Appreciating Teenagers


They may seem alien, but
try to land on their planet


For some reason, at the age of 33 I can still relate to teenagers. I even like them.

I have often been accused of looking like a teenager. When I tell people that I work with teens, that I aspire to become a high school teacher, I get very strange looks--even stranger looks than when I announced I had started boxing. Eyebrows crumple and lips curl. They might say "God bless you," or something feeble like that.

Working with inner-city teens, as I have done for 10 years, has been a great education for me. I learn constantly from them and I can clearly see the dangers of failing to treat them like the future productive people they might well become. Sadly, most adults turn away from them frustrated, disgusted or horrified by what they see.

There is a lot to learn from teens, and most of it is more interesting and exciting than prime time TV. The girls I am currently coaching in boxing come loaded with every adolescent saga imaginable. Some are crazy over boys; some are in love with other girls. Some come to practice in halter tops with their eyebrows pierced and some come in pajamas. Some are emaciated, but feel overweight. Some come to the gym stoned and then never come back again. Some live in single parent households--those parents in jail, alcoholics or drug addicted. Some get pregnant, are sexually abused, run away, and contemplate suicide. Many are angry, but cannot explain why.

I feel strong compassion for these girls who are half-woman, half-child. One day they might come painted in makeup and glitter with beaded pocketbooks and fake nails. They sit in the locker room feverishly writing in journals or whispering secrets. The next day they are chasing each other and wrestling like boys, hair in pony tails and perfect unmade faces, who will hug you and sit on your lap and twirl your hair in their fingers like young children do.

Sometimes they are too tired to practice, paying the price for their night-owl tendencies, and sometimes their hormones are almost visibly raging. Other times they have boundless energy and cannot be controlled.

My intervention at this stage in their lives has been illuminating for me. When I meet with them for training they open up to me and almost always make me laugh. I've come to realize that by talking to them and listening to them, adults can learn valuable lessons about uncertainty, unexplained feelings, joy and elation. In other words, what it means to be human.

Sometimes we get along like best friends, my girls and I--and I mean best friends in the teenage sense of the word. They sense that part of me is stuck in those teenage years--hopefully the better part. It's as if the clock keeps ticking and birthdays whiz by, but my true self remains rebellious, impish, searching for a grown-up identity.

They let me in on their secret handshakes, teach me their favorite songs and write me lists of current slang words so that I don't sound like a nerd (read "adult"). A couple of girls spent weeks trying to teach me how to say motherfucker in their local accent and howled with laughter listening to me practice.

But sometimes they are guarded because they know, after all, that I am on the other side, a dreaded adult. I experienced this barrier a few weeks ago when a 16-year-old tried to tell me something important--something awful, something with serious legal implications. She had been sexually molested by her best friend's father. I had suspected this for some time, and when I asked her if he "did something" to her she said very definitively, "Yes."

Even though I had guessed the worst, I was shocked, and at the same time deeply honored that she felt comfortable enough to tell one person--me.

But the more I prodded the more she retreated, until I was desperately demanding that she tell me what happened. At that point I lost her, and I was unable to go that extra yard for her, to see that the offender was pursued and punished.

 "Some are crazy over boys;
some are in love with other girls..."


The duality of adolescence is the most challenging, if not frustrating, aspect of teaching teens. They happily co-exist on two levels. They promise to come to practice the next day and don't show up for a week, and then they call on a Sunday with little voices asking if they can come back. When you ask why they didn't come they say, barely audibly, "I don't know." When you ask how school is going they say, "Fine." They drive you crazy with this lofty vagueness and morose depression, and then in a split second a new person emerges. Their eyes are bright, their minds are like sponges, and you can't shut them up!

Adults who have no children in American public schools probably do not appreciate what difficulties they face. Teenagers have always had it rough--even the ancient Greeks complained about their hopeless behavior--but today's teens are up against the most dreadful challenges ever. Many attend schools equipped with metal detectors and surrounded by barbed wire. Many girls are frightened by the prospect of a life of full-time careers and simultaneous child-rearing.

And all teens are exploited and taken advantage of through clever, manipulative marketing campaigns at school, at home, and outside. They are bombarded by images of pornography, murder, war, and disease, not only in the media but in their very own X-Box or Playstation2.

They are fed junk food from Pizza Hut and tacos from Taco Bell at their public school, and their physical education is cut to sometimes as little as one hour a week. As a result of poor diet, too many of them are obese (now the No. 1 cause of premature death in America). The great majority of female role models are anorexic, drug-addicted, fake-bodied-fake-blondes. Where is the reality in life to help them come
down to earth?

When adults are fearful or ignorant of teenagers, they often tune out, breaking important links in the fabric of our society. My teaching experience has shown me that adolescents are still children, yet they are also real people who can contribute to society if they feel valued. They can be energetic and powerful, full of ideas and creativity. They are machines of expression and intellect, each of them in his or her own way--however crazed they may appear to be due to the circumstances that come with their age.

I strongly advise adults who do not have their own teenaged children to get to know one. Nurturing strong character in our young people will make the world a better place. The reverse is also true: ignoring them is a dangerous mistake. And there is no greater satisfaction than to participate in their difficult passage toward adulthood.

© 2002 by Raphaëlla Cruz. The illustrations are from IMSI's Master Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA.

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