Am I OK?
A friend of mine posted this video on his Facebook feed earlier this week. I found the comments intriguing, so I watched it. With tears brimming over, I smiled my way through the duration of the piece. The way each of these young people present themselves in the video is genuine, inspiring, and impressive.
Often, my heart hurts for today’s young person. This world pressures today’s teen to be something very narrow, and often unattainable. The expectation that you look a certain way, dress a certain way, write a certain way, speak a certain way…
And then you add in pressure norms related to skin color, religion, sexual preference, grades, athletic ability, tech accessories. This list is in no way balanced, but often suffers the same results because a person is seen as different or sees herself as different.
Knowing our young people have to wear masks when facing their peers and the world around them, as the older individuals in the video do, is tragic. I am particularly disheartened by the girl who states that she doesn’t want others to think she is good at something. What kind of a world do we live in that stifles an effort to be excellent? Our young people should want to praise the talents of others as they celebrate our own – this celebration should be second nature. I understand that the adolescent brain is only beginning to discover how to make sense of and respond to (much less, appreciate) differences in the world around them. As demonstrated by Drs. Mamie and Kenneth Clark in their monumental “Doll Experiments” of 1940, individuals begin to identify differences and how the relate to them from as early as four-years old (1). In most cases, the association begins innocently only to develop into a defensive crouch when a child approaches adolescence. So perhaps we are battling a natural inclination to differentiate; but, to allow this inclination to form caustic relationships is the fault of the environment in which we have cultivated for our young people.
Breaking the Cycle
A willow deeply scarred, somebody’s broken heart
And a washed-out dream
They follow the pattern of the wind ya’ see
‘Cause they got no place to be
That’s why I’m starting with me-Michael Jackson, “Man in the Mirror”
So, where on earth do we begin? To me, it’s the cycle that we must disrupt. As an educator, I must seek out the opportunities to discuss difference with students. This conversation must begin a young age. To be clear, I’m not for unilateral agreement on all things. I recognize and appreciate that people will take a visceral stance on certain perspectives. I also appreciate the fact that some people will be better than others at certain things. But we must teach the art of disagreement and the respect of ability above jealousy and angst to our young people. The video posted shows some of the students accepting their (usually self-imposed) “labels” towards the end. They are even willing to share their personal image on the made-up social network.
So the first step is to identify personal angst and wipe it out. We are all great, based on a divine image, and capable of being excellent – that is the message on which we need to focus. Perhaps this is the most important job of parents and teachers – to celebrate differences. We must gather our young people into a culture of respect and appreciation so that people will be loved for who they are, not singled-out for what they are not.
Teachers and educators are in the business of making young people smile. They smile because of a great effort on a test, quiz or project. They smile because of a great game. The smile because of the way someone makes them feel. They smile because of a silly joke. They smile because they are having fun. They should also smile because of who they are in this world. That is our mission.