I am always saying how lucky I am (because it’s true!): I have a job that I love in a profession I believe in and I know that the work I do each day makes a difference. The staff of my library is outstanding – truly the best that I have ever worked with or seen. Unlike some teen librarians I talk to, my colleagues seem to like working with teens (even outside my constant harping about it.) So I was surprised when a someone was a bit…snarky about my excitement over the impending Youth Media Awards. (As an irrepressible ‘list and awards’ fan, the announcement each year at ALA Midwinter ranks just under the Oscars for me.) I’m choosing to take that moment of side-eye as having more to do with my (often excessive) enthusiasm than that other thing. It was a fleeting moment, certain to be instantly forgotten. But I’m not sure, and it’s still (slightly) bothering me a few days later.
It might be that other thing: That it’s easy and comfortable for adults to scoff at young people and their stuff and their seemingly temporary concerns and ‘dramas.’
I’ve known many extraordinary teens in the time I’ve been a librarian. Some that I am working with now really stand out: the members of the LGBTQIA+ support group that uses one of our libraries as their meeting space. I try to sit in with them as often as I can and always make sure to have their information on hand for anyone interested or in need. It may be self-serving, but these teens are the ones I seek out when things in the wider world get tough because they are incredibly kind, brave and just plain fun to be around.
I made sure to arrange my overloaded schedule to be with them on Friday. The tenor of the group was much as it ever is – bright, cheerful, laughing. A room of teens from across the county gathering, catching up after being apart for a week or longer, celebrating the small victories of their day. As we got into the session, though, things darkened as they began to share thoughts on the inauguration and fears about what reactionary politics could mean for the gains in equality we’ve seen up to this point. Some were quiet, some angry, some were making mordant jokes, but all of them expressed fear and a growing sense of helplessness.
Whatever your politics might be, this is no time to disregard the fears of our teens. When it was my turn to contribute, I tried to focus their energy towards action, challenging them to think about how they would respond to the things that are making them uncomfortable and unsure. When a trans teen said that they felt useless, I responded honestly. Of course you do, I said, ‘you all have it harder than adults.’
They were thunderstruck. Usually this group is so energetic they overlap questions and answers with a rapidity that would impress the most caffeinated professional pundits. After a few beats of silence, the teen whispered “Oh. Please say that again.” And so I did.
I told them how I see it: Teens have little control over so many factors of their lives: They don’t have economic power (even in this affluent corner of the world.) They have to abide by the rules of their guardians, and while some have compassionate support systems, more endure home-lives that range from willfully ignorant about their needs, to hostile, to dangerous or even non-existent. Their access to transportation, medical care, education and (often) information is strictly controlled. Few of them are truly seen, or heard, or taken seriously by anyone in their lives except each other. In so many ways, they must rely on others to act for them.
Another beat of silence, and this time, with a sly smile, the teen again whispered. “Say. That. Again.”
When I’m working on other desks, or just living my life out in the community, I am often asked how I can stand working with teens. What most people are really asking is how can I stand these teens these days. This is a lazy, self-indulgent question that, to me, indicates an abdication of the responsibility we have as ‘grown-ups’ and representatives of older (but rarely wiser) generations to help young people learn exactly how to navigate the often-fuzzy ‘rules’ of adulthood.
I (too often) find myself defending the value of service to teens. I worry that it has become a losing game. Those who work with young people must never become complacent about the importance of seeing, hearing and helping young people, or insisting that others treat them an essential part of our communities. To tell a teen to ‘get over it,’ that they are ‘lucky’ to have contemporary problems (as opposed to the ‘historical’ ones of older generations) or, that they’ll understand it all in some future, hazy ‘one day’ does nothing to assuage their fears or feelings of helplessness in the moment. When someone says something like this, they aren’t interested in helping. They either cannot or will not remember that they once experienced those same fears and uncertainties. They are just making themselves feel better.
It might feel true: Maybe it’s likely that teens will look back, with the advantage of age, and realize that their current problems aren’t such a big deal. But in the moment (this moment, especially) the challenges they are facing as individuals, as well as in their communities, country, and planet, seem insurmountable. How can we expect them to ‘get over it’ if we only offer an generic insistence that they will, without providing the specific support they need to gain the skills they need to cope, or without sharing our own stories, revealing our past (and current) vulnerabilities, treating young people with the respect they deserve?
I asked this amazing group what they were going to do to ensure that their place in the world remains visible, accessible, and protected. Though they know that their options to act are limited, they responded: They would band together. They would stand up for what they believe in, where and when they could. They would carve out and hold space for those still afraid or unable to live their lives authentically.
When a co-worker asked me the same question this weekend, I wasn’t able to answer as thoughtfully as the teens did. After a long, silent moment I said: Through my work.