Saturday, February 27, 2010

Navigating Adolescence Alone: A Dangerous Passage

They were 14 years old—three boys with hooded sweatshirts, skateboarding outside my classroom on a Saturday. When they removed the steel drainage cover in the center of the school’s quad and were propping it against a wall to skate against, I intervened. I approached the boys and asked them to replace the steel plate. They only complied when I added, “If you don’t look at me when I speak, I don’t know if you’ve heard me.” Getting into my car I noticed that one entire side had been gouged with a key.

I’m a sixth grade teacher. I understand the warrior mentality. Middle schoolers want to be fearless. They want to take risks. They found an opportunity that afternoon to act out these ancient yearnings in response to my authority. I believe problematic adolescent behaviors are manifestations of ritualistic cravings, and that they are rich with symbolic meaning. These boys are not ‘bad.’ They are yearning for robust challenges to guide them in their transition to adulthood. The transition I am referring to is what anthropologists would refer to as a rite of passage.

‘Adolescence,’ as a developmental stage, is a recent construct. It is a result of compulsory schooling, child labor laws and juvenile justice legislation. Tribal societies do not have this designation. By means of a great ceremony, children are ritually transitioned to adulthood. The transition is complete. There is no ambiguity. There is no adolescence.

To understand the power of the yearnings behind many adolescent behaviors, we must understand something of our long social evolution as a people. During our 200,000 years of history, humans developed elaborate customs to meet our emotional needs. Rituals such as the rite of passage have ruled our existence for 95 percent of this history. Adolescent rites of passage are found in tribal cultures throughout the world. It is believed that such rituals have been with us for millennia.

Throughout this long social history, 14-year-old boys like these skateboarders would not be considered children. Prehistoric societies would have transitioned them to adulthood under the supervision of the elders from their community. These boys would have been given new names, new dress, new scars or tattoos, new tribal secrets and the respect accorded only to adults. After a ritual separation from the tribe, they would have been welcomed back with great ceremony as freshly minted men, acting in accordance with the powerful expectations of their community. They would have experienced a rite of passage. They would be forever men. This is an ancient rite and, I would argue, an ancient right.

My own sixth graders become remarkably focused when I discuss these matters with them. We study prehistoric peoples in sixth grade. To make it more relevant to them, I infuse our routines with ritual. We sit in circles, walk in silence, and appreciate each other in a daily council. Our classroom is our ‘tribe’—I am the elder, and each of them is a young warrior with great challenges to face as they transition to adulthood. They become intensely serious when we engage on this level. I believe they long for a relationship with an elder who will guide them, take them seriously, challenge them, guard them, believe in them and expect much of them. I try to fill this role. They respond in kind. A rite of passage has always demanded a deep connection between the youth and the elders. In one recent study of adolescent risk behavior, researchers concluded that, “Parent-family connectedness and perceived school connectedness were protective against every health risk behavior.”

We wonder why our young people are so angry, so distant. We shake our heads when they race cars, take drugs, dance through the night, pierce their bodies, tattoo themselves and challenge one another to take risks. Our adolescents are initiating each other and they are not qualified to do this. Yet they know something is amiss. They are silently angry at us, brooding and aggressive. Yet they are full of a vital life force that we elders should learn to tap, to believe in and to channel in meaningful ways.

Instead of initiation and integration, our 12-year-olds today are abruptly taken out of the nurturing world of the elementary classroom. They are thrust into middle school with a group of teachers who cannot remember their names. Students roam the hallways, searching for meaning in this chaotic environment. We know that the transition to middle school is associated with a dramatic increase in risk behaviors, plummeting test scores and decreased self-esteem. Suicides, homicides, pregnancies, drug abuse, car fatalities and a host of other problems haunt this age. However, research shows that these behaviors occur less frequently for students who remain in the same schools from kindergarten through eighth grade. More important than grade configuration however, what matters is that kids have a connection with a caring adult to help them navigate the challenges of adolescence. Without such connections, adolescents turn to one another for guidance and initiation. It doesn’t work that way. It never has.

I believe that we adults—we ‘elders’—must understand our historical role. We must be willing to step forward and meet the vital challenge of bringing our youth across the threshold to adulthood. If we can no longer offer them a challenging initiation to adulthood, we can at least make sure that no adolescent goes through the middle school years alone. We must model for them what it means to be a man or a woman. This is our deep responsibility, and it is their ancient right.


  1. I feel blessed to have you as a guiding elder for my son Patrick, Dr. Paul. I thank you. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

  2. A brilliant and poignant message, thank you.