Wednesday, September 13, 2017

When Teens Take Over

I am currently wearing a pink ribbon on my wrist. It is intended to humble me. More on that later.

My teens are now participating in an intentionally democratic group educational experience. That sounds rather vague, but the vaguery comes more out of the complexity and open-endedness of the arrangements than from lack of determination. Let me try to explain!

The other day I arrived early to pick up my kids, and ended up sitting in on the sidelines of their meeting. They would have preferred I wasn't there, but I was glad to have witnessed part of this special event. About thirty teens shared their plans and dreams for the coming year, and attempted to create a schedule of activities. It's a deeply complex process, as each participant has different long-term goals, and somehow they have to design their schedule, meeting spaces, social groups and activities in a way that works for everyone. The most inspiring part of all of this was to see the teens take over the process. There were a handful of adults helping, but their openness to guidance from the teens meant that the teens truly did control the process, and came out of the whole thing not just feeling empowered, but legitimately in power of their education.

notes from the teen meeting
Some of the teens in this group have solid life plans; some of them have vague intentions, and some couldn't care less what lies over the horizon. Some of them are trying to achieve a high school diploma; some are working towards non-diploma career pursuits, some are just ignoring formalities entirely, and at least one of them is hoping to go to University without ever checking off the highschool diploma boxes (yes--this is possible, though not always easy). All of them were focused on setting up a year-plan that would make them happy both in the moment and in the long run. Among the many activities suggested by the teens were the following:
  • photography class
  • food safe class
  • beekeeping workshop at a farm
  • general adulting class
  • rock climbing
  • first aid certification
  • biology 11 class
  • attending university lectures
  • building movie props
  • creative writing feedback group
  • heckling bad movies
Listening to the sixty or so suggestions and the many kids signing up for each one truly made me feel joyful. As a group, these teens not only bravely put forward challenging and sometimes unconventional ideas, but supported each other in making them happen. Most of them engaged effectively in the conversation, and as a mother I felt honoured to watch my two children reaching this precipice of independence.

Teens need to take control of their own lives for a number of reasons. Biologically, that is what they are naturally doing: moving on to a life independent of their parents, and participating in all the activities that adults do. It might take them a while to get the hang of it all (hence, I suppose, their desire for a general adulting class!), but that's just another reason for them to get on with it and take their independence - by force, if necessary. Most of our teens' souls are crying out "let me go! I don't need you! Let me do it myself or die trying!", while a deep ache in their hearts cries "Wrap me up and rock me to sleep, Mummy!" or "Look after me!" or "Look at me!!!" And the drama caused by this tension is part of it all. Some teens embrace this drama; some don't, but it's going to happen, regardless. The drama helps them gain the independence they need. Our teens need our praise and support and advice and they need us to help them pick up the pieces when things fall apart. But they also need to feel like they're capable of doing it, themselves, and they can only become capable by trying.

Back to the pink ribbon I now have tied around my wrist. I've been fighting a lot with my kids, recently, about the messes left behind, and their often-dramatic way of refusing to clean up. With pop music and/or accordion-playing filling my ears, with the flow of friends and food-messes and project refuse all over the place, I often feel besieged in my own home, and I have not been the serene and accepting parent I wish I was. Still, I want them to do these things! I want their lives to be rich and loud and boisterously busy and inspired, and that's exactly what they're doing! But four people with different needs under one smallish roof is always a challenge. Because I'm their parent, I've been trying to corral them, and I've been unschooling now long enough to know that's counter-productive. Watching my kids gamely manage their own education and social lives has reminded me that not only are they successfully doing everything I hoped they would, but I can't force them to clean up. They'll have to get there on their own. It's what I wanted, but it's hard to let go. Parenting is humbling.

The pink ribbon is to remind me that peace is more important than a clean home, or than keeping control. I look at it and remember when they were infants and I hoped with all my heart they'd be who they are today. In this mess, we are arriving at our destiny. I can only hold on for the ride, hold on to my heart, and hold on to my babies when, inevitably, they drape their giant bodies over me for comfort.

And sometimes when I need a break I bring a cup of tea over to my parents' house and chat with my mother. Her house is much quieter than ours, and her temper rather less volatile. But it wasn't always this way. Once she parented teens, too. And we all survived.

Monday, September 11, 2017

9-11: Have We Learned Anything?

Do you remember where you were sixteen years ago, today?

I was at home. My husband, who was working from home, was told by a colleague to turn on the news, and we did. I remember standing there staring at the TV. I remember watching people run through dust and smoke, and wondering whether my cousin was in that New York mess (she was; but escaped before knowing what was happening). I remember feeling a visceral panic in my body; my veins pumping and my hands on my belly. I was pregnant with our first child.

The one clear thought I remember having - repeatedly - was 'what world have I brought you into'? It was a boundless, undefined fear.

My husband remembers not really believing the twin towers collapsing was real, and, once we accepted it had happened, he still didn't feel that it would have any direct impact on our lives. It did, as it turned out, probably contribute to the collapse of the company he worked for. He appeared home one day with a cardboard box of his office supplies, and job-free. And yet we moved on.

As time goes by we rehash and relive and re-imagine such traumas. It was the government. It was the terrorists. It was poor sad people jumping out of windows. It was heroes. America is awesome! We get used to such traumas, like old wounds whose scars are hardly noticeable but always there for looking at when we need a reason to grieve or to fear or to get angry. We wrap the traumas in layers of love and delight and forgiveness because if we didn't we couldn't carry on. Our children get older and come home telling us about nuclear proliferation and corporatocracy and desertification and we tell them Pink Fluffy Unicorns Dancing on Rainbows! Everything is Awesome! We usher our babies back out into the world with joy and hope because it would be horrible to do anything else.

And our children grow. And the scientists are projecting doom. And the climate changes just like they said it would do, so we write them off and find alternative science. And forests burn and earthquakes increase and storms like never before decimate our civilization. And war.

And the artists are projecting doom; even Hollywood is warning us at every turn, and Warner Bros plants fear in our hearts: Our whole civilization will go down if we don't break from the status quo and see past the shiny facade. And we and our kids go home in our SUV eating popcorn and singing Everything is Awesome!!!

We find leaders who wrap themselves in gold and shout Everything is AwesomeGreat!!! Trauma after trauma after trauma falls upon us, and our stomachs drop, and our dreams are pocked with terror, but we wrap it up in glitter and birthday parties and fun trips to the dollar store and fun family vacations because if we didn't we couldn't carry on.

Pink Fluffy Unicorns Dancing on Rainbows!! It would be horrible to do anything else.

Our children grow, until they're teens, and we pack their schedules and keep them locked up and safe, but at night they sit on their many devices scrolling past the news about shootings and election fraud and hurricanes and drought and thousands dying in flooding in ~*Pink Fluffy Unicorns Dancing on Rainbows*~ Where is Bangladesh? They share videos of themselves talking to their cats. Everything is Awesome!!!!

It has been sixteen years since the day that I held my tiny son in my womb and feared for his future. I've done everything I can imagine to raise my kids to be strong in the face of the world I brought them into, but every day I see the old scar and I poke at it, and I wonder if I did the right thing, and I don't know where we're going, at all. And I look into my children's eyes and I feel helpless. My mind has only so much capacity for grief and fear. At my house this morning, rain has cleared the smoke of this year's devastating wildfires, and through the screen of sun-speckled leaves outside my door I hear the neighbours getting on with their business.