Flash of Humanity

On an especially warm September afternoon many years ago I watched my 5-year-old son exit the huge grade school with hordes of sweaty students who were finally freed. He was a little guy, and at that moment, he was outright wilted. His pudgy cheeks were flushed bright red. His dazed eyes showed that he was no longer registering any new information. He moved with the crowd, doing what he was told. His Buzz Lightyear backpack, unzipped, and slipping down one arm, was slowly losing its contents. His Old Navy polo shirt was un-tucked and wrinkled. One bright white untied shoelace dangerously flopped with each step. It was the third week of kindergarten and thank God it was a Friday.

I’ve seen this dazed look on parents and students alike this past couple of weeks. The excitement of the new school year has faded, and the impact of early alarms, relentless schedules, and late night homework has seeped in. We are wilted.

I see adolescents everywhere; in my work, at home and, since I live a few blocks from a bustling high school, pretty much every time I leave the house. At this time of year, parents and young children may look tired, but teenagers tend to look sullen. I see the masks that teens wear, and I respect that. The life of a teenager is hard. In addition to the teenage world (of which we don’t know half of), they receive constant messages about the adult world of which they have not control over. The news, normally disheartening or maddening, as of late has been downright apocalyptic.  Our kids feel it. The mask is on. One of my secret pleasures is experiencing the beauty of when the mask crumbles, and I get a glimpse of one’s true humanity. It is especially sweet when this happens with a teenager.

Of course, we’ve seen innocence in our young children a million times over the years as we witnessed them discover the world for the first time. In fact, I believe it is this early pleasure that accounts for the undying love and commitment that we feel toward our teens even in moments when they may not particularly deserve it.

These days if we are a bit more perceptive, we may witness a brief flash of humanity in the teenagers in our lives. I saw it today, on the prairie path. I take walks with my energetic Labradoodle, Chloe. She has an open heart that can be felt from a half-block away. We approached a young woman, maybe 19 years old, who was dressed in a black t-shirt, black leggings, black choker, black lipstick and dark eye-liner in a perfect cat eye design. Her spiked, short black hair and a firm mask of dismissal completed her look.  She looked right past me to Chloe, and there it was! A sweet smile broke across her black lips to reveal her healthy, white, teeth, a brightness in her eyes and the softness of her young heart. And then, it was gone.

I saw it too recently as I watched a middle-aged man join a promising teenage female vocalist onstage to play a duet at a local restaurant. His readers rested firmly in place, and his lumbering rhythmic moves did not disguise his passion as he picked the guitar. The singer, age 16 who knew the man well as a family friend, was hesitant at first.  Within one verse, she responded to this man’s pure love of music and his child-like energy. Soon enough, she was smiling and improvising and belting out lyrics confidently. Both artists enjoyed their unique musical expression and good old-fashioned fun. Joy filled the room.

Since I am from a very large family, when I was a teenager, there were always young children in my parents’ house. First, my younger brothers and sisters and in time, my nieces and nephews. The presence of innocence brings out the best in us. The distraction of a toddler lightened the mood, forced us to pitch in, and got us out of our own heads for a while. Since families today are smaller, I have often noticed that pets serve as the young, innocent presence within families. A pet can bring out the best in our teens and in ourselves. As author Maria Kalman states, “the most tender, complicated, most generous part of our being blossoms without any effort when it comes to the love of a dog.”

Sometimes, I think it would be nice to have Chloe at my office to easily crack the veneer of teenage posturing. When I meet with teens in therapy, there is no denying the ‘motherly’ vibe that I probably put out. For better or for worse, at this point in life, it is me, and I own it. Since authenticity is keenly felt by teens (and dogs), I really have no choice but to be what I am. By fumbling around with my phone and admitting my naiveté of the latest trends, I present my humanity. If I’m lucky, I have the honor of bearing witness to my client’s true self as well.

Music. Authenticity. Openness. In the midst of these long, humid, September days my wish is for you to be at the right place at the right time and first to notice and then appreciate the flash of humanity in your teen.

If all else fails, find a dog.

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