In 1982, I was in my second week speaking from the intimidating side of the podium at Fortuna High School when an unknown high school senior named Barry Mendenhall — who has since become a very good friend — walked up to the front of the class shaking a coffee can. "Mr. Clausen (which isn't my name but that of our local congressman at the time), there has been a terrible accident. Could you donate to the fund?" I thought to myself, "What a good kid,'' and tossed what I had into the can and moved on to my lesson.
The next morning an ageless mentor of mine, Laz Lesku, approached with his stern Hungarian accent and warned me to be wary of teenagers. A parent had called to inform school administrators that, the previous day, I had contributed to the weekend alcohol fund. Lesku walked away rambling that I was "wet behind the ears." I was young, having been in high school only a few years earlier, yet already naïve and out of touch with teenagers. It is so easy to forget what those years were really like.
Now reflecting through my last days at Fortuna High School, I am more an expert on teenage behavior than most, though no one really is. I have insights into teenagers from interactions with class after class after class after class after class for 34 years. In my longtime assignment as the school's one-man psychology department, the discussions have been quite deep. I have also coached a sport that requires road trips with teenagers, and these have been great learning experiences as well. Teachers, by the way, are also counselors.
While shopping and socializing about town, I have heard umpteen times that teenagers must be tough to teach, that teens are different than they used to be, that there is no respect. Yeah, but teenagers are the same now as you and I were, too. Expecting a teenager to make the same connections as an adult is like expecting a 2-year-old to want to share a cookie. The teenage brain hasn't yet become capable of making certain connections. Plainly, teenagers are screw ups but so are we.
Actually, the whole concept of an extended adolescence is fairly new. There once were rites of passage from childhood to adulthood, such as running the ranch or going to work at Pacific Lumber. These troops today don't know when they are classified as adults. They pay adult admission to the theatre at the age of 12, drive at 16, vote at 18, drink at 21 and rent a car at 25. Confused little minds.
But in one generation, acceptance of sexual orientation and gender identities has evolved and revolutionized. It is certainly one of the quickest changes in thinking and tolerance in American history. But more so, teens these days are just generally more accepting than prior generations when it comes to religion, race, sexual orientation, disabilities and even age, as many are raised by grandparents because their parents are addicted to opiates. I am very proud of this generation in that respect. It is a positive, if imperfect, change. I can say that it appears to me that this generation, at least at my rural high school, gives me hope when it comes for tolerance of others.
Certainly there has been a regression in recent weeks that mirrors society, caused by the friction of the election. People with low self-esteem are looking for others who can be seen as even more unworthy. Some think hate will make them feel better. There are a lot of kids at our high school angry about the movement of our country, which they have no voting control over.
Teenagers are just an age group, though each is really just a struggling person making his or her way through this complex life. They cannot be lumped strictly into a single category. Brian Millett wrote in the Times-Standard last summer that, in retrospect, most people either sum up their high school years as "I loved high school" or "I hated high school." In the moment, though, there are lots of feelings. Here are some thoughts my students jotted down when I asked them to simply write what was on their minds anonymously after the recent bomb scare on campus. These are the ones I chose to share.
"Adults don't understand the actual changes our generations have made. We can marry who we want and follow whatever beliefs in religion that we want."
"I'm not necessarily sure if I am crazy, but at least I'm not in denial. It's not something I would announce. I have just been thinking about it."
"I smoke more weed on school days than the weekends. Weekends are for drinking. Most kids I know get lit during the school day. There are a lot of drugs circling through Fortuna. I still get straight-A grades so my parents don't worry about me".
"I don't smoke but I smell like weed somedays. Teachers probably think I'm a stoner. My parents don't have any friends. I don't have any friends either because of where we live. My high school years are not normal because I am so isolated. My parents are assholes. I will never grow weed. I just want to get out of here."
"Lots of girls ... they are getting ready for a life with a grower. It's all about weed and money and clothes and trucks and tattoos. Just little sluts who are stoned at school all the time and have no true sober function."
"I hate being antagonized by the older generation just because I have a different American dream."
"Teenagers really want to make their parents proud, but it is hard and they feel like they can't so they give up. Even though we don't show it, a lot of times the achievements we make are to make our parents proud. Nothing is better than making your parents proud."
"Take away my phone and you take away my life. Most adults shrug it off and say we need to spend less time on our phones. They don't understand our generation."
"The thing I have learned the most in high school is that people mostly just care about themselves. Your group of friends all has their list of personal agenda items and don't be surprised when you are not on the list."
"Sometimes I have anxiety that I'm not doing everything right as a teenager, that I'm wasting my youth."
"I continue to learn and grow as a person every day. I make mistakes and I am learning from them. I go to the gym, practice and school. During the weekend I stay up all night with friends who inspire me. I walk on the beach barefoot and stare at the sky. I love the stars."
"Teenage culture is focused on technology. There is an obsession with social media where it is easier to attack and destabilize others and sets people on a dark track in life. Don't do anything you are not ok about everyone knowing."
"I hate drama. I hide behind my phone screen watching movies and playing internet games. You never expect people to do the things they do."
"There are people who grow up with the average mom and dad and maybe a sibling and the dog. And there are the teens who have to raise multiple siblings and whose parents are split up and who have crappy lives. I know people in really bad situations like an emotionally abusive creepy stepfather; mentally unstable mother; small house with many people dirty and unhealthy ... and these are their teen lives. When you hear the word teenager, you think young kids riding around with friends texting but you don't think about the broken and the beaten ... the hurt who are barely surviving."
"It has been a really tough week at Fortuna High."
Rod Kausen is a Fortuna High School teacher and coach, and plans to retire Jan. 31 after more than three decades on campus.
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