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The Teenager's Job

Wednesday, May 22, 2013
It's Teenage Week at Seraphic Singles, mostly because I talked to a woman recently about a terrible dating relationship she suffered as a teen. It would have been great if an adult had noticed what was going on and stepped in. She was, unfortunately, the kind of teenager who never tells her parents anything. I was just going to say that my parents couldn't shut me up, but of course that is not true: I never told them about my café co-worker's description of the huge bowl of cocaine at a party downtown. And after I went to university I quickly learned to shut up about stuff that seemed to give my parents mini-seizures at the dinner table.

In hindsight I was a kid all through high school and a teenager all through university. That so explains a lot. But enough about me.

The last time I did a poll, I did not have a big teenage readership. This is a relief to me because I do not like the idea of teenagers thinking of themselves as Single. Although Catholic teenagers should start thinking and praying about their adult vocations right after Confirmation, I really see no good reason why they should identify with unmarried people over 25. Even if in your community (e.g. rural Poland), most people marry at 21 or 22, at 15 or 18 you should be focused on learning. Your brains are soft and pink and spongy and will never be able retain so much information so easily again.

Also? Sunscreen. Sunscreen, my little teenage poppets! Although for the past 20 years I have been very careful indeed about the sun, I had a really bad burn as a teenager and as I dab super-exciting Polish anti-wrinkle cream around my 39+ eyes, I wonder if I'm seeing the long-term damage only now. Never forget that if you don't die first, you'll be forty. And if you make it to forty, you will either bless or curse your younger self for its attitude towards the sun.

Occasionally teenagers write to me about attracting boys, and I send back probably unsatisfactory letters about the importance of learning. But honestly the job of the teenager is to pray, to obey her parents (in so far as she is not damaged thereby) and to learn about the world. And by learning about the world, I do not mean repeating her teachers' political opinions. (Only my worst, craziest teacher allowed herself political opinions.) I mean how things work and what things are called and what various words mean. I mean reading books and listening to lectures on art, music, math, science, theology, poetry, history, geography, computer programming and languages.

I also recommend that, alongside the latest books and lectures, you read books by, and listen to speeches by, men and women who were famous before 1963. For example, Winston Churchill is going to have a take on the British Empire that you are unlikely to hear in many schools today. And if you are English and feeling depressed about it (as too many people want you to be), Winston will surprise and cheer you.*

I recommend, also, that teenagers write, draw, paint and compose as much as they possibly can. Youth culture is obsessed with music and dance, and even when I was a teenager, teenagers reconstructed pop videos for performance at school assemblies. That's okay, but how much better it is when teenagers write their own songs and choreograph their own dances. In fact, that's how pop music gets going

I do not recommend that high school students become politically active. Why? Because adult activists exploit the enthusiasm and idealism of the young, that's why. Adults get huge ego-rushes from young disciples, and very often the young pay adult activists a lot more respect and attention than the adult activists deserve. In return the adult activists pay back in cheap coin: "Aren't these kids great? Everyone give them a round of applause." Adult activists can become like parents, but unlike real parents they don't care about you as much as they care about the Cause. Instead of tempering your youthful enthusiasm, they exclaim over your heroism and wave to you cheerfully from outside the prison windows. I speak as a former very politically active, once-spent-an-entire-afternoon-behind-bars teenager.

If you hunger and thirst for justice, then wait until you are in college, at the earliest, or your twentieth birthday for political stuff. (More obviously charitable stuff, like feeding the poor, is okay under trusted adult supervision.) Political action involves giving yourself, and as a teenager you don't have a unified self to give yet.  You are highly impressionable, and that very impressionability should be used for your good. Think learning fluent German, not learning fluent ideologue.

I am trying to recall how mad I would have been if someone told me I didn't have a unified self yet and my brain was still rewiring itself. Frankly, I think I would have been relieved.

*History is taught differently from country to country, as you will find out if you leave your country and travel. If you want to be thought of as a truly educated person by Europeans, you must know the history of the Second World War, not just from the perspective of your countrymen, but from the perspective of other European nations involved in the conflict (and India). I do not recommend ever mentioning the Second World War, but--believe me--the subject still comes up.

If you are American, be ready to explain, without defensiveness or rancour, why the USA did not enter the war until 1941. If you are British, be ready to explain why Britain did not attack Germany immediately after declaring war. Always remember that what you were taught in school was not what others were taught in school, and what your grandparents told you is not what others' grandparents told them. If you hear something that surprises you, there is nothing wrong with saying, "That surprises me! I never heard that. Tell me more." Then sneak off and look it up on the internet.