity.

However, one moment during the day was so poignant and powerful that, in my mind, it defined the entire experience. In the front row of chairs stood a very tiny fourth grade boy, whom we will call “James.” It was quite clear that James was overwhelmed by everything, especially the size of the other boys in attendance. He stood so still in the front row clutching his white three-ring binder of music with his Mickey Mouse winter coat zipped up to his chin long after rehearsal had begun, even after other teachers and I encouraged him to join in and make himself comfortable. At one point, James did remove his coat and was trying to follow his music, but was so lost. As I started to walk to him to provide some help, a seventh grade boy from the back row, “Alex,” emerged from nowhere, crouched beside James and said, “Can I help you? You seem like you could use a little extra help.” Alex stayed with James for a while and helped him get on track with his music before retreating to his place again in the back row. And every so often, Alex checked in with James to make sure he was okay.

I was so struck by the completely unsolicited help that Alex provided to James. Alex helped him because he needed help. It was simply the right thing to do. And it was executed in such a caring and sweet way that I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own small son and my hope that others are as kind to him when he needs help. As the day continued, I saw many additional moments when the boys took care of each other, from sharing music to helping others match pitch to applauding and high-fiving one another for little and big efforts. During the concert that evening, I made a point to tell the audience that they have amazing students who demonstrated numerous acts of humanity towards one another. I may or may not have said, “And anyone who says that adolescent boys can’t be compassionate…well….screw them” but it’s a bit foggy. I do remember the look on the faces in the crowd–grins and smiles and nodding “yes” with their heads and applause. They know what their adolescent students are capable of and they are proud of their adolescents. It was important for them to know that someone recognized it in their child as well.

When working with adolescents of all genders, I often see positive gestures and action towards others. These moments continually reinforce my admiration for the age group, for I know and believe that adolescents are capable of carrying out amazing acts of kindness and humanity, they know right from wrong, and they have much to offer the world. I have seen it in action. Unfortunately, these sorts of positive interactions and gestures are overwhelmingly eclipsed by stories of angst, risk-taking, and bad decision-making in the media and on television, reinforcing the stereotype that adolescents are generally troubled, challenging, and brooding people. Based on their reaction to my comments, that crowd at the concert knows what the larger society generally thinks about their adolescent child and it is unpleasant. Ian McMahan wrote the following in his book Adolescence:

I dropped by a large bookstore and browsed in the Parenting department. The books were arranged by age. On the first shelves, I noticed such titles as The Magic Years, How to Raise a Happy Baby, and Kids Are Worth It. The covers featured cute, smiling babies and attractive, smiling parents. Then I moved a few feet to the right, to the Adolescence section. Some of the titles caught my eye: The Roller Coaster Years, How to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble, How to Stop the Battle with Your Teenager, How to Keep Your Teenager from Driving You Crazy, Yes, Your Teen Is Crazy! Clearly, the idea that adolescence has to be a time of “storm and stress” is alive and well and living at Barnes & Noble! (McMahan 2008, 156)

I cannot count the number of times that I’ve received a negative reaction from someone when I tell them how much I enjoy working with adolescents–the instances are truly countless from over the years. So a large factor in my becoming a music teacher educator has been to change the minds of people about adolescents and adolescence. I am on a self-appointed mission to fight deficit perceptions of adolescents. To glaringly point out their senses of humor, wit, intelligence, innocence, wickedness, compassion and empathy to others so that they are viewed in different lights and more supported and celebrated. Adolescence is a remarkably wonderful and important time of transition, as the recent movie Inside Out, shows us. And although adolescence is not easy, navigating from child to adult can be a very positive experience if we continue to keep the perception glass half-full.

Image credit: “Sycamore High School March Orchestra Concert 2014” by Meredith Bell. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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