I recently asked Jon Maksik, who spent an entire career working with teens, to write a piece for Momfilter about why, as he once had told me, he preferred the company of adolescents to grownups. (Full disclosure, I was once a 17-year-old beneficiary of Jon’s supreme insight and good counsel. That we are close friends 24 years later tells you everything you need to know about his impact on my life.) The following is his response. -PG
By the time I retired five years ago I had spent most days of a forty-year school career with adolescents. I started out as a high school teacher, so at the beginning anyway I had no choice. The thing is that when I did have a choice, when I became an administrator and then, for nineteen years a school head, I still spent as much time as I could with people between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. And, since the day of my “graduation” five years ago, I’ve maintained contact or re-connected with far more of my former students than former colleagues.
I often wonder why all of this is true. I suppose there’s an argument that the inclination suggests a lack of…well, something in my temperament. Rather, I think the pleasure I took in my students (and their subsequent adult incarnations) was and remains at the core of my character. From the first moment I walked into a high school classroom at the age of twenty-two, I felt—in addition to my palpable terror that people just a few years younger than I were about to judge my authenticity and worth—able to be myself. I understand that at that age I had only a vague idea of who that self was, but I also know that whatever happened between my students and me went some distance in defining who I would become.
There are many advantages to being a young (and, therefore almost automatically, ‘cool’) teacher. But the ‘young’ part doesn’t last, certainly not in the eyes of adolescents whose ages remain static as they replace their predecessors. The novelty of your youth, as well youth itself, evaporates with alarming speed and when you are no longer ‘cool,’ there had better be something substantial beneath the veneer. It might be formidable academic rigor; it might be the sort of eccentricity that becomes legendary; it might be dogged dedication to an educational ideal. Too often, recently young teachers succumb to the spongy desire to remain ‘cool’ by trying to be their students’ friend or, imagining they can deceive their adolescent wards with the pretense of concern and affection.
Had I known how to be academically rigorous or even how to deceive, I might have tried. But I possessed neither of those skills; all I had was who I was and that was someone drawn to the candor, rebellion, and promise of high school kids. Most of them seemed to like me, or at least to respond honestly to me even if they didn’t; and I liked most of them, though certainly not all. Only a teacher can understand what it’s like to walk for the first time into a classroom and see a group of judgmental adolescents expecting you to ‘teach’ them something, or at least to instruct them to do something. Screw it up that first time and it’s a long road back, and the surest-fire way of screwing it up is to imagine they won’t know right away exactly who you are.
It’s important to say here that I didn’t really know any of this until much later. My responses were instinctive (Yes, I was relatively prepared to teach The Scarlet Letter and The Sun Also Rises, but that didn’t make any difference; teachers have to earn their way to the books.) and, because they were teen-agers, my students’ responses were also instinctive. As time passed, I became a better teacher both of books and students—the former because I worked harder and the latter because I began to understand that what I was doing could actually matter. I don’t mean that what they learned from Hester Prynne and her scarlet letter mattered, though I like to think it might have. I mean that whatever was going on between the putative adult and the fifteen and sixteen year-olds, even if they were just slouching there looking at him, seemed to matter. Most of the time it was just talk—about a book, about a mother or a father, or a boy or girlfriend, or even about something in my own life. Sometimes they wanted to grapple with serious issues and occasionally I could help, if only by listening. I imparted no great wisdom, but somehow those kids understood they were important to me.
Eventually, people began to say that I was “great with kids,” or something similar and, though I like compliments, I always felt uncomfortable about those. It was like being complimented for running fast or having blue eyes. How could I take credit simply for being who I was? I certainly felt fortunate to have veered into a career that suited and satisfied me, but the compliments seemed undeserved.
As I’ve said, I do wonder why all of this is true and, though I’ll never know, the frequency and variety of former students who have taken the trouble to find me over the years leads me at least to speculation, not about why they have found me; the simplest explanation for that is my generally benevolent presence at a formative time in their lives. No, what interests me, beyond the deep gratitude I feel for their renewed friendship, is why all of those adolescent lives have had such a powerful impact on my own life.
I suppose one reason is that adolescents read quickly when someone is dissembling and that wasn’t a skill I’d yet learned. In fact, when I first walked into a classroom I was unadorned by any teacherly skills; I possessed only my personal strengths, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. I had nowhere to hide. And when I was greeted with approval or affection, or rebellion, I took those responses as an affirmation, not of how I was performing my job, but personally. If I only dimly perceived any of this at the time, in retrospect I’ve come to understand that I thrived on those clear and unadulterated responses. As a shy only child of pre-occupied parents, used to being alone, and with just a few close friends, I think I craved my students’ affection. And I am certain that I recognized their fabricated self-confidence and mirrored it with my own. Like them, I thought if I acted with sufficient conviction, someone might believe me; I might even believe me. There can be a vigorous clarity in relationships with adolescents that adults often edit when they are with one another. I liked that clarity, or needed it, and as time went on, it rewarded me—with loyalty, candor, and sometimes a kind of love.
If those rewards filled holes in my own past, they also elicited a visceral desire to protect my students—from their teen-aged selves, from their neglectful/helicopter/tiger/self-esteem besotted parents, from the vagaries of their own lives, exemplary parents included. This impulse to protect reached its apogee when I became a father but, even into retirement, it remains strong and I cannot help thinking that my own childhood and fatherhood, and my continuing desire to protect the young adults I knew as adolescents are linked.
As an experienced teacher and then as a long-serving school head, my understanding of adolescents—and, I hope, of myself—became more sophisticated. Inevitably, part of that sophistication was to learn some of the skills I may have been lucky to lack in those early days. And yet, I remember many conversations as a school head during which I tried to reassure parents, and to counsel teachers, by reminding them to recall what it was like to be a teenager. “They’re different,” I would say, “not just impulsive mini-adults.” By then I possessed the trappings of authority, so what I said bore some weight. I did try to sound authoritative, but really I just believed it.
I believe it still and I probably take inordinate pleasure from recent brain research that shows the adolescent brain is not, as has been previously believed, fully formed. That explains a lot—about adolescents, certainly—but it also makes me wonder if my own brain skipped a step. If so, I’m grateful.
Other articles by Jon Maksik