Thursday, August 5, 2010

what if

As I was driving to my school yesterday, I noticed a young man jogging along the road. Before you start composing your cougar-themed comments, read on.

This young man caught my eye because everything about him at a glance reminded me of a former student. Everything except the running for sport. Our kid was a skater and a saunterer; occasionally he could be bothered to hacky with friends or play Frisbee in P.E., but generally he was surly and stationary. In the space of a few moments - the time it took to drive past the jogger and realize he was not our student - I started to wonder about how changed people might be as adults if they had chosen different activities as kids.

From what we know about our student, there are a lot of reasons he started down his path of inactivity and troubling [generally inactive] hobbies. I often say there is no excuse for bad behavior but there are reasons that we should try to understand, and so we at our school tried to understand where he was coming from - essentially abandoned by a mother who later tried making amends through inappropriate gifts, and raised by an emotionally distant father who never appeared for meetings and seemed irritated when I called to tell him about his son's fine work in poetry. With this kind of unstable, untrustworthy childhood as a backdrop, it would be difficult for a teen to make wise choices; we do the best we can at school to help guide kids, but it's hard to compete with apathetic parents & unsupervised free time.

Other students of ours have gotten pregnant, run away from home, committed crimes, attempted suicide. These are choices - though for some kids it doesn't seem that way because their circumstances are so unbearable. When a teenager has become a parent or lived on the streets or survived incarceration or cheated death, activities like prom and art shows and writing contests and cooking classes can seem ridiculously simple, even meaningless. Yet despite heavy circumstances, life is still going on; we have to keep reminding them, and offering variety.

On a less dramatic note, I think of my own teen years and the kinds of things I chose to (and not to) do. For the most part I was low-key [reading, writing, watching TV, going to movies], but I know some of my decisions were based on how I thought my parents might react; I often would rather decline invitations than get involved in often-convoluted discussions with them about who/what/where/when/why. While I think I turned out pretty well, I do wonder who I might be if I had joined the volleyball team or campaigned for student council or pursued concert band or applied to be one of those rollerskating goddesses.

This student I thought I saw did graduate this year with his class. And before that, he let himself teach some classmates to play hacky sack and even started an informal chess club despite having told me two years ago that those things were stupid. So maybe there is no need to stop and ask what if, and just keep moving forward.