Considering The Primal Teen by Barbara Strauch and The Dignity of Difference by Jonathan Sacks.
I don’t remember being particularly aware of being a teenager, and by some comparisons I probably had a fairly conflict-free adolescence. I didn’t run away from home, or slam doors all that much. I didn’t have a problem with drink or drugs. My teenage years are nearly four years past, and as far as I can tell they had no long term detrimental effects. That’s not to say, of course, that they had no effect.
My formative years were spent in Reston, a Northern Virginian suburb of Washington DC. Suburban America is often described by its teenage inhabitants as a cultural waste ground, a sterile no man’s land of parking lots, shopping malls and highways with little of any substance in between. Northern Virginia is no exception, and is perhaps the rule, and my own description of the area deviates very little, even now, from the definition so many teenagers growing up in similar places would give you. I find it soul-zapping to go back now; to see the thoughtless development of huge tracts of land for the sake of five or six large single family homes with false brick facades and quaint gurgling ponds. It is not unusual for a family in northern Virginia to own two or three cars: it is unusual to own less. Suburban America is the very definition of a consumer-driven society, and I would find it difficult to describe any of its towns as communities; not in the true sense of the word.
I remember being surprised at how many people I knew at school that visited counsellors every week, and how many students came from broken homes. During my four years at high school I heard about several attempted, and a handful of successful, suicides. There were students on pills, students with Attention Deficit Disorder and all this in America’s richest county. Reston was a planned community, meticulously mapped out to be aesthetically beautiful and safe as well as affordable for a wide spectrum of incomes. But three decades on and there was a crisis with Reston’s teenagers. We were all bored.
I was very lucky, however, to be a part of an extraordinarily creative and supportive group of friends and to have parents that value experience and idealism over some of the more conservative values in the DC area. The power of those years was that my friends and I found it more interesting to do things our own way. High school was, for the most part, a routine: a hurdle that had to be jumped on the way to more exciting things. We all did what we had to in order to receive marks that would get us where we needed to be. Teenagers are actually quite cunning survivors, and it is easy in a structure so routine-based as the Fairfax county school system to learn the tricks and follow along. We felt that’s school could not teach us the things that truly hold value. So we taught ourselves. More on that later.