“These Are the Best Years of Our Lives”

by Hazel (’13)

“Best” is sometimes substituted with “easiest.” Either way, this is a statement a lot of teenagers have heard. And sure, maybe the stakes are lower. There’s all that “do well in school or you won’t get into college” stuff, but it’s not like a teenager has to worry about the mortgage or feeding their kids. The “job” they perform most days of the week does not have extrinsic value, that is, it is not providing a good or service for which they are paid.

But let’s stop and think about that for a moment. High school age kids are spending at least six hours a day (that’s without lunch and passing periods) doing essentially meaningless work (I’ll go further into that one in a moment) in a space where their competence is doubted, their movements are restricted and monitored, and whatever constitutional rights they have as minors come second to maintaining order. Then comes the hours of homework that swallow their afternoons. And evenings. And weekends. Recreation hours are tinged with the stress of looming work and the guilt of “unproductive time.”

Now let’s talk about schoolwork. It’s not as though learning is a meaningless activity. I personally love to accrue more and more information, apply it to new situations, see how it all fits together. But teachers, whether they want to or not, cannot simply teach. They must follow a curriculum that culminates in standardized tests that, in some cases, test a student’s ability to take standardized tests as much as their understanding of the subject. Some teachers give homework because it is what is expected or because they would be reprimanded for failing to do so.

And now: the brain. We all know that teenage brains are a strange soup of hormones and angst, undergoing constant development. I recently heard Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor speaking on City Arts and Lectures about the teenage brain. She talked about the amygdala, which controls the “fight or flight” reflex—that is, in the presence of possible danger it prepares the mind and body for confrontation or escape. Apparently, the teenage amygdala is more easily activated, and thus teenagers are more likely to react to stressful situations (whether danger is real or perceived) with something of an “oh god I’m going to die” response (that’s what we call “scientific lingo”). This is even more true in depressed teens.

In the “Motivation and Work” chapter of my Psychology textbook, one can find this passage:

“People’s quality of life increases when they are purposefully engaged. Between the anxiety of being overwhelmed and stressed, and the apathy of being underwhelmed and bored, lies a zone in which people experience flow.”

(486, Psychology: 7th Edition by David G. Myers)

I can agree wholeheartedly with the first sentence, but I take issue with the second. Many (if not most) high schoolers are stressed and bored by the work they are assigned. The adolescent frustration with schoolwork is not based so much around quantity as quality. A huge volume of busywork will not teach a teenager anything, both because it is badly designed work and because the amount is impossible to cope with. A small amount of revised, concentrated work will present a student with new information in a challenging and engaging format without overloading their brain with superfluous data.

Teenagers can be irrational, surly, dramatic, moody. This I will not deny. However, at least part of that must be attributed to the overhauling and reprogramming of their brains. Another part must be attributed to an educational system that is designed by adults, who struggle to create lessons and an overall institution that will benefit people whose brain functions they do not understand. Another bit of responsibility goes to the scorn teenagers face as inexperienced children trying to stay afloat among all this.

I am a poster child for inexperienced youth. There are all sorts of folks out there who can tell you in more detail and more depth about these exact issues. I’m mostly here to say, go look for them, because it’s interesting and it’s important. I’m also here to say, on behalf of teenagers, sorry we’re grouchy sometimes. It’s scary over here, and we’re doing what we can.

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