"Even in heaven they don't sing all the time"
Michael Mazenko writes,
"As a high school English teacher, I start the year by reading Ferlinghetti's poem aloud. During the discussion that follows, I ask my new crop of teenagers what they wonder. I'm always met with silence — silence and faces as blank as sheets of loose-leaf paper before an essay.
"My God," I tell them, "have we killed it in you already?"
Sadly, they don't wonder. Or they wonder innocuous, mundane things like, "What's our homework?" or "Is this on the test," or shockingly, "Do we have to know this?"
I tell my students that in order to be effective readers, to be effective students, to be happy and successful adults, they need to wonder.
They don't always get it. Something has been lost in their journey through school and through life — a journey that is supposed to be about discovery."
Just because teenagers don’t behave like kindergartners doesn’t mean that school has “killed” something in them. I’m a mother of a tenth grader. I was 39 when my son was born, and I’m 55 now. When my son was three years old, I too experienced what Mazenko calls that wonderful “second childhood” when the “world was huge and fascinating.” Now that my son is 16, I am re-experiencing the world through the eyes of a teenager. The world is still huge and fascinating—but now it’s full of danger.
Since the heady days of kindergarten, my son has gained new knowledge—none of it discovered in the classroom. He now knows death—of two grandparents and an uncle. Kids at his school have died—one was accidentally shot by a friend and one died in a car accident. He has seen friends succumb to the lure of drugs and alcohol. He knows kids who have experienced trouble with the law. Many of his friends have watched their parents’ marriages fall apart. He has learned that some neighbors and cops don’t like teenagers. He has become aware of his own intellectual and physical limitations: he has dyslexia and has broken bones and needed stitches. He remembers 9/11 and the explosion of the Colombia. He has watched TV images of the devastation in Iraq and New Orleans.
If a teenager is reluctant to jut his hand up in the air when his thirty-seven-year-old teacher asks him on the first day of school, “What do you wonder?” I suspect it isn’t that school has damaged him. I suspect it’s simply that the teenager has faced the tragedies in life. A teenager’s silence and blank face don’t mean “only innocuous, mundane things” float in her head.
Mazenko revels in his child’s statement, “Daddy, I wonder if there are any worms under that moss over there.” Yesterday, I was struck dumb by my own child’s statement, “Mom, I wonder if Robbie will go to jail.” You see, two days ago, my son’s buddy killed a five-year-old whose spontaneity and enthusiasm made him forget to look for cars as he rode his bike into the street. My son’s sixteen-year-old friend couldn’t stop his SUV in time, and now must live with the horrible reality that a car—even when driven slowly and carefully—can kill.
When I look at today’s 16-year-olds, I feel none of Michael Mazenko’s despair. He states, “I worry when my students stop wondering. That lack of discovery can lead us into the drudgery of adulthood.” Teenagers haven’t stopped wondering. In fact, they wonder so profoundly and so deeply that they can’t always find the right words to express their thoughts. True, they don’t jump out of their chairs like a five year old and ask about “flowers and trucks and tea sets.” They may be reticent—and even surly—but to be silent and awed by the world’s complexity doesn’t mean our students have entered the “drudgery” of adulthood.
Mazenko asks us, “Remember how fun it was to play tag? Remember how exhilarating it was to run through the sprinkler? Remember the insane joy of rolling down a hill? Remember when you just instinctively ran after lightning bugs at dusk?” I ask, “Remember how frightening it was to be a teenager? Remember how you worried about sex, violence, death, and war?”
Teenagers know the joy of life, but they wonder about its darkness as well. As teachers, we must help prepare them for adulthood (which has been anything but drudgery for me, by the way). We do so by offering them the great ideas of the past, as well as the exciting technology of the future. We share with them all the wonders of science and math and art and poetry. We must inspire them and show them that even though danger has always been part of human life, humans don’t need to be squelched by fear.
I am reminded of words from another poem by Ferlinghetti,
The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don't mind happiness
not always being
so very much fun
if you don't mind a touch of hell
now and then
just when everything is fine
because even in heaven
they don't sing
all the time