*this essay compares students from similar socio-economic (affluent backgrounds). While much of my work in the U.S. is with students from families with less resources, the pressures and anxieties projected onto teens discussed here remain consistent across our entire culture, from my experience. In other words, this is less about the actual lunch and more about the lesson gained.
First, there is a 45-minute phone call with mom, followed by an hour call with both mom and dad. During the follow-up, we cover, and I answer, many of the same questions already discussed with mom, most of which seem either hypothetical or meant as “gotcha” questions about a specific university or a particular application essay prompt: “what are the biggest differences between Vassar and Swarthmore?”, they ask. Or, “what are the exact SAT numbers where you definitely send the scores or definitely don’t?” I start to realize that I know a lot about this couple, their expectations, their anxieties, how they want to be perceived by their peers and the world, perhaps even by me. But I know much less about their kid, the student, the one I would be working closely with to understand their thoughts, interests, ideas, and passions. I actually knew next-to-nothing about that person. After two hours of talking, the parents had told me a little about grades: “the transcript doesn’t reflect their true capacity”, and how certain limitations of the school or various activities had restricted their kid’s ability to truly embrace their fullest potential. This is a typical call with a U.S. family.
I arrived to the airport in Monterrey, Mexico and, upon exiting, found both students I was there to work with over the next few days, waiting for me, together. What a treat! They’re friends, it seemed. They were so happy to have gotten out of their final period of the day, and had clearly been having fun on the 45-minute drive from Santa Catarina to the airport. They asked if I was hungry. If I wanted to go to lunch? Then they talked together and decided where we should go. Everything was comfortable and easy. The girls were so eager to get going but were happy to show me around the neighborhood of my hotel, which was near the restaurant. When we sat down, the two of them asked me if they should, “just order for the table” and then proceeded to discuss the menu together, ultimately ordering much more food than we could finish, an excellent treat. After ordering, I asked them a seemingly-innocuous question which would come to shape my entire understanding of teens, their families, and the differences in how we prepare and shape kids in the U.S. versus other cultures around the globe: “I didn’t even realize you two knew each other. How long have you been friends?”
But they both were quick to explain that they are actually NOT friends: “we are friendly, of course, but we’ve never really hung out together or spent time together.”
“Yeah. We are in totally different friend groups and this is the first time we have probably (glancing at her classmate to make sure) ever eaten together,” the other one said.
There is a sense in the U.S. that our “best” students are the most well-prepared in the world, or that our best high schools, the most rigorous. But here is the truth, there are HUNDREDS of amazing and well-prepared, not to mention extremely self-aware, students, for every ONE in the U.S. And the way these two scenarios illustrate, my interactions with students in the U.S. versus students in Latin America, really highlight how dysfunctional the U.S. approach is.
Every contact with a teenager in the U.S. has always started with some version of the scenario in the opening paragraph. Whereas nearly ALL first contacts with my Latin American families are either with the actual student, themselves, or a parent verifying that I am the person they’re looking for and asking if they can put their son or daughter in touch with me. Can you imagine? In our culture of competition, anxiety, and social cliquishness, two 16-year old young women, who go to school together but are not in the same friend group, doing what these two young Mexican students did: arranged between themselves an afternoon out of school, drove 45 minutes together to the airport where they parked and entered to wait for me, got me, took me to a wonderful restaurant for lunch, ordered, paid, and got me to my hotel, all while talking and laughing and being relaxed and happy about intense days of college application work ahead?
Really. Think about that!
In the teenage years, when feelings of uncertainty and insecurity are consistently occupying one’s bandwidth, try to comprehend existing in a culture which tells you that no one can be relied upon in this, the very first process that seems to be judging and evaluating your self-worth?
Excuse me while I double check with my wife about our family’s impending move to Costa Rica.
It goes without saying that we have a dysfunctional relationship with adolescence in this country. Not a week goes by without someone implying that my work must be horrendous ONLY because it is with teenagers. It used to be something I tried to ignore, like an ignorant racist or sexist joke. But no more. That is not the way to fix a societal flaw. It is not the way to change people’s behavior. I pity everyone who holds so much resentment about natural human development and the young people who are experiencing a very difficult period of change, growth, and expectation amidst a culture of such disenfranchisement and distrust. Adolescence happens everywhere. But in the corners of the world in which I work, it is not demonized. Teens, just like their younger selves, are still loved and encouraged in unconditional ways. This gives them the freedom and confidence to pursue their own challenges and goals with the certainty of a support system. Teens in other parts of the world are not just book smart. They speak more languages, have healthier perspectives, greater self-awareness, and are more comfortable socially and emotionally. But the question is not what they are doing right.
And my answer to this, I’m afraid, is everything. Until we get over this idea that teenagers are bad and adolescence is so miserable on parents (because, of course we think about it selfishly), we will continue to create a system where young people rightfully feel resentful and angry at those who have created only more obstacles and a greater sense of disillusionment.
It is, of course, rare (due to Covid) these days for my wife and me to take our daughters out to a restaurant for a nice lunch. But when we do, we trust them to go ahead and order for the table.