The term “self-advocacy” has always seemed like an awkward term to me. There’s something clunky about it, like a plumbers wrench or a tangled up kite or like a pile of shoes that need to be moved. Perhaps it’s my innate fear of intimacy that makes it sound so awkward, as asking for something for ourselves is a sneakily difficult way of putting ourselves on the line. To ask for help, we have to make ourselves vulnerable on a number of levels. We have to indicate that we don’t know something or are lacking something– that’s the more obvious level of vulnerability demanded in doing this. But there’s also a second level that lurks below that: it asserts that we are valuable enough to demand the thing that is sought, be it advice or information or direction. That may be the harder of the two for most of us.
When you’re a teenager, this is all pretty much impossible for most of them. Yes, there are those automatons that somehow have figured out their career up through young adulthood by the age of 12 and are self-assured and confident in the face of all adversity. But setting aside those inexplicably formed teens for a second, being a teenager is about doubt and uncertainty, above all other things. How does my hair look? Can the guy next to me tell I didn’t take a shower this morning? Am I wearing the right pants? Do they have a hole in them? Did I do my math homework? Is that girl looking at me? Do I want her to look at me? Do I want her to know that I know she’s looking at me but then act like it’s no big deal to me? Do I want to be the type of person that would want a girl to be looking at me, let her know I know she’s looking at me but acting like it’s no big deal. Those are the swirling questions could all come up in the first five minutes of a teenage day boarding the bus.
Identity is kind of funny elusive thing to begin with if you think about it. I mean, who are you really when it’s boiled down? Are you the clothes you wear, your make-up, your hair? All those things can change tomorrow. Are you the jobs you do, the set of interests you’ve pruned over the years and developed a muscle memory for? Again, all can change with one whimsical decision on your part. Are the you the set of traits that you have had since birth? One tragic accident, or illness, or traumatic experience can change that in an instant. It’s why F. Scott Fitzgerald said in The Great Gatsby that “even Gatsby could happen without any particular wonder.” Identity is a happening, an act, a ever-evolving dance of metaphysical phenomena that stops only at death. As adults, we’ve had the luxury of sinking into assumptions about ourselves and our purpose; we’ve had years to convince ourselves of our respective missions– their merit, their fit for us, and above all…their certainty, that illusory immutable purpose. It’s become a more convincing ruse.
For 99% of teenagers, they have no idea. They have a swirling morass of questions and little else. They can’t draw on a monologue of strength to face that void. They have the limited experiences of a childhood spent mostly trying to figure out how to share nicely with their sister and stop peeing their pants. Questions of identity are typically fresh, and if you don’t have a script that at least presents a narrative of who you are, then you’re nothing more than glorified paper mache. And cogently, if you’re nothing, who are you to ask for anything? Particularly from someone as venerable and intimidating as a teacher.
And this existential bildungsroman is merely half of the equation. The other arguably more difficult part of asking for help is making ourselves vulnerable to another. Revealing one’s weakness to another and sharing it like it’s no big deal is a lifelong dilemma, and most people never make it there, giving up eventually with the justification that ‘it’s too late.’ Regardless, it’s instinctual to present a strong front to the world, societally programmed into us from the very beginning. What are the qualities we want in our toddlers? Resilience, confidence, equanimity. What is rejected? Crying, complaining, depression, weakness. This is particularly exaggerated in a profit-driven capitalistic society based on a the assumption of an underlying social Darwinism. The strongest survive and the weakest of us fall away.
In this cultural context, ‘asking for help’ is entirely counter-intuitive. It reveals clearly a weakness to one the most vital barometers of your strength that exist, a teacher. After all, a teacher pulls the levers on the metrics of your success that are central in understanding a teen’s valuation. Evidence appears when a kid is struggling: one way of expressing that undeniably is the phrase “his grades are slipping.” Or if we want to indicate a kid is ‘strong,’ we say “she’s a straight-A student,” and everyone nods approvingly and contentedly. Laying down in front of a teacher provides the feeling of a lamb taking a nap in a lion’s mouth.
And yet paradoxically, it may be the single most vital way to succeed. The full reasons why may need some exploration; the reasons appear if we switch lenses for a moment and consider the teacher’s viewpoint…
Being a classroom teacher is less like being an instructor of academic material and more like being a shepherd. It’s a disappointing realization to many young academics looking to make a secure career out of their die-hard passion for Marcel Proust or the double-helix. Only a small percentage of a teacher’s energy is actually spent on the material. It’s more about coaching a student through a bad day because their boyfriend broke up with them, discussing a poor student grade with an angry parent, disciplining the inevitable loose canon kid who won’t do the reading. And this picture sets aside that at least 50% of a teacher’s day is devoted to paperwork, meetings, coaching, dorm-parenting(if a boarding school), advisory, extra-curricular activities, and other various administrative tasks. I’d say in a best case scenario, a teacher devotes about 25% of their time to actually teaching kids the academic material that they are hypothetically hired to teach.
Now how is that 25% dispersed? Evenly over every student? Not at all… No way. In ideal circumstances, a full time teacher has about 50 students to teach, in public school, that number can be far far greater. (I knew a teacher at summer school in Andover who taught over 400 students during the school year. She didn’t even know their names!). Let’s be generous and say that teacher is working 60 hours per week (which sounds like a lot but any teacher will tell you it’s about accurate, if not conservative). Well, if we’re using my 25% estimate of time devoted to actual teaching, that 60 hours becomes 15. Now divide that 15 hours between 50 students and you get a little under 20 minutes, per week, per student (in ideal circumstances).
But we are creatures of efficiency, and when presented with insurmountable tasks (like teaching a student a mountain of material in 20 minutes a week) , we utilize heuristics, cognitive shortcuts based on previous data. It sounds a bit heartless, but teachers must generalize students, make assumptions about their existence, and depersonalize them just to do their jobs. I noticed halfway through my teaching career that my brain began to “overwrite” previous students when new ones came along that were similar in appearance, demeanor and ability. Even on a more micro-scale, I had to categorize and sort students based on varying criteria. I mean, how many truly intimate and personal relationships can we maintain at a time?
But this wasn’t an even process, how could it be, I’m not a robot? None of us are? So naturally, an uneven amount of my time was devoted to some students versus others. Well, guess which ones were the ones that got more of the metaphorical enchilada? It was the kids that hung out after class and asked questions… Yes, to some degree it was the driven ones, the ones that would eat their shoes to get a perfect score if they had to. But more often and more poignantly, it was the ones that put themselves out in all their imprecision and inchoate rawness that called forth my sympathies, my time & energy, and ultimately, the educational catharsis that is the apex of learning.
So in other words, while asking a teacher for extra help is incredibly daunting on an existential level and fundamentally counter-intuitive, it also might be the single most important pathway to success for any student. Fortunate or unfortunate, this paradox is only one of many that decorate the adolescent landscape: adult in appearance and child in mind, highly capable intellectually while also capable of making irrationally god-awful decisions(!), hormonally charged and entirely innocent, amorphous in a time of exponential definition. Navigating the backwardness of vulnerability is nevertheless at the top of the list of teenage ironies. It is not surprising if they will need some substantial help in approaching other adults. The process of finding that right adult mentor and educator is arduous, but the returns for a teen caught in the transition of youth are nearly endless.