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.


  1. I like this! :) It is always an experience to spend time with an age group other than yours.

  2. Sometimes getting out of my comfort zone helps me gain a new perspective on an old problem. Thanks for the reminder! What a great experience for you.

  3. This takes me back. My daughter went to the Lab school from grade 6 through 12--great school.

    And re: intergenerational mixing, I just had an interesting experience. I've joined a book club in my new neighborhood in Queens. It was put together via a notice on a local list serve, and as it turned out, I was (by far) the oldest person to show up. Which made me a bit uncomfortable, but I decided to just go with it. And I was enjoying it--until a few days ago when I noticed that the woman (early 40s!) who organized the group put up a notice in a local cafe soliciting new members and noting that the "average age of the group is late 20s-early 40s." Now am I being totally oversensitive to take this as a sign that she would prefer that old ladies like me not inquire? And possibly would prefer that I not participate? After all, I am 20 years older than the average age. Why else would she make reference to age? For a book group?

    I know that social meetups often state an age range, and that does make sense, but it never would occur to me to do that when putting together a book group--even though I did, as I said, notice the disparity when the group began. So I was offended when I saw her note, especially since I had just had a spat with her over email regarding the next meeting.

    Then--the very next day and in the same cafe, out of the blue, I wound up having a very nice and long conversation with a woman about 10 years older than me AND a young man of 33--both strangers who happened to be sitting on either side of me. It was an interesting contrast to the "average age" experience.

  4. I don't think you should take the notice personally--I think it's all about how you feel in the group and interact with the others, and how you feel about their choice of book...
    They may just be looking to meet people in their age range, or want to pull in a few more, but I think that if you're enjoying yourself, then they are enjoying you.