Monday, June 20, 2011

A Peek into The Teenage Mind (or How I Survived Exam Supervision)

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Last Thursday, for the first time in my life, I supervised a high school exam at my boys' school. I'm not sure what I was expecting but I certainly wasn't prepared for the bizarre teenage behaviour on display. My twin boys are only six, so I am used to Lego everywhere, Star Wars obsessions and the hilarity that seems to accompany any joke involving toilets. What I am not used to (and wasn't quite ready to face) was the sixteen and seventeen year old inability to focus, concentrate, sit still or behave any better than...well...a six year old boy.

The exam in question was a standardized test set by the government so the rules were extremely strict - to the point that I had to read out instructions verbatim from a booklet (no paraphrasing or deviations allowed) and had to watch the clock and strike off 15 minute time increments on the whiteboard. I also had to pretend to be a really stern mother patrolling the aisles to ensure no one had unauthorized stationery...So what did I encounter (apart from all the unauthorized stationery)??
  • The boys who arrived and promptly fell asleep at his desk for 45 minutes. I had to wake him when he started snoring but I still don't think he actually did anything on the exam. Instead he drew on his hand, drew on the desk, chewed gum, sighed, tried to sleep again, doodled all over the exam booklet and generally behaved like someone with a mental disorder of some kind.
  • Half the class who had come to an exam without pencils or eraser even though...yes, you guessed it that was all that was required.
  • The boy who constantly sniffed and made bizarre wheezy-nose noises but still refused to take the tissue I offered, despite grossing me out for most of the morning.
  • The boy at the back who decided that making dandruff pictures (a la the Breakfast Club) was the most inspired use of his time - oh, as well as cracking his knuckles. Delightful in a small confined space like a classroom...yes, truly delightful.
These were just a few of the behaviours I witnessed, and to be honest I shouldn't have been at all surprised except that I seem to remember when I was doing exams I didn't really have the urge to sleep but rather to panic. Perhaps what surprised me the most was that no one in the class seemed to give a toss.

So what insight has this experience given me?
  • Well, that it's no surprise boys aren't reading. From what I saw, it's a miracle they can get out of bed in the morning and dress themselves.
  • That most sixteen and seventeen year olds are really young and immature (I was giving them far more credit before this experience).
  • For most boys a toilet level of humour still applies.
  • That I will never be able to describe the hairstyles that have been adopted without laughing.
  • That Twilight level romance is so far-fetched at this level it's laughable.
  • That the gap between the maturity levels of girls and boys at this age is so vast, that I may as well forget boys as a target audience all together.
The experience was certainly 'interesting' and I rather liked playing the mean teacher role (hmm..what does that say about me) but it many ways this more of a reality-check for me as a potential YA author.

So...how many of you have ever had the delight of working closely with teenagers?
Any other insights you'd like to share on the shadowy depths of the teenage mind?


18 comments:

  1. Hmm...I'm writing a story with a 16 year old boy as the MC. I might have to rethink his behaviour :)

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  2. I taught high school for two years, and provided private music instruction for several years before that. Everything you said is true, but there are still a great number of teenage boys who work hard, get up on time (or early), and conduct themselves in a manner of which their parents should be proud. My daughter has been dating one for three years now (though they're hitting their 20s now) and I know enough (and enough of) some of her peers in school to have confidence in those who will replace us.

    On the other hand--and I hate to disappoint you--I'm 55, and that bathroom humor thing isn't going to get any better.

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  3. Bathroom humor is classic. The seeds are planted in us when we're kids, but the roots are plenty deep by the time we are...say, my age. I'm the proud owner of a fart machine and it's traveling to a family gathering with me next weekend. I'm bringing extra batteries.

    I used to coach 15 yr old boys in volleyball. Playing sports, the kids generally wanted to be there, but if you ever do the test thing again, do what I did to get their attention. A quick ball to the head works every time.

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  4. I coached 16 to 18 year-old boys for years, raised 2 sons & now have a grandson - totally positive experience in all cases. Many of the kids (now grown with kids of their own) stay in touch via email & FaceBook & they seem to have all done very well in life. I write YA with boys as my target audience BECAUSE I could/did relate so well. On the topic of books themselves - most boys are not patient readers. They want to get to the meat of the story rather than "endure" relationship building & detailed descriptions of setting as scenes change. Twilight, for example, would not hold the attention of most guys. That's not a knock against the boys or the author.

    As for your experience, & this is also not a criticism, there was no investment on either side. Your role was to act as a monitor & you probably didn't know any of the kids. On the other hand - if the test was meaningless as it related to pass/fail grades the incentive for the boys wasn't there - a boring exercise.

    And lastly, my books do not incorporate any bathroom humor.

