Everyone hates teenagers. We all know that, I more than most, as their champion and advocate. They’re mouthy and hormonal and loud and mischievous… and that’s all most people see. Unlike the villainous dislike of children, everyone’s allowed to voice their disdain for teens… and they do, usually within earshot of their subjects.
Adults don’t care about teens’ confusion and widespread abandonment issues, the extreme self-consciousness caused by the live streaming of their very existence, from their friends and parents and enemies. They don’t care that they’re coming into their sexuality in a minefield of consent and its constantly changing definitions, that their most private texts and photos are often traded among their peers like collectible playing cards, that they’re expected to trade them, themselves. No… most people just assume that if they could overcome their adolescence X years ago, then so can today’s teenagers.
Last night, I learned that one of my daily library kids didn’t overcome his teenage years. I don’t know the circumstances of his arrest, his guilt or his innocence… but I knew him and I liked him. I hadn’t seen him since a program in January. I was beginning to worry, but I was looking forward to having him as one of my teen volunteers this summer. I knew he was looking forward to it, too, since he was the first to register… but I won’t see him this summer. I won’t see him ever again, because he died this week. He was alone and scared and thought he had no future… a self-fulfilling prophecy, because he was discovered hanging from a light fixture in a county jail cell… and that’s all anyone will remember. They’ll whisper about rape charges and suicide and they won’t question why or how it could have been prevented. They’ll only condemn… and my heart is breaking, because I couldn’t help him. I wasn’t that person, wasn’t in a position to do so, but I wish I could have helped him navigate whatever it was to which he was lost. Could I have been clearer, that time on the patio, when I talked to him about the rumors the girls were spreading and the behavior that might lead to them… about respect and consent? Could I have been clearer with the girls about the consequences of such accusations, when upon further investigation, I realized their terms weren’t entirely fair or accurate? I tried, within all my power and professional boundaries, to explain it as thoroughly as I could, without accusation or dismissal… and one of them is still dead.
I wish I could help my teens more, without crossing a line. I wish we were all more invested in protecting them, providing them with the love and care we were so intent on giving them just five years earlier. I wish we were more comfortable and transparent in guiding them through their social and sexual interactions. Mostly, I wish a sixteen-year-old boy hadn’t killed himself in a county jail last week… that whatever landed him there hadn’t happened… that he had a chance to make better decisions and figure out who he could be… that I had any idea how to process this.