Teens Learn Lessons The Hard Way

Bear with me.

I am no longer the mother of two young daughters. I have a teenager. She is full of contradictions. She is amazing because of her many moods and imperfections.

She was asked to speak on behalf of her class and to reflect on her school experience. She earned this honor because of her hard work and accomplishments, but when I asked her what stood out for her, she responded, “I was stressed.” You can imagine this isn’t the topic anyone would hope she would embrace as the content for her speech. As the woman who had a front row seat to the past year, I know she was right. The school to-do list set the mood and dictated the schedule all year long.

Stress might be a common companion for her, I am afraid, so I asked her what her stress was trying to teach her. What lesson could she learn from it? What follows is a portion of her reflection on that.

“When I was in second grade, I couldn’t draw a tree. I thought that my drawing had to look exactly like what I saw outside, and if it didn’t I wouldn’t want to do it. I would tell myself that I couldn’t do it. I would just stare at my paper as if it would draw itself. My teacher, Mr. K., taught me that I just had to start drawing. It didn’t matter if it looked exactly like a tree.

“The same thing was true when I was asked to write this speech. I had so many ideas, but in my mind none of them were good enough. I knew that I would be toward the end of the ceremony, and that my speech would need to be short and poignant because you would be ready to go home. The weight of that responsibility kept the speech from being written at all. Then, I simply started. In my mind, this is one of the most important things not only as a student, but in life. Throughout your entire life you are going to be faced with challenges, whether it’s homework, writing a speech, drawing a picture in art class, or something that seems unimaginable to us right now. When faced with a challenge the only thing you can do is start.

“At the beginning of this year, I found myself doing hours of homework every night. Not necessarily because there was that much, but because I couldn’t get started. Especially when it came to reading. I couldn’t sit down long enough to read three pages of a textbook, or a chapter in the novel ‘Ellen Foster.’ I became really good at procrastination. I started to become more and more stressed and it seemed like the weight of the world was on my shoulders. I found it hard to enjoy my time out of school, because I felt like I never had time to do anything else. My procrastination had set this all in motion.

“However, there were other times I jumped in without hesitation — like solving algebra equations, debating politics, or conducting labs. Looking back the things I started without hesitation are the places where I found my passion. When I don’t try to please the teacher and instead focus on what I want to say or need to learn, the words fill the page effortlessly, like writing an essay on my self-defining memory, or scaling a comic strip for a geometry project. In the years ahead we need to remember to devote time to developing our passions. For everything else, we just need to start. It doesn’t have to be perfect, because in reality, nothing really is. Not even that tree outside the art room window.”

So you see, there is a teenager in my life. She is full of contradictions. She is a perfectionist, who is far from perfect. She is a procrastinator, who accomplishes more than she realizes. Mostly, and thankfully, she learns from her mistakes.

My job as the mother of this teenager is to remember with humility that she is the wisest teacher I could ask for.

Elizabeth Hofreuter is head of school at Wheeling Country Day. She is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard University Graduate School of Education. She has two daughters, ages 9 and 14.

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