I love listening to teenagers. The more you listen, the more they tell you. And if you’re only pretending you’re listening, or listening with an agenda, they know it. In a recent session, a student showed me that if I really listened, we could travel into a different eco-system, where caring for each other was part of the ecology.
Out of your element, or in it?
A student was telling me about his love of scuba diving. Newly certified, on one of his first group dives, he was daunted by the oxygen tank, and the thought of bumping loose a cartridge. How to parcel out the air? His nervousness made him a conservative in what he would explore. (The analogies to COVID life loom).
But he was also, I think, awed by the power of being in a completely different element, the underwater ocean, that wasn’t really meant for us. Not in a sustained way beyond the doing the crawl or getting rolled by a hook-shaped wave.
The Sharks and the goofballs came
On his wreck dive with his family (also a pandemic analogy, there?), a family of sharks–and I swear he called them nar-sharks, to which fact my five year old exclaimed LIKE NARWAL NARWAL SHARKS??– swam by. A small flock.
Other goofballs on the dive went out of their way to take a selfie of themselves with the shark pod with a long selfie stick camera. Scrambling around for the money shot. Grinning, peace signs, oxygen burbles.
They were posing with their stupid selfie stick IN FRONT OF A FAMILY OF SHARKS, he said, like zero common sense. I mean, sure, try to get your picture, but stop behaving like such an idiot.
His dad taught him to hang back, to see if you could get a photo without disrupting the balance and bothering the sharks.
Because: BOTHERING SHARKS.
Be humble, he said. These are sharks. They just want to hang out with their families.
As I listened to him, he relaxed and grew funnier. Once I had given him his writing prompts for the week and we hung up, all I could think about was goofballs who want to prod sharks so they could get their social media points. I could almost feel their wetsuits, and their cluelessness.
To me, not getting eaten or depleting your oxygen both sound like a successful dive. But I prefer to be on the surface, where air is abundant. The sharks should be only in my mind.
What’s important to you or me
Everyone sorts out what’s most important to them. For many people, a nearly impossible selfie is worth the potential loss of limb. They’ll disrupt entire ecosystems for that shot, if they have to. I want to hear how they would talk about it.
For others, what’s most important is checking on the flock, the family, the group. Does everyone have the oxygen they need? Do we know how much oxygen that is? If they don’t have what they need, can I help? For some, even at a very young age, it’s worth the possibility of getting eaten by a shark to help out someone else.
For others, it’s most important to believe, really, really believe, that Nar-Sharks exist (he told me later: nurse sharks). They do. They have big unicorn horns with barbershop pole spirals, and they are wish-granting sharks who birth wish-granting babies! They look both goofy and fierce, and if you really really believe they won’t eat you, or even sniff you too closely, you’re safe.
I can hear my five year old talking to one such shark right now, from his little bed.
The Wish-Granting Shark or Just Listening?
I need that shark, the wish granting shark. Many of my students are longing for just such a mythical creature to appear, too. I want to know what they each wish for.
But right now, that’s not what we have. We have our stories and other people’s stories. We have listening. We have goofballs, and we have each other.
What is it you need to say?
I start many sessions by asking students, if you thought someone was really listening, no matter the subject, what would you say?
You can free-write to that prompt, or contact us for help getting started on your college essay. Remember to allow some magic in, to make a connection a little farther out, a little deeper, than you might normally go.
If you believe someone is really listening, you are bound to write something worth hearing.