Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Emotions of Adolescence

Joining our sixth grade students on their trip to the mountains of New Mexico last week and watching them interact with one another brought back to me how exciting and turbulent the middle school years can be. One would think that this would not be a revelation since I have been spending time with adolescents for over twenty years. However, last week’s experience was different as I watched eleven and twelve- year old students socialize and have fun with each other away from school. It was with a sense of nostalgia and humor that the other adults and I recalled our years in middle school.

The friendships then seemed closer and the emotions seemed more intense. As the narrator-character called “The Writer” in the movie Stand By Me, (which is based on a Stephen King short story called The Body) says, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” At Apple Mountain, boys and girls walked arm in arm like they would never part. The laughter that sixth graders share with each other is deeper and more from the belly than the kind of laughter we have as adults; similarly, the tears that they sometimes shed can seem more full than what they might experience later in life. I remembered my friends from sixth grade and how their opinion meant everything to me.

I also shared with my colleagues my memories of the way I felt after a middle school romance went awry. Was it pain, humiliation, or a combination of both, that prompted me to ride my bike for miles and miles? As I watched the students last week, I wished for them that they would never experience the pain I felt, but I knew that sooner or later they would, and like me, they will eventually get over it (even though they might not think that’s possible).

Although what I experienced was no different than what almost every adolescent goes through, I thought at that time that nobody could ever understand what I was feeling. Maybe this is why plays like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet resonate with us so deeply. When we remember that Romeo and Juliet were young adults in the throes of adolescence, when we recall that like other teenagers they were passionate and impetuous, the extremity of their emotions make painful sense; like so much else, Shakespeare got it right.

Stephen Marche, the author of How Shakespeare Changed Everything, says,
“Shakespeare described the terrifying beauty of the adolescent so early in its development, and so definitively and so thoroughly, that it is only slightly an exaggeration to say that he invented teenagers as we know them today. “Romeo and Juliet,” his extended study of the humiliations and glories of adolescence, is the biggest hit of all time and, unlike most of Shakespeare’s works, it has never slipped out of fashion.

This shouldn’t be surprising: People just love to watch a couple of dumb kids make out and die. (And they are awfully young, these dumb Veronese kids; Shakespeare doesn’t ever tell us Romeo’s exact age but we know that Juliet is just 13.) The great French scholar Philippe Ari├Ęs concluded that for most of the Medieval period “people had no idea of what we call adolescence, and the idea was a long time taking shape.” Yet our whole modern understanding of adolescence is there to be found in this play. Shakespeare essentially created this new category of humanity, and in place of the usual mix of nostalgia and loathing with which we regard adolescents (and adolescence), Shakespeare would have us look at teenagers in a spirit of wonder. He loves his teenagers even as he paints them in all their absurdity and nastiness.

Of course, the most important feature of adolescent rebellion is that it’s doomed. In this, as well, Shakespeare was right there at the beginning. He defined what it means to be “star-cross’d.” The opposition between the adolescent and the mature orders of the world can have only two possible endings. One is comic: the teenager grows up, develops a sense of humor, marries, has kids, moves to the suburbs, gets fat and becomes boring. The other is tragic: the teenager blows up in a blaze of glory. We much prefer to live the comedy. We much prefer to watch the tragedy.”


As adults, we should try to recall the turbulence of our own adolescent experience if we’re going to be able to relate to our children. We need to admire their passion and help them direct it in productive ways. We should be understanding when they believe that their world is in chaos. When we become impatient with their narcissism and their belief that nobody has ever gone through what they are dealing with, we should honor the fact that this is the first time for them, so what others have experienced may not be relevant. What may feel like teen drama to us is their lives being lived to the fullest, and while we know that things will be ok tomorrow, for them that can seem too long to wait.