As a rule, the only time teenagers see the sun come up is when they have triumphantly stayed awake the whole night through. My husband and I recently discovered that it is also possible, though not popular, to drag sleeping teenagers out of bed at 5 a.m. to witness the glory of dawn.
A couple of weekends ago, four teens from the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor joined us on one of the Cranberry Islands for a retreat — part of a “Coming of Age” program that we have been teaching since January. It is a compelling youth curriculum published by the Unitarian Universalist Association for teens on the threshold between childhood and young adulthood.
Over the last 16 weeks of studying the world of ideas and value systems, the task laid before these young people was to figure out who they are and what they believe.
Seeing as how many of us longtime adults are still working on that task, it seems a pretty tall order. Still, the exercise of active reflection is never wasted, so we set out to do what we could.
The two of us learned a great deal about teaching adolescents through this experience. You would think that we’d have it down by now, having just seen the last of our four children leave adolescence behind, not to mention the fact that we have both been high school teachers. But, happily, life is ever bristling with new information. We will never know it all, nor get it all right. We can only keep trying, keep thinking, stay open to possibilities heretofore unconsidered. Perhaps that’s the beauty of it.
At any rate, after repeating various bits of data a dozen times over, it became clear that much of the information we were spouting was not sinking in. We realized that the things kids remember most are dynamic and circumstantial. The rousing game of Bucket-of-Nouns that we played at our first retreat stuck with them far longer than the definition of a personal credo.
That’s why a weekend on a wooded island off the coast of Maine was such an excellent tool, especially a weekend that was electronics-free: no TV, no iPods, no cellphones, no computers. Left to its own devices, the unplugged world teaches a lot, quietly.
Despite some initial dread, the teens adapted quickly. They sang together, had conversations, read books and just sat outside peacefully, looking at the world. They even succeeded in their challenge of spending four hours alone in the mossy woods with nothing but their warm clothes, two index cards, a pencil and a piece of chocolate.
As dedicated instructors, we had planned to run another class session on the island. We left it behind. The experience largely spoke for itself, so we decided to let it be.
This is a bright group. No doubt the bits and pieces of our weekly discussions found places in their minds, and will emerge in various forms of recognition later in life (or even sooner). For now, we decided that engaging them in activities and having some fun is, perhaps, the most important thing of all. Suddenly everyone is laughing together around a card table. Learning that you can share that companionship with a bunch of people is more informative than a lot of lecturing.
Now, I’m not going to say that they all embraced the idea of getting out of bed at 5 a.m. when it was about 40 degrees outside (and inside — our fireplace was long cold). But they did it. They got up, they went out to the rocky shore, they saw the sun-glow rising and the fire of the first light making its brilliant entry over the ocean.
We didn’t belabor the point. I didn’t try to draw them into my own romantic imagery of meeting the day face-to-face with the sun. But I think that solar encounter over the sea made an impression. We’ll be patient — something will come of all this talking and living. And somehow, perhaps, it may help them figure out who they are.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.