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  5. David, you are definitely right on the lack of investment and this exam was for many of them not very meaningful either. I still hold out lots of hope for my own boys:) and I think it showed that when it comes to YA stories for boys they need to be totally grabbed by the story from the get go. My own boys are great readers but i can tell it's action, gadgets and a little bit of magic that gets them hooked. Jordan and Dana, sounds like I need to invest in a fart machine...and Sarah don't worry too much:)

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  6. Though that being said...what Is up with the hair? Are American boys into the whole windswept to one side look? It reminds me of flock of seagulls hair and that's never a good thing! Sarah, you might want to at least rethink the hairdo:)

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  7. I dread the day when potty humor is no longer funny. Farts? Please, they bring down the house every time. Fathers and sons bond through belching contests.

    As for the hair, well, I clearly have no recent experience, but I know very few men of a certain age who do not have embarrassing hair pictures from their youth.

    It's the tattoo and piercing thing that I don't get.

    John Gilstrap
    www.johngilstrap.com

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  8. i volunteered with the boy's and girl's club for several years....and the phrase, 'raised by wolves' came to mind fairly frequently. the ball to the head sounds like an attention getter...tho' unless it's a bowling ball...doubt it had much effect. and most likely, parents have their lawyer on speed dial in case little junior has been offended in any way....as i'm sure nothing is their fault.

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  9. My only recent experience with an adolescent boy was mentoring a boy at my daughter's school for his senior year project. He was focused, intelligent, ambitious, and had already mapped out a plan of internships and study to advance his ambition to become a screenwriter. He also sent me an extremely gracious, hand-written thank-you note after our meetings (which floored me). The experience reassured me about the state of "today's youth."

    Oh, he had good hair, too. (Grin)

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  10. Here in Texas, too many boys shave their heads. Don't they realize girls want finger worthy locks?

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  11. Wow--my own experiences with teens couldn't be further from yours. I have 2 HS age boys. I've been immersed in the culture of (mostly, but not exclusively) boys between the ages of 14 and 18 for several years now. Yes, they can be silly, gross, and immature. (How can they avoid that when their own fathers compete in belching contests. Sigh.) But in general, I have found these young people to be extremely polite, articulate, and amusing.

    Yes, they can be slobs. Yes, as a rule, girls the same age are more mature and socially savvy than their boy counterparts, but I see the boys as endearing in the way a neufie puppy is endearing: a little overeager, a little clumsy, and with no sense of personal space, but ever so earnest.

    The other thing I've noticed is an incredible jump in maturity level between Junior and Senior years. The boys seem to mature about 3 years worth in one go.

    My experience may be different because I see these kids often and have known them over long stretches of time. I have also seen them engaged in the things they love (sports, drama, music, etc) rather than taking fill-in-the-bubble tests.

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  12. I've been a youth worker for my church for over 20 years and having watched some of the worst of the boys grow to be more than just respectable has greatly encouraged me, putting meaning to the years of labour.

    Anything from video games to girls to gangs to drugs competed with the more sensible bits like school and especially religious studies. One boy, a guitar prodigy at the age of 15, even had the audacity to show up at a concert our church band was performing stoned, waaayyyy stoned, like 1960's psychedelic stoned...for a church concert playing church music at a packed church. It was during that time that my blood pressure exceeded my physiological capacity to cope and I ended up on meds myself....legal ones.

    At any rate, that young man now in his early twenties is all cleaned up and recently became a Paramedic saving lives and quite often rescuing people under the influence of the same drugs that nearly did him in. He's only one of the cases that gives me hope for the next gen.

    The trick to keeping hope for the youth is to look to the future. There's little more encouraging than to meet a successful thirty-something parent of four who says, "Hi Mr. Sands, remember me, 6th grade Sunday School, 1989?"

    wait...I was teaching in 1989?....dang, I feel old.

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  13. Oh...and potty humour will never get old. A well timed, butt-cheek flappy, reverberant fart still illicits a giggle from most men of any age.

    ...unless it really stinks.

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  14. I am the mother of a 16 year old boy. First off, he's got great hair. Long like a rock star, and so thick & gorgeous, women constantly come up to him & tell him what great he has. But his best qualities are intellectual. He's incredibly smart & focused and aced his first SAT with no prep whatsoever. He's ambitiously perusing the best colleges & has the path to his career in law clearly mapped out. But I can't say he's typical, even in the somewhat affluent community in which we live. My son was so disenchanted with his high school & it's students, he chose to participate in his school's Running Start program & take college classes full-time instead of attending his local high school. But even having said all that, I think there plenty of teenaged boys who are bright, focused & ambitious. College admissions attest to this. And as a parent who is guiding her child through the college admissions process, I can tell you the competition is fierce. So while there are plenty of slackers, there are also plenty of young men we can feel proud of.

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  15. My husband and I have been in youth ministry for eight years. In my opinion, the only thing scarier than teenage boy behavior is the teenage boy mind. We always tell girls that if they had a mere five second glimpse into the mind of a teenage boy, they would run screaming and never obsess over those boys again.

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  16. Sounds like there is hope after all...even for the hair!

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  17. Alas, estrogen overwhelms me at the moment. Two teenaged daughters will be the death of me!

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  18. Eleven years experience right here. Aren't high-stakes tests great?

    They don't care about testing because it doesn't matter to them. That's not circular reasoning. It's that the test is arbitrary