Athambile Masola
Athambile Masola

The teenager

I hate being associated with people born after 1990. I was born in the late 1980s but people often think I am part of the “born-free” generation — the most misunderstood group of young people. They are often accused of being entitled, lazy, narcissistic, lost, apolitical, apathetic and confused. Young people — who are not a homogenous group — are living in a fast-changing world where their formal education probably doesn’t educate them for the lives they live when they leave the school building and they are raised by parents who were not “educated” about how to parent young people.

You couldn’t pay me to be a teenager today. The invention of the teenager is one of the worst ideas of the 20th century. Yes, the very word “teenager” (which was initially spelt as teen-age) was invented to explain the time in ones life when one is between childhood and adulthood. The idea began after the Great Depression in North America and became more pronounced after the Second World War.

I spend most of my time with teenagers or thinking about teenagers and their learning in the classroom. Working with teenagers day in and day out has made me appreciate my 20s. Teenage years are dubbed “the best years of one’s life”. Why is it that we all envy the life of a 16-year-old who is pimple-faced, hormonal, unsure about himself and still dependent on someone else for his livelihood? The habits of some teenagers make me wonder about the adults they will become. I’ve been amazed at how many young girls (as young as 9 years old) reference shopping as one of their favourite hobbies, that the process of acquiring more possessions can be seen as more valuable than reading a book or climbing a tree is bizarre. Gone are the days where acquiring a skill or being outdoors was a respectable form of entertainment for a child.

One of the features covered by the TIME magazine recently grappled with the idea of the “ME” generation, the Millennials. There seems to be a generous definition of what it means to be a Millennial: all young people born between 1980 and the 2000s. They are often described as the lost generation because they are living in a world of technology and a lifestyle that is remarkably different from previous generations and therefore there is little guidance from parents but more influence from peers. The internet, access to technology and more importantly social media is creating a popular culture that is changing every day depending on your class. Subcultures within this group make it more complicated to understand what it really means to be a Millennial. In spite of TIME magazine’s focus on the species called “the American teenager”, what it means to be a Millennial can be seen among South African teenagers as well. Teenagers are not a homogenous group of unthinking slobs texting their lives away but there are some generalisations that can be made about their world.

The kids I teach often ask me, “What is the point of high school?” High school is the main domain where teenage life is experienced and even though teenagers have changed over the years, the schools they find themselves within have not changed. In creating “the teenager” with an understanding that the teenage years should be about exploration and adventure, we then decided that schools are the best form of control for people making their way into adulthood. High school is a superficial place where very few people feel welcome and at ease in the corridors.

I spent 12 years in the formal education system (at a conservative girls school) and 6 years at a small university but I am yet to find an answer to the question: if we accept that teenagers are a different species thanks to technology and the internet, why have we not changed the way we run schools? By returning to the formal education system as a teacher I have had to listen to people lambaste schools as irrelevant spaces. There’s a compelling argument for this but now that I’m a teacher I realise it’s too easy to throw stones at teachers and the education system as though schools are islands in the middle of nowhere. If schools are irrelevant to young people, teachers are not the only ones to blame.

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