Friday, May 13, 2005

Teenager trouble again

From the Catholic Herald
Home Front, 12 May 2005

Teenagers, teenagers, teenagers. What’s to be done about them, eh? Two horrible stories this week burst in on the family consciousness, making us feel uneasy and threatened. In one, an Anglican vicar has been forced to move his services to his home because of gangs of teenagers who throw bricks and eggs at his congregation.
In another, two young girls are said to have suffered hours of torture at a seedy hotel in Reading, ending with one being hospitalised and the other, most horrifically of all, stabbed to death. A young life cut off by the action of others not much older, it would seem, than herself, enacting a nightmarish “Lord of the Flies” scenario.
But the feral children in William Golding’s novel were prep school boys, all under thirteen, much, much younger than the alleged suspects in the Reading case.
What are we to do about teenagers?
Maybe the first thing we should do is turn the question on its head. What can teenagers do for us?
What a shame that the Gospels do not reveal the ages of the disciples as Jesus gathered them around him. Being the eclectic bunch they were, several of them must surely have been “teenagers” when they heard the call. But the idea of a teenager did not exist: the idea of a youth, yes; the idea of a young man, making mistakes and making war, yes.
The idea of a teenager is different. A teenager is a child caught in an adult’s body. A “teenager” is - we seem to believe - condemned to live in a sealed world that does not bisect the adult world but exists in parallel - a world of gang language, bad clothes, “respect” and sex.
How did we come to saddle young people with that ugly, down-grading word, “teenager“? As a child I was struck by how my favourite fairy tales seemed to be about very young people just turned adults - and they were princesses, princes, woodcutter’s, miller’s sons…never “teenagers”, though in age terms that is no doubt what they were. Romeo and Juliet were tragic young lovers on whose heads the future of their families depended - they were not “teenagers”.
Let us think of great teenagers of the church. St Agatha, St John Bosco, St Teresa, just to pick out a few names at random. How incongruous the word “teenager” becomes when applied to a martyr or a holy soul. How shallow a word it is - summing up an entire generation with one silly made-up noun based on the suffix of numbers between 13 and 19.
The word, which binds together people of widely varying attitudes by virtue of their age, seems to have crept into the language after the second world war, whose ending 60 years ago has just been celebrated, wanly in the UK, with pomp and magnificence in Moscow. From my own mother’s tales of being a radar operator, I have always been grimly aware of how much that war, indeed most wars, ended up being teenagers’ work: sitting in her dark room twiddling her dial, she was fifteen; many of the pilots she guided were eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old.
A kids’ war in which kids made the sharp-end decisions. Robbed of their youth, yes, but also bequeathed great responsibility.
Responsibility does not come easily to today’s teenagers; firstly because they are always being told they aren’t old enough. For even though their souls crave it, the world seems such a complex and slickly put together place that it must be very hard for any bumbling adolescent to imagine himself or herself having responsibility for any part of it.
For the Church, all attempts to “reach out” to young people are doomed to fail, as long as they perpetuate the false notion that the Church is so separated from young people that it has to reach outside itself to touch them at all. We should surely be thinking instead of how our teenagers, our young people, those already within the church, can reach out to those outside the church. In other words, we should be thinking, not “what can we do about teenagers?”, but “what task can we entrust to our teenagers?”

No comments: