I spent the weekend at a retreat for teens that focused on The Hunger Games and the role of YA (young adult) dystopian texts in our current world. And while it was a bit exhausting to prepare for it, it was exhilarating to be at it. As anyone who likes working with teens will tell you, teens are filled with the kind of energy that when around a collective body of them, you can’t help but absorb some of it. If they were modern pop-culture vampires, we’d all get contact sparkles from them.
My resume reads like I am precisely the sort of person who likes working with teens. All but one job I’ve had since turning 19 has involved working with teens. And like most of my peers, I do not work with teens because of some need to revisit my own teen experiences and years. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth.
I work with teens because they give me hope.
My teen years were dark ones with barely enough bright spots to keep me going. Dental care without Novocain would be preferable to reliving those dark, dark times.
And yet, my professional life and the literature I write, is filled with the same darkness.
They say “write what you know” and I do. I write about the lives of young people and what both holds them back and yet propels them forward. Some is from my own experiences, but most is from the lives of young people I have known since I too was young. Friends from middle school, students I had in remedial writing classes, teens at outdoor ministry camps…they all are the threads by which I weave tapestries.
Many adults tell me that books such as The Hunger Games are too dark and disturbing for teens to be reading. And yet, without dark and disturbing novels to read and then discuss with others, what are adults “telling” young people?
I think the message is that the darkness in their own lives is a burden to carry alone. And that is a message that kills.
I know I certainly felt very alone during the darkest years of my youth. And while years of eating disorders and self-harming did not actually kill me, they most certainly changed me. They changed me into someone who wanted the darkness to end.
I grew up on a farm and even when we no longer lived on the farm, we still had many of the remnants of farm life. Remnants including a large collection of guns and rifles. The first time I held a gun was not when my father took me out to teach me to shoot. It was years before when I held it on the side porch, the cold winter winds howling just outside the door and I thought about where the best place to use the gun would be…where to put the barrel to increase its effectiveness, where to stand so the mess would be easy for my mother to clean up. I think I was about nine that time. It was a scene that repeats several times in my youth, but it always ends the same way. I put the gun or rifle down and walked away.
I didn’t kill myself because of a handful of reasons. The biggest reason wasn’t because of how much I loved certain people in my life. No, it was because I wasn’t sure what would come next. As an agnostic, it wasn’t that I worried about the notion of hell but it also meant I held no belief in heaven. The bullet I planned to use would simply be the end. And I couldn’t let go of the what-if.
I couldn’t let go of my hope that what would come next in my life would be better. So I set the gun aside, I closed the box of bullets, I rubbed the smell of oil and metal and death off my hands, and I tried to have hope.
Whenever I am around teens, I see them struggling to have hope. But I also see that their hope is right there, hiding just below their surface as mine was all those years ago. I also see how they cope with their struggles. I see the cuts and baggy clothes, their tearstained faces and their bone-crushing tiredness, their bravado bolstered by drugs and alcohol and sex. I see them because in them I see myself.
I see the human condition of searching for ourselves and searching for a reason to still have hope.
If you don’t know the power of hope, then you have never witnessed the strength of a single flickering flame on a very dark night. When you are a teen, lost in the darkness of life, any flicker of hope may be what allows you to find your way again.
And if that way is through the worlds created by novelists and novels, than so be it. If you are really, really lucky, it will be through the lives of teens not only in books, but in your everyday acts. And if you are me, it will be when you go to work.