What is it about teenagers? The joking and giggling. The chattiness. Their curious tendency to walk right into you.
After fifteen years of teaching, I have finally discovered the perfect metaphor for the teenage spirit. It comes from a passage in Rhetoric where Aristotle remarks of young people, “…nature warms their blood, as though with excess of wine.” In other words, young people exist in a state of perpetual tipsiness.
Any high school teacher encountering this claim for the first time cannot help but saying, “Spot on,” and the longer one considers it, the more apt it seems: Teenagers generally need a ride home. They are always hungry. They are generally looking for a reason to laugh, but are also very passionate, suddenly switching from one intense feeling to another. They often speak at a far higher volume than is necessary. They are sleepy.
Aristotle identified the squiffy demeanor of young people more than two thousand years ago and his observation holds true to this day, which means that these qualities of teenage life are not corruptions of human nature, but human nature itself. While nature is not always easy to love, despising nature is perverse. It is impious to dislike the sun, moon, or stars, all of which are ordained by God. CS Lewis once claimed he did not enjoy the company of children, and yet he regarded this as a fault in his personality, not just a quirk or a benign preference. Being a child is only natural, just like turning thirteen is only natural. A dislike of teenagers is not justifiable.
When it comes to teenage tipsiness, it is both true and false that “they can’t help it.” On the one hand, nature imposes inviolable limits which cannot be bested. On the other hand, man is made in the image of God and divine nature transcends human nature without destroying it. In the same way, it is not possible to destroy the drunkenness in a man. You’ve simply got to wait it out. Lucidity, balance, precision, and control return slowly, moment by moment. In the same way that sobriety isn’t really grasped or learned, neither is maturity.
I am not suggesting that maturity comes apart from effort and sacrifice, it does not, and yet neither does maturity arrive in a sudden lump sum, like a paycheck. Maturity always arrives in retrospect. We find it later. There is thus a part of teaching which simply means waiting. Obviously, the time may be passed more or less profitably, and a good education will involve lots of hard work— and yet, on the day classes resumed after Christmas break, I looked at a classroom full of faces (back again) and thought, “Well, here we are,” in roughly the same tone I might have said those words to a seatmate just sitting down for a bus ride from New York to LA. However, we are not merely watching the scenery go by. We are waiting together for the arrival of some existential beauty, some grander eminence.
That teenage tipsiness comes suddenly at the start of middle school, then begins a long slow fade sometime late sophomore year. When alumni return at Christmas to visit their old high school, most of them are serene and quietly content with themselves. At some point, the waiting ended. It is hard to say when, which is part of what makes it so moving.