Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Wisdom of Youth

As a teenager and even as a young adult, I was very naive. I swear, whatever I heard on TV and read about in books, I believed. I was quite sheltered (with 2 much older parents, 5 older brothers, and 3 older sisters, sheltered = practically imprisoned). Everything was absolute - lying is a venial sin (Catholics know what I'm talking about), good girls were to remain virgins until marriage, and if you tried to smack your mom, you would die with your arm sticking straight up (What? That's not true?). I'm quite the late bloomer when it comes to developing wisdom from my experiences, mainly because the experiences that truly impacted my life came late in life.

I'm learning that this is not so with the generation of young people I work with. They are wise beyond their years. Perhaps it's because they've had to deal with so much at such a young age. Life was sometimes challenging for me, but compared to most people I know, I really did have a good childhood. My parents were together even though they could barely tolerate each other, we had dinner on the table at the same time every night, my family came to see me in school plays and shows and all that good stuff. By contrast, I've worked with middle school kids who'd been sexually abused by their biological fathers. Most don't have a father figure in their lives. Some have been in the foster care system. The stresses of life during my formative years were nothing compared to what young people currently face.

A lot of what we hear, read, and see about young people is so negative. Yes, young people are committing murder, joining gangs, having babies, doing drugs and drinking, and performing oral sex in the back of the school bus. These images in the media just perpetuate a stereotype that further pulls the generations apart. What I encounter in my work are young people who are concerned that their being in college is contributing to their family's dire financial situation, people whose parents are too sick to care for themselves, people who have been in abusive relationships, people who are in the closet and won't come out to their family and friends for fear of being ostracized, and people who suffer from anxiety and/or depression. Yet, they are capable of learning from the hand they've been dealt. They may feel insecure at times, but they'll come to me for encouragement and a listening ear to help them persevere. They seem to know there is a light at the end of the tunnel, even if they don't see it right then and there.

There's a very pretty young woman who comes to see me quite often. Although she is not on my caseload of students, we've developed a mentoring relationship. Sometimes I wonder who the mentor is, though. As with most of my female students, we talk about men and relationships a lot. Looking at her, one would assume that she has her pick when it comes to boyfriends. However, though she would love to be in love, she chooses to be single. When I listen to her talk about relationships, sometimes I just want to take notes. It is so rare to hear someone in their early twenties talk about how she wants to wait for the right person, that she doesn't care how long it takes, that she has career and academic goals she wants to focus on now. She only really feels conflicted because it's "normal" in her culture to settle down, get married, and have children at around her age. She feels pressure from her family to do these things, but every time she tells me she's content with her love life (or lack thereof) right now, I believe she's telling herself she doesn't have to live the life her family expects her to, and that she can choose her own path.

Another female student, whom I'll call Elle, literally compels me to pull out a notepad and take notes. She's so profound. There are times when I find myself recounting some of my relationship woes to her (we have that kind of relationship), and if it were not for Elle's sage advice, I would lock myself in solitary confinement so as not to deal with the issues that come with dating at my (30-something) age. When I first began dating after the longest dry spell ever, I was so anxious, and Elle put it in perspective for me. "You don't know how to operate in this new season because you're scared. You're holding onto the expectations of previous relationships, when you should be focusing on what you're learning." WHOA. Where did that come from? Elle doesn't have the age, the experience, or the counseling degree. What she does have is a strong spiritual foundation, an incredible talent for observation and a true gift of discernment, and she trusts herself enough to make these profound statements that continue to resonate within me long after she's uttered the words.

I know that as a counselor, I need to be completely there for my students. I know that I'm supposed to be the one imparting wisdom, helping them find the right path for them and encouraging them to follow their path. Sometimes, though, I'm the one that feels guided and encouraged. I receive so much more than I could ever give from these young people with so much wisdom, no matter how it was gained. They are open to learning from whatever life hands them.

Are young people wiser now because of their life experiences, whether positive or negative? Does spirituality play a role? What about parental influences? Can we, as adults, truly learn from young people, and what stops us from doing so?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Just checking...

I'm a counselor who works with college students. In past lives, I was a teacher, a resident director in a freshman residence hall (gasp!) and I also worked as a high school counselor. Basically, my career has been built around talking to people. Sometimes I talk AT them, but I usually try not to do that. Over the years, I have found myself giving advice (though I try not to do that), and some of it has been helpful to the people I've worked with. Most of the time I try to help people come to their own resolution, because I believe you really know the answer to your predicament; I just have to help you cut through all the crap that stops you from thinking clearly.

One of my former students told me I should write a book with all of the tidbits of "wisdom" I give to my students, but Lord knows, half the time I don't remember what I tell people. So I thought I might start writing some of it down here, and you (whoever takes the time to read this) can tell me if you think I'm right or what. Honestly, I know I'm not always right, I just couldn't think of a catchier title for this blog.

I'm good at receiving constructive feedback, whether positive or negative, but don't ridicule me, or I'll have to hunt you down. (I should say here that I'm originally from Brooklyn, and have a tendency to talk tough, even though I'm not even 5 feet tall. Take it for what it is.)

So, here goes...

In my line of work, I get a lot of people who make excuses. Now, I do understand that everyone has certain circumstances that might have held them back from succeeding at whatever they set out to do. I understand that we're not all born with the tools necessary to achieve the "American Dream". I know. I was raised in public housing in Brooklyn, my mother was on welfare and my father was on disability, and I have eight older siblings. I witnessed some scary stuff as a child - people on drugs, people in gangs (though they didn't really shoot each other back then, they just "rumbled"), even some traumatizing stuff in my own family. Something told me that I needed a good education in order to have a different life from those I saw around me. Something told me that the responsibility lied with me if I was going to succeed in life. So, although I have been known to make excuses for not doing certain things, most of the time I just did what I needed to do to get where I needed to go.

Here's just one example of some of the things I hear:

Me: Why aren't you going to class?
Student: It's too early.
Me: What time does it start?
Student: 9:55 - too early for me! The teacher doesn't want me coming late, so I don't go at all.

Are you serious? 9:55 is almost 10 am! Most people have to get up for jobs that start at 9 am. My job starts at 8, and I live 40 minutes away. That means, pretty much, that I have to get up around 5:30 (it takes a while to look this good). I understand that, as a college student, you have late nights. I understand that you need to get some zzz's at some point. But if you can't get up for a class that starts at almost 10 am, something is wrong.

And that's why you're failing. Am I right or what?