Alongside the beautiful green mountains and the sweet quirky mix that is Brattleboro, there is something else it can't seem to shake: Discrimination against the teenagers, especially the ones who like to hang out and about in the downtown area.
Somehow, these teens/youth and their hobbies have caused uproar. The discussions about the potential skate park has led to tumultuous debate about whether it will create a noise problem and occasionally activities like skateboarding or loitering in downtown Brattleboro have become a ticketable offenses. Many adults - a mix of patrons, business owners and residents - see the various teens in town as "dangerous" and disrespectful. While these words have not be uttered directly, the murmurs and the tone of this accusation is clear throughout various articles that have appeared in the Brattleboro Reformer and in several passing conversations.
Why are adults so bothered by teens? Why do we usually spend so much time as a society trying to monitor their behavior or keep them from fully engaging with adults?
Recently, I had the chance to read a well-researched source that placed all of this current debate about teenagers and my understanding of it into a bigger context. In fact, the complaints about teens or youth expand beyond our small town and present day.
"The Rise and Fall of the Teenager" by Thomas Hine was an unassuming treasure sitting on one of my bookshelves. I would occasionally pick it
Arguably, the problem or concern with the young people who are not quite seen as adult is nothing new at all. Our fears, romantic visions and theories of what it means to be stuck within liminal state as neither child nor adult are timeless. "The Rise And Fall of the American Teenager" sheds light on not only the history of the teenager but provides a helpful message for encouraging our society to do a better job of helping them navigate the road to adulthood.
Hines illustrates that over a century ago (and earlier), a so-called teen would have done everything from work in a coalmine to embark on a journey to the Midwest as a way of establishing their role in society. At one point within American culture, 12- and 13-year-old girls frequented dance halls after their factory work. For a host of reasons, mostly economic, teens were contributors to society and key wage earners for their families.
What happened to transform our thinking of the teenager from someone we upheld as a social contributor to what we now view as socially/temporarily disabled individuals who need protection or containment? Our very use of the word "teenager" is relatively new surfacing for the first time in 1941 then becoming a common reference in the world of advertising. Hine skillfully demonstrates that our concept of youth - who they are and what they do - is purely constructed shifting with the winds of time and technological advances.
We have often demonstrated our growing pains and discomfort in responding to teenagers. For example, the various work opportunities we offer, the education system, and our laws are in some ways vehicles of restraint rather than genuine opportunity. Our complaints about teens or youth along with our attempt to control them is in fact so banal that we might want to find a new gripe.
Teenagers are causing no more problems in downtown Brattleboro, or anywhere else in the United States than they ever were. Perhaps our fears come from the fact that we were them, yet the moment we slip into the other side of adulthood, we somehow develop temporary amnesia denouncing our former youthful selves.
As teens continue to occupy the concerns of many Brattleboro residents and many others beyond our state border, I struggle to understand the upset. Are the youth really trouble or in trouble? Have they really become disrespectful or are they are just wishing to challenge the playpens we created? Perhaps we underestimated their ability to see our reactions to them as they attempt to beckon the adults around them to become acquainted with them as individuals. We might want to take a huge step back and recognize the thin a thin line separating the struggles of teens and the experiences of adults.
We don't have a formal right of passage yet we expect individuals to stumble out of their teen years and emerge as responsible adults. As grown ups, we are required to be more conscious or developed in life. However, there are moments in which we illustrate that we are nothing more than the stunted youth we thought was left behind. A quote comes to mind that stuck with me during a workshop I attended years ago about adolescence: "They are not giving you a hard time, they are just having a hard time." These words are also helpful to many of us who may on occasion revert to our youthful ways as we try to navigate the terrain of adulthood without a map. It might also be time for us to recognize our lack of comfort with what we seem to be both seduced by and want to control-youth.
Shanta L.E. Crowley writes from Brattleboro. You can read her blog at www.reformer802.com/realtalk.