(The following is a response to “Darkness Too Visible” by Megan Cox Gurdon from the perspective of high school teacher and YARN editor, Shannon.)
Yesterday and today I was treated to 70 commencement speeches by my senior students. I make them write and give these for their final exam in English. When I pass out this assignment, I’m generally greeted by panicked and bewildered stares until I instruct them to write what you know. I tell my students to reflect on their high school experiences, pull a couple of life lessons from them, and to keep their speeches personal.
Today, I was simply overwhelmed and amazed as my students delivered thoughtful, passionate, articulate speeches about what they really learned in high school. Nothing canned or cliche in the whole lot! Instead, my kids opened up about the mistakes they made and lessons learned. Caveat: my high school is a California “Blue Ribbon” school. We have an over 95% graduation rate, amazing test scores, and a securely middle class population. This being said, we are an urban school with a diverse population and my kids frankly discussed the challenges they faced between the ages of 14-18.
Some of the highlights: suicide attempts, drug overdoses, hanging out with kids way too old and experiencing adult activities way too soon, broken families, abuse, self destructive tendencies, anger, rage, failing classes, being destroyed by bullying and rumors, immigrating to America and learning a new language and culture, fighting, being beaten, being kicked out of school, suspensions, being short credits for graduation and working like hell to complete night or online classes in order to make it….and learning, and learning, and learning…and surviving…and now standing proudly before the class. In a sense, through their speeches my kids were saying, “I did it. I made it. I’ll continue to make it.”
Young adult books are too dark? Young adult books have language too fierce, activities too mature, scenes too violent? No. Many of our young people are living the scenarios found in these books. Perhaps not the paranormal romances or futuristic, dystopian war-games…but definitely the pain, the risks, the abuse, the bad choices, and the consequences.
Let’s get real.
It took…like…50 years for Hollywood’s censors to admit that married couples don’t sleep in twin beds. We’re beyond the head-in-the-sand age (to put it mildly). Many teens grow up too fast…that’s the truth. And for those who don’t, for those young people whose lives are safeguarded from the harrowing tales found within these books, they read them and experience empathy.
If we “protect” teenagers from the darkness of man, we hinder their ability to empathize with the victims of such violence. No child reads the “Hunger Games” and walks away from the scene of (spoiler alert!) Rue’s death unscathed. Violence is not glorified. It’s grit. It’s raw. It’s real.
The subject matter of these books really happens to a lot of kids. Teens also feel the experiences of their friends in the extreme. They need to process these experiences. Reading activates the critical thinking skills that help them do just that.
Don’t tell my teenage students what to read. Let them explore, discuss, connect, and mature. I’d much rather one of my fourteen year old students read a novel about a kid who makes terrible choices and learns the hard way…than have her make those choices for real.