Teens: Windows into our past

When we hear about teens, it’s usually accompanied by sighs and frustrations, not joys and revelations. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Teens get a bad rap on a fairly consistent basis, one most of them don’t earn or deserve.

In recent weeks, with graduation in the air and kids returning from college to spend the summer at home, I’ve been fortunate to have sit-downs with some of my former students, to get a glimpse into how they have grown and changed since I last saw them, when they were taking finals and dreaming about their futures.

It’s been a blessing, to say the least. It’s reminded me how much I love teenagers, how satisfying and yes, intriguing, it is to see them transform before my eyes into young men and women who finally realize that their parents aren’t entirely stupid and that there’s more to life than what you want right at this moment. They are planning, thinking, goal-setting, and being practical. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.

Yesterday, I had coffee with a previous student who is now a grown young woman just finishing her freshmen year of college. From the moment she walked in, statuesque and beautiful, a smile as wide as the Mississippi River, I was in awe of her growth and maturity over a one-year time span. She had made the same mistakes I remember making freshmen year as she tried to find her place in her new college world. Hearing her stories, her frustrations, and her doubts, I was transported to my 19-year-old self when I was already on my second change in major, questioning whether becoming a sorority girl had been the right choice, and wondering if the guy I was dating could be The One (he was!) I was mesmerized by her stories of successes and failures, but more importantly, by the lessons she was learning, the experiences forming the foundation of who she will become.

Listening to her talk through her lingering doubts about her major, about what makes her truly happy, and about how she wants to spend her time, I longed to get those days back again. Remember when the world lay before you? When you could change your major four times and still be just fine? When you moved from group to group, discovering who you were and what you really believed? Those young adult years were profound. They were filled with promise, despite all of the unknowns, perhaps because of the unknowns. Our lives weren’t really on any particular course yet. We weren’t bound by obligations and monthly mortgages and jobs we don’t like that nevertheless pay the bills. I’d almost forgotten that feeling, it’s been so long. It was joyous to sit in its presence again.

I’ve always believed in the importance of multi-generational friendships. I have friends like this young lady who is 19, and I have friends who are 90. Each age and stage has something unique to offer, something to remind you of your past or to help you foresee your future. Being in a teenager’s presence is like staring into a mirror that reflects who you once wanted to be. When you dreamed, what did you see? When you hoped, what was it for?

My goal for myself has always been to have a “life well-lived,” in any way I choose to define that. When was the last time you asked yourself what a life well-lived looks like? Are you living it now?

Few of us wish to return to our teenage selves. But what we can do is remember what it felt like to have a life of promise. From wherever we are right now, no matter our age, we can adopt that attitude.  We can see our lives as wide open, ready to accept challenges and change our minds and take risks. There’s something to be learned from the young adult mindset. It’s never too late to learn it.