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RevolTeens: A Letter of Apology to the Class of 2020, by Christine Lively

Dear Class of 2020,

On behalf of adults everywhere, I would like to apologize. As adolescents, teens, emerging adults, your time between childhood and adulthood has been horrible, and it’s our fault. Your adolescence has been marked by terrors from the time you were born right around September 11, 2001 until your graduation now 19 years later, our country has been at war. You have attended schools that are falling apart structurally, and you have faced the terror of school shootings while also experiencing the terror of practicing being a potential victim of one every year growing up. You’ve been subjected to the incredible and unrelenting stress of high stakes testing every year in school. And now that you’ve survived all of that, your celebration of making it to the end has been canceled, and you’ve been cut off from seeing your friends, teachers, coaches, and anyone else who is not your family without any kind of warning. It would almost be funny if every single part of your growing up didn’t require you to face the possibility of death. It’s our fault, and I am sorry. 

I started writing the RevolTeen column and reading young adult fiction because I really like teenagers. I think teens are some of the funniest, most creative, most passionate, and most interesting people I’ve ever met. I believe that working with teens helps me to think through my own adolescence and give it some perspective. I think that many other adults, however, get to their high school graduation and think, “My God, the last six years have been horrible, but I made it and I never want to think about it again!” This is where the problem lies.

I heard a graduation speech this year that really brought this problem into perspective to me. The speaker may have been trying to be funny, but they weren’t. They told the graduating seniors: Now that you’ve graduated, you can spend the rest of your life working to forget how terrible high school was and move on to your “real” life.

What kind of garbage is that? Yet, I think that most adults feel this way, and it’s an attitude that we really need to change.

Basically, adults have accepted that life between the ages of 12 and 18 is horrible. We’ve also decided, “Look, it was a terrible time for me, so it’s just going to be terrible for my kids, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Sorry!”

So, what do adults get out of this attitude? Well, we get to commiserate. “Oh man, you think your middle/high school years were bad? Let me tell you what I went through!” We share these stories as if we survived battle, and for a lot of us, that’s what it felt like. We also get out of trying to help you with your problems. I mean, if we’ve all decided that being a teen sucked for us so it’s going to suck for you, we can just ignore your complaints. We can answer any pain you tell us about as an unavoidable trial of growing up. What do you want us to do about it? We’ve set you up in a no-win situation. If you try to talk to us about what you’re going through we can put you off with, “Of course you’re miserable! Everyone’s miserable at your age!” You see, we’ve crossed that graduation threshold and listening to you would just force us to relive the pain of our own adolescence. We’ve graduated, so we don’t want to talk about it. We’re trying to forget all about it. We also get to stay comfortable by not doing the hard work of changing systems. The middle school and high school experience has remained the same for generations in America. There have been incremental shifts and more accommodations for students with different abilities, learning styles, and talents, but the basic structure is the same. Changing entrenched structures and systems is hard. If we’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that it just “can’t be changed,” then we don’t have to actually do anything but keep things the way they are.

Class of 2020, we have failed you.

I write every month about “RevolTeens.” I love to highlight the teenagers who don’t accept adolescence as a time to be merely endured or survived. I want them to know that we adults see them and are in awe of their optimism and stubbornness. They’re the characters in every great teen coming of age story who fights back against the bullies, or goes out and stays weird in the face of rejection and judgment, or makes the football team when all the kids and adults at their school think they’re worthless. We all cheer for them.

But teens aren’t revolting for the romance of it or to become stars. They’re revolting because we tell them from the time they enter Middle School until the day they graduate high school, “Nobody likes Middle or High School. You just have to live through the next six years, and then your ‘real’ life can start.”

I have three young adult children of my own, and I work every day in a high school library. I talk with other parents and teachers and we’re all drained. My parents used to hope that my brothers and I would be successful enough in high school to get into college and have a good start in life. My parent and teacher friends now spend our sleepless days and nights just hoping our kids and the kids we work with will live to see their graduation. These are dreary days.

Class of 2020, you have survived. You may be holed up at home. You may be sick of logging into your laptop to find your schoolwork for the day. You didn’t get your graduation. But you have survived. You are the greatest RevolTeens of them all. Living is a revolution. You’re revolting against hopelessness, against stress, against anxiety, against depression, against generations of adults who didn’t make adolescence better for you than it was for us. You are a wonder.

Adults, we are revolting. Surely we can do better.

About Christine Lively

Christine Lively a school librarian in Virginia. I read voraciously, exchange ideas with students, and am a perpetual student. I raise monarch butterflies, cook, clean infrequently and enjoy an extensive hippo collection. Christine blogs at https://hippodillycircus.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/XineLively

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