I am a reluctant lover of Young Adult literature. I was that nerd who read Shakespeare for fun in 8th grade. I like my literature to have stood the test of time. As such, I still tend to hold out on a new series and wait for it to “prove” itself before I’ll launch into reading it myself. I didn’t start reading Harry Potter until after the fifth book had been published. I didn’t read the first Hunger Games book until a friend sent it to me on my nook account. And it took my little sister-in-law to get me started on the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, after all five books had been published. Of course, once I get started, I’m hooked.
I fell in love with Rick Riordan’s clever adolescent demigod in The Lightning Thief, the first book of the series. Back then, Percy was just 12 years old, battling ADHD and dyslexia along with monsters and mythical gods. I’m now working my way through The House of Hades, the fourth book in the subsequent The Heroes of Olympus series. Percy is 16, sharing the spotlight with six other demigods who all make up “The Prophecy of Seven” in the latest quest to save the world.
Don’t worry. This post won’t contain any spoilers. I’m only halfway through the book myself. But as I read, I’m struck by the contrast of the expectations placed on fictional teenage heroes and the real teens living and breathing in our world today.
One of the things I love about Riordan’s writing is his grasp of the adolescent mindset. The Lightning Thief captivated me in part because it was written by a guy who understood 12-year-olds. His quirky style captures the random, insecure, easily distracted nature of middle school kids with ADHD and tenacious spirits. According to Riordan, we just might owe the safety of our planet to those kids. The tone of the later books still carries some of the quirk that first attracted me to Percy Jackson’s world, but as the protagonists have grown up, the stakes have gone up, the circumstances have become more dire, and the teens, though still quirky, feel the weight of greater responsibility.
Strip away the superhero-like powers, the mythical monsters, and all the suspension of disbelief, and at the core of the books are excellently written teenage characters. This is true for most great books in the Young Adult genre, actually. These characters struggle with romantic issues, family problems, and emotional insecurities. Despite all that, they overcome insurmountable odds and save the day.
I don’t know why we as a culture can celebrate books that send teenagers out into the world on perilous quests, but we simultaneously hold such low expectations for real-life teens. We trust Percy Jackson to save the world from catastrophic disaster multiple times between the ages of 12 and 16. We trust Harry Potter to defeat the Dark Lord at age 17. We trust Katniss Everdeen to survive the Hunger Games at age 16. But we don’t trust our real-life teens to turn in their homework or walk down the hall without adult supervision. Weird, huh?
Granted, our reasons are based on experience. We want teens like Percy, Harry, and Katniss. We even believe that those characters aren’t absurdly far-fetched (you know, despite being demigods and wizards). But unfortunately, our experience has taught us that today’s teens left on their own can’t handle large levels of responsibility. This breaks my heart, so I’d like to address this problem now from two different angles.
First, teenagers, if you want to be trusted with responsibility, you need to understand the overall track record we adults have to process. Teachers face hundreds of teens in just one school year. Combine those years together, and you, my teenage friend, are just one individual in a sea of thousands. Some of those thousands have blatantly disobeyed us, ignored our hard work as unimportant, made cruel jokes at our expense, and sworn at us. Some of those teens have vandalized our places of work, bullied our other students, and broken the law on our property. So forgive us if we are not very trusting of teenagers. We know you aren’t all like that, but we need to protect ourselves, our jobs, and most importantly, the other students in our care. We’ve been burned too many times to trust easily.
But you can earn our trust. It is possible. Prove to us that you are different! Show us that you value our trust by doing what we ask, even if you don’t understand why. Respect us as human beings with feelings and frustrations, and trust us to work hard for you and have your best interests at heart. When we do give you freedom, don’t take advantage of it. Show us that we can rely on you, and believe me, we’ll notice and appreciate it!
Second, adults, the difference between Percy Jackson and the teens we meet is that the world will end if Percy doesn’t fulfill his responsibilities. This isn’t true with the teens in our classrooms. There isn’t any immediacy to the tasks we ask them to complete. What’s the worst that will happen? A bad grade? A trip to the school’s disciplinarian? An angry parent? How much does that impact their overall lives? Is the weight of the consequences enough to deter them from shirking responsibility? Will the world end if they don’t do what they’re supposed to do? In most cases, no. They also don’t see our subject content as relevant to their lives. They don’t understand why they need to learn about literary terms, graphing equations, or cell cycles. Some students value their grades and learn for that reason, but others don’t care about the report card and therefore don’t care about school.
Teens who have faced real-world problems often demonstrate the teenage capacity for responsibility. Those who have cared for a sick parent know that someone they love will suffer if they don’t fulfill their burdens. Those who carry financial responsibility for their families will make sure they do their jobs well and aren’t late for work so that they won’t get fired. In those cases, the consequences of irresponsibility are immediate and real, not some abstract idea of “bad grades” or “getting in trouble.” Nevertheless, it shouldn’t take such sad circumstances for teens to learn the value of their work.
Somehow, someway we need to find a way to give relevant purpose to what we teach and ask our students to do. As an English teacher, I constantly I tell my students that no matter what they do in life, at some point they will need read something and understand it, form an opinion about it, and communicate it to others in writing. Everything I teach in my classes somehow points to those goals and skills. Give them a reason to care about what you’re teaching them. Respect your students as potential young adult heroes, and challenge them to live up to their potential. Sometimes that means holding them accountable when they fail to live up to their responsibilities. Sometimes that means pushing them out of complacency. Sometimes, that means taking the risk of trusting them.
Now excuse me. I need to go find out what happens next for Percy and Annabeth.