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Woog's World / Very glad not to be a Westport teenager today

Published 6:50 am, Sunday, May 11, 2014
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I would not want to be a teenager today.

Teenagers today are bombarded in high school with the "Common Core." Education in 2014 is all about rubrics and metrics. Grades are based on criteria satisfied, standards met, boxes checked. It has to be that way, because teachers -- even administrators -- are evaluated that way, too.

Staples is a "Blue Ribbon School." Great! But the reward is a banner hung outside the building -- not an opportunity to be relieved of playing the same "common standards" games that apply to every other school everywhere. Teenagers today feel enormous academic pressure.

Teenagers today spend almost as much time seeing tutors and taking standardized-test prep courses as they do in class. PSAT coming up? We'll get you ready! Worried about your AP Environmental Studies exam? Here's a special one-night class. For just $195!

Teenagers today think about colleges very, very early. They visit them very, very early. They go to summer college "enrichment" workshops -- and summer college sports camps -- very, very early. They apply to very, very many colleges. They compete against very, very many people. Acceptance rates -- to the ones they have been told for a very, very long time are the ones they "should" go to -- are very, very low.

Teenagers today also perform community service. Some do it because they genuinely want to help others. Some do it because they think it is expected of them. In some ways, it is. Plenty of schools -- not Staples, thankfully -- require community service hours to graduate. What kind of service is that?

Teenagers today must find time for much more than academics and community service. There are clubs -- and they believe they must not simply join a club, but start one. That, they are told, shows leadership. And colleges are very, very interested in leadership.

Teenagers today, however, have few opportunities to actually demonstrate leadership. From a very early age, they have been collaborating. Group work, they are told, is the way the world works. Groups are very, very important. Teenagers today spent a great deal of time in groups.

Teenagers today do not, as a result, spend a great deal of time on their own. The old hallmarks of adolescence -- independence, risk-taking, doing dumb things and learning from them -- have fallen out of favor. The risks are too great. The reins must be held tightly.

Teenagers today are in constant communication with their parents. They text about where they were, where they are, where they're going. They text about what time they'll be home, how they'll get home, what they'll do when they walk through the door. Teenagers today love their cellphones. But they do not realize how much, in the vast, invisible freedom of cyberspace, they are tethered to their parents.

And to their friends.

Teenagers today are constantly "on." Because -- thanks to cyberspace -- they are connected 24/7 to each other, they feel the need to constantly check in. Otherwise, they might miss something. That's always been true of teenagers. But now, the list of what they might miss is impossibly huge: the latest gossip. The latest party. The latest comment about themselves.

Which brings me to -- of course -- Yik Yak.

That's the smartphone app that swept through Staples a couple of weeks ago. If you think -- as you read above all that teenagers do -- they don't have time to obsessively refresh Yik Yak, you're wrong. Teenagers multitask like there's no tomorrow. Because, when they have to check out who is saying what about whom -- and make sure that no one is saying anything about them -- what is happening at that moment is the most important thing in the world. Even when they have a safe, secure "friend group" (the new term for "friends"), teenagers today are not sure they are safe.

For generations -- ever since the concept of "teenager" was invented (human beings once jumped from childhood directly to adulthood) -- teenagers have worried about themselves, and what others thought of them. If they had a zit, or believed their biceps or chest were too flat, they saw it in a mirror. Very occasionally, they saw something written on a bathroom stall. Today they see it instantly, on their phones. The same moment everyone else sees it.

I love today's teenagers. Despite all the pressures, the ones I know -- at Staples, anyway -- handle themselves with tremendous grace. They work hard. They do sports or music or drama or whatever else they commit themselves to with passion and power. They are, for the most part, kind and compassionate, funny and friendly, nice and warm.

But every once in a while, something like Yik Yak opens a release valve from all the pressures today's teenagers feel. The result is not pretty.

I am very, very glad I am not a teenager today.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.