Helping Teens Explore Identities
Every week, I teach personal essay writing to middle schoolers at The TEAK Fellowship, and I think a lot about how identities are formed. This week, I wanted to find an essay by a trans author for them to read. This is an identity marker many students–and many adults–still feel confused about.
Confusion is not unhealthy; ignorance is. One job of a writer, and a teacher, and maybe just a decent person, is to do the work to clear ignorance cobwebs from our eyes. It can be messy.
We need to see them
I spend a lot of time with teens, listening to them, thinking about them and what they need. Whenever possible, I laugh with them, allowing them to poke fun at adults, myself included, our hypocrisies and short-comings. There’s lots of material there.
I read great essays from them on the ways we’ve not stacked up, everything from leaving water running while we brush our teeth (though we ask them not to) to insulting their weight (when they weren’t upset about it) to berating them for getting F’s without asking about their days. Their criticism is for a purpose, not superfluous. They are in the process of deciding which adult identities are worth growing into.
That said, I believe more than ever, our teens need to see their teachers (and, frankly, as many adults in their world as possible) stand up against erasure and misbegotten hatred of individuals and groups. Our teens need to know, if it was them at risk, that their identity, their selves, would be protected, too. Seen. Celebrated, especially.
Art for all our identities
That’s what art, and in particular the art of the personal essay, is for (or one of the things, anyway). When we write, we look into identity closely, to understand how a person comes to be themselves, what has shaped them. To share that through style and craft. To open yourself up to others. To transmute pain.
No matter who teens are in the process of becoming, each needs to know they belong–somewhere or everywhere. That they are precious and perfect, even (especially?) when they are being scornful, rejecting, and angry about the world their adults have created. Their neural wiring and hormones are urging them into individuality. And yet it’s easy and perilous for them to absorb all the social messages that if you don’t fit in a very tight, often very white cookie cutter, forget it.
So read, read, read, about the stories of others.
Your Identities Welcomed Here
Supporting teens is not woo-woo, it’s essential for mental health and for a civil, compassionate society in the next gen. It’s essential for us adults to be kind and accessible, to encourage them in their search for their identities rather than limiting them. Too often in our current tense political climate, and in certain environments, this support is completely absent. Hostility, conformity, and fear of other loom large. So adults who know better must insist on the teen’s right to a healthy individual self. However they express their identity, so long as it DOES NOT DO HARM TO OTHERS (i.e. no bigots, please), is sacred, awesome, and beautiful.
Personal Essay by Trans Author
On that note, I thought I’d share what we’re reading. In this personal essay, Silas Hansen sorts through his boy-girl identity– he writes:
“But then there’s my second life, where the most out-of-the-ordinary thing about me is that I use the phrase “to be” (i.e., this needs to be cleaned—instead of this needs cleaned, the favored sentence construction among Muncie natives). That’s who watches football on Sunday afternoons and plays bar trivia on Tuesday nights and grades essays on Saturday at Starbucks. In this second life, I question everything I post on Facebook and Twitter because I’m friends with the other trivia night regulars and the guys who talk to me about football at the bar. I’m always afraid they’ll figure it out. I’m careful to change the details when I talk about my childhood—girl scouts becomes boy scouts, softball becomes baseball, gym teachers become men, the crushes I had on girls in high school caused angst for boring teenage boy reasons.”
Read Silas Hansen’s essay here.
I suggest free-writing your response to these questions.
What parts of your past do you tell in more than one way? Who gets the “real” version? Who in the public realm pushes and inspires you that it’s safe to be honest about who you are? Who encourages you in private, and really knows you?
Food for thought
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