April 26, 2004

The State of Slackerdom Address

Thursday night, Craig took me to see Weird Al at the Tabernacle. I was having a good time, but my spider-senses were tingling. I knew someone in this audience, maybe even dated them, and this person did not have happy thoughts about me. I thought about shouting "Look! It's Chris Kern from Parkview High!" and pointing across the theater, to try and draw their fire, but I decided against it.

The show was great. Craig and I haven't laughed like that in a long time. But I was distracted from the stage by a teenager sitting in front of us. He might have been enjoying the show, but he was determined not to show any enthusiasm. He was always looking around at people, paranoid to see if anyone noticed him cracking a smile. And whenever people started dancing or acting silly, he would laugh and point them out to his dad. I felt bad for this kid, until I remembered my own teenage years.

That was me at a young age; too self-conscious and scared to do anything in public. I, like most kids my age, was terrified of being laughed at. That's the #1 fear of most teenagers growing up; losing face in the eyes of your peers. All I could do was point out other people doing things publicly, things that I,myself, would never do...for fear of being pointed out. It's a vicious circular argument that paralyzes most of our youth into suppressing most of their expressive behavior.

"Look! Jimmy Young and Brooke Stoddard are DANCING together!" I said to my friend at my middle school dance, back in Dublin, Ohio. Can you BELIEVE it? A boy and girl dancing...at a...school dance, of all things. How utterly inappropriate. Truth was, I was just self-conscious about myself, fearful of people pointing and laughing at me if I ever got the idea of doing the same thing. Plus, I just might have harbored a crush on Brooke Stoddard for the previous two years.

Teenagers are pack animals, by and large. They find safety in the numbers of their herd, and comfort in keeping in the middle, away from the dangerous edges. Like many teenagers, I aimed for mediocrity in all things. It was the safest place to be. When defending a report card one day, I actually told my father once that "cool kids don't get A's, they get B's and C's." I wasn't lying, that was actually my intent. Any kids on the ends of the bell curve get the wrong kind of attention. If your grades are too good, the other kids notice and start to tease you about being a brain. If your grades slip too far, you're sent to remedial classes, where you get teased for being stupid. Keep your grades in the B-to-C range keeps you in the middle, so you don't stick out.

[Disclaimer: My social theory applies to most kids, but excludes the popular crowd. From my limited observation, they are similar, but they have additional social dynamics to deal with. As I said, I don't really know. I was content being in my small groups of friends, far from the boundaries of popularity, and the public scrutiny that comes with it.]

It's your circle friends that is most important to you during the teenage years. Most kids like to be involved with sports and activities, but the main driving force for enrolling in these activities is friends. I joined the Theater class after I made some friends there. Most of these friends sang in the Choir, so I joined that as well. I was a horrible actor (but who notices that in High School?), but I ended up becoming a good singer by the time I left for college. While I was proud of this accomplishment, it was the sense of belonging with my friends that drove me to try and succeed. I HAD to be good, or I'd have to leave my friends.

My parents tried their best to encourage my grades, but I was always average, or just a tick above it. No matter how many times adults try to explain it, teenagers have no sense of the words "Long-Term." All I knew was my immediate world. I trudged through my classes just to get through them, looking forward to when I could see my friends at lunch or after school. The words "Permanent Record" just didn't register with most of us, since the end of our Senior Year was the farthest point we could imagine. College was just an afterthought, mostly brought up when your parents got your grades.

High school kids think of college the same way that protestants think about heaven: "I know that I'm not the greatest, but if I'm MOSTLY good, I'm sure I'll be let in with the rest." Luckily, I was accepted to UGA that fall.

I'm frankly amazed, as many people are, that I graduated from college. The first couple of years, I put more hours of work into my A Cappella group in a day than I ever did in studying. My ultimate goal of graduation, even the immediate classes I was taking, frequently took a backseat to playing "Civilization" on my roommate's computer and my hall's long-standing rivalry with the TEP house across the street. And that's excluding all the time and effort put into the pursuit of women. I don't think that I was unique in this upside-down priority set, judging by the company I had in these diversions.

In college, my major influence was still my friends. However, your friends do not make-or-break you there, like they do in high school. Rather, they provide you with comic relief and a sense of belonging, which are necessary to take the edge off the increasingly harsh academic pressures. College's major difference is that there is little risk of humiliation. First off, people are so spread out that there is no real herd. Secondly, everyone is too busy with their own schedule and interests to worry about anyone not in their circle of friends. With the fear of public humiliation lifted, college students are finally free to take their first baby-steps out of their shells. And now that you aren't governed by your parents anymore, you have freedom to do almost everything that you swore to mom and dad you'd do.

Most of the time, this process of becoming yourself is gradual. Occasionally, however, some people are overwhelmed by the new control over their own destiny. Some people explode out of their shells and become drunk, figuratively, with freedom. (This often includes getting drunk, literally, with beer.) College is real life, only with the training wheels on. It's where you can experiment with interests and ideas to see what you like, what you want to do, and even who you are.

College is an absolutely crucial stage of personal development. By all means, it's also crucial for your academic and vocational development, but that's documented well enough. Too few parents and teachers tell you about the personal growth aspect of college, probably because they don't want to know about all the social, relational and chemical experimentation that eventually produces the new you. No one wants to come out and directly SUPPORT slacking and non-academic activities, (and that's just fine, since we probably wouldn't do half of them if they approved), but it's these very same activities that end up teaching you the majority of your life lessons. I estimate that 80% of the learning in college is done outside of the classroom, and every college grad I've talked to agrees with that number.

In closing, I hope that the kid in front of me at the concert eventually loses the fear of sticking out and becomes his own person, as I did. I'm far from perfect, but I've come so far since high school that I can barely recognize the person that I used to be. (By and large, this is a good thing.) But I like not being perfect. Hell, I'm only 30. How boring would the rest of my life be if I got it all right NOW, with 40 or so years left?

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