Friday, March 8, 2013

The wisdom of teenagers

For the past 48 hours, I've spent more time than usual with folks between the ages of 14 and 17. And learned a few things. Last night, I took my nephew and his friend to see a 60s-era group at the Blue Note, called the Jazz Crusaders. Both boys go to LaGuardia, a performing arts high school (aka the "Fame" school), and both are wild about music. They spent the half hour before the show started talking about jazz riffs and minor scales and improv wars in 8th period. When I asked them if there were cliques in their school, and what they were, they answered, "The drama kids. And the art kids. And the dancers. And the instrumentalists." Sigh. In my high school, it was the nerds (my group, though we liked to call ourselves the smart kids), the jocks and cheerleaders (also known as the cool kids, aka the mean kids) and burn outs. Wish I'd gone to LaGuardia.

After the concert, my nephew, who plays the trombone, decided he wanted to try and ask the leader of the group, also a trombonist, some questions. So he waited outside the little room where the musicians were eating, struck up a conversation with one when he happened to come into the hall, and soon after, got invited back into the room with them, where he spent 15 minutes getting a lesson on technique and advice from the masters. As for myself, I was lurking shyly outside the door, realizing that my nephew was braver than I am in this regard. (I get tongue tied around people of note, whether musicians or any other celebrities, however minor.) I admire my nephew's confidence. I need to borrow some of it.

Then, today, I volunteered to help out a former SELF colleague who is now student teaching at the Lab School, another NYC public high school. She is doing a project on kids and writing, and she asked me to come in and talk to the kids about personal essays and the writing process.  I spent the day there, starting at 9:30, taking questions from four 11th grade English classes.

It was quite the experience to be plunged back into high school, with the lockers and kids sprawled on the floor between classes, most looking, as my nephew does,  caught between innocent childhood and impending adulthood,  with child-like faces on hulking or voluptuous bodies. People truly in a physical limbo state. (Mental and emotional, too)

I was nervous about whether these kids would care about what I had to say, but they'd read a few of my essays and blew me away with their thoughtful questions on writing, writer's block, my process (wish I had one!), the pros and cons about writing about people you know, etc., etc. As the day passed, I started feeling like: These kids see me as a writer. I need to write, damnit. I need to have a process. They wanted to know if I sat down and wrote every day. (Nope.) And other things along those lines. I told them that sometimes adults needed to work on their discipline, too, and gave advice on how to soldier on, even when you don't feel like it, advice I need to take myself.

One girl said to me, and I'm paraphrasing, because English wasn't her first language, "How come you choose to write about not  having confidence when so many other people glorify themselves? I like that you don't pretend to be so great. Thank you."

I need to spend more time around teenagers.