Never Underestimate What a Teenager Might Say or Do, Part 1

Being well into a teaching career and/or being a parent to a teenager can amount to a whole new learning experience for those who think they know a great deal about young people.  After all, we were their ages once, correct? We tend to forget much about how the teenage mind operates, plus we underestimate how much life has changed from one generation to the next.

Volumes have been written by teachers or others who work with young people. There are nostalgic, heart-warming and surprising insights that teachers can recount about their students, and I would like to describe a couple of mine from my years as an English teacher at RHS.

With the current emphasis on treating students equally and avoiding generalities about how the two sexes differ, scientific studies currently attest to the ways that the male and female brain are vastly different from the moment of conception on. No one reading this will need to ponder the question, “Which of the two sexes is almost always more prone to taking risks and getting into physical challenges than the other?” Statistics concerning accidents and risky behavior show overwhelmingly that young males push mental and physical limits in far greater numbers than females do.

Many accounts written by trusted doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists claim that the judgment and decision-making areas of male brains are not fully developed until they are well into their twenties, and a smaller number never achieve successful decision-making skills at all.

One young man in my class exhibited the enticement that risk- taking can have. He was a student in my English class about 40 years ago.  He was well over six feet tall and of average build. We teachers had been “schooled” by Principal John Weiss that we were expected to be out in the hall at our doors during class changes so that our presence encouraged positive student behavior.

Sometimes during those sentry duties, my mind went into idle so that I was aware of the numerous young people going into my second-floor room but wasn’t necessarily noticing who they were. Just seconds before the tardy bell was about to ring, “Bill” walked through the door and even said a hello to me, and I thought to myself, “I could swear he was already in there.” Nonetheless, I figured I’d made a mistake and went on with class.

When I went down to lunch, the teacher in the ground floor classroom right below mine asked me if Bill had been in my third period class. After affirming that he had, she said, “He jumped out of your window; I was quite certain that’s who it was because I recognized his brown jacket as he plummeted by.”

I began to imagine the scenario about how someone could accomplish this feat: The ceilings in the school are not standard height; the second floor is way up there. Although there was grass where he must have landed, he was very skilled or lucky not to be injured. He had accomplished this “journey” within the span of three minutes – out the window, into the front door, through the lobby, up the stairs, and back into the classroom. Granted, as tall as he was, he must have had a very long stride and could probably take the stairs three at a time.

I gave Bill’s daredevil actions much thought afterward. In the first place, I could not think of a single girl who would have considered such an act. Secondly, Bill did not lack basic intelligence, but that had been over-ridden by what? A desire to be macho? A carryover from being a childhood show-off? A dangerous bid for attention? A testosterone level in overdrive?

Can anyone argue that it was a lack of common sense that may have been motivated by the undeveloped judgment area in the teenager’s brain? The “thrill” of jumping out of the window must have been as far as his mind went. There was nothing so far-reaching as “Doing this might get me in trouble in school.”  Any consideration about breaking bones or paralyzing himself with a broken back wasn’t part of his mindset.  I certainly doubt he had aspirations of becoming a parachutist.

I mulled over what do or say to him about the incident and decided to ignore it, but from that time on, I stationed myself right against the door jamb in order to see both into the hallway and into the room.

Teenage girls are not by any means immune to lacking foresight and judgment either, but the direction their actions go is far different. For ten years I was advisor to the school newspaper, “The Log,” and knew most of the staffers well.

“Linda” was on my staff, and she often stayed with me in the room during my conference period to help me with things. One day I told her I was going down to the office, and she asked me to lock the door on my way out, which I did. I must have returned quicker than she’d bargained for because when I opened the door, there she was in the corner at the classroom’s sink with one foot in the sink while shaving her leg.

Linda’s hygienic activity was as close as I was ever brought to “losing it” at school. I am sure I shrieked at her, “Linda, what are you doing?” (Teachers are as good with rhetorical questions as parents are). Her answer when I asked WHY she was shaving her legs was “Because they needed it.” She also was probably amazed by my reaction, as I was not at all prone to yelling or shrieking at my students.

Much later, when I mentally reviewed this incident, it became a humorous one, along the lines of “teenage minds have taken only baby steps forward in judgment issues.”  I had developed a real fondness and respect for this girl and realized that contamination of a sink with her feet had not been her concern.

Neither had Linda noticed the stack of plastic cups beside the sink, surely a clue that people took drinks from that sink. She must never have thought that other people in the school had master keys to all the rooms, and she might well have been discovered by someone else.

She had, however, pre-meditated her actions as she’d worn a mini-skirt and sandals that day, no doubt taking advantage of her considerable slimness and height. This incident was not the only one causing me to offer a piece of advice to anyone considering teaching as a career: If you are a compulsive germophobe, choose a different vocation.

Over the years, now viewing life through the eyes of an older person, I see something appealing and thought-provoking about a teen’s way of responding to things in a simplistic, “end of the story” mindset. After all, Sir George Mallory became famous for his “I climb mountains because they are there” reasoning. No psychology, no genius-level pretentions, no heroism intended. So there!

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