An article I wrote for an upcoming (November/December) edition of Camping Magazine, “Door Number 3,” discusses the rather circuitous route of adolescent identity formation, quoting – among others – Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), the main character in the television series “The Wonder Years.” He once said, “Growing up doesn’t have to be so much a straight line as a series of advances and retreats.”
That sentiment mirrors the unsteady footing of personal development and a “do, evaluate, re-do” map for identifying a path forward in defining who one is becoming and, ultimately, will be.
Predictably, an essential part of that evolution involves both reflection and planning for the future.
In particular, key transitions (both linear and nonlinear) offer up weigh stations in which such processing takes place. And chief among them may be those pertaining to academic change, be it elementary school to middle school, middle school to high school or high school to college (about which I have written extensively, including “A Moment in Time,” “Glory Days?” and “A Little Unwell”).
These inflection points were captured in recent commencement addresses by two 15-year-olds: Eli Waldman, who delivered graduation remarks at his former elementary school (Nottingham) in Virginia, and Max Shutze, who did the same at his eighth-grade ceremony at Coleytown Middle School in Connecticut. Each offered important messages related to such constructs as independence, change, challenge, responsibility, friendship… and survival.
For his part, Eli acknowledged the jitters many students (and parents) face when pivoting from the insular world of elementary school to large environments with more choices and moving parts.
He asked, “I’d like to see a show of hands – who is excited for middle school?” … OK, now parents: who among you is ready for your child to go to middle school?
“Well, I’m here to tell students AND parents that it’s going to be great. For you students, Nottingham has prepared you academically for the challenges that are ahead. You are also ready for greater independence and responsibility. And parents: you, too, are going to be fine with the changes that come with middle school. Will middle school be different from life at Nottingham? Absolutely. But change in this case is good and inevitable on the path forward.”
Max, in his remarks, shared tales from Dr. Seuss’ book Oh, the Places You’ll Go! and said, “The book is about an unnamed protagonist making the tough decision to leave his beloved home. On his journey, he went through countless problems, but nothing stood in his way. Even when he succeeds, he falls and gets in a slump. This metaphorical slump is hard to get out of, but that didn’t stop him, and he kept going. I think this character represents every teenager here, and the great challenge ahead of us.”
Max’s counsel to his peers?
“Even when things don’t go as expected, you still have to keep your head high and reach above and beyond. YOU decide your fate, YOU decide your future and YOU will succeed. Kids, you’ll move mountains. So, Class of 2021, our mountain is waiting. Let’s go climb it.”
While Eli also offered tips to survive the next step of schooling, a good part of his guidance was reserved for the adults in the room.
“I know that it may be difficult, and I’m not telling you how to parent your children. But I would encourage you to give your kids more independence … This is a point I am still trying to help my parents understand: most kids at some point in middle school want to spend more and more time with their friends, which may mean less time with their parents. If this happens to your kids, it doesn’t mean they love you less. It just means they are ready for some independence. Let me repeat – and, Mom and Dad, please listen – this does not mean they love you any less. They will always love you and need you.”
Eli and Max also spoke to the much ballyhooed trait of resilience. So did my 2014 Huffington Post column “Falling Up”: “A growing body of work on youth resiliency, character development and protective factors points to the efficacy of struggle – even failure – in best preparing young people to find fulfillment and advancement.”
Other important traits, including individual responsibility and initiative, were linked to successful outcomes in a study by CARE (Center for Adolescent Research and Education). CARE is a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing favorable youth outcomes, such as positive identity formation, character development, leadership, civic engagement, social entrepreneurship, spirituality, conflict resolution and financial/media literacy.
As for self-efficacy, in his book Where Will You Be Five Years From Today? Dan Zadra shares, “The best day of your life is the day on which you decide your life is your own. No one to lean on, rely on or blame. The gift of life is yours, it is an amazing journey, and you alone are responsible for the quality of it. Life is about the choices you make – choose wisely.”
Or, as Dr. Seuss said, “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go.”
Inflection points. Maybe go climb a mountain?
Greeson, L. (2016). 10 life lessons as told by “The Wonder Years”. Odyssey. https://www.theodysseyonline.com/10-life-lessons-as-told-by-the-wonder-years (23 Aug. 2017).
Project Resilience. (1999). http://projectresilience.com/index.htm (23 Aug. 2017).
Seuss, T. (1990). Oh, the places you’ll go!. New York: Random House. 2008. http://www.seussville.com/books/book_detail.php?isbn=9780679805274 (23 Aug. 2017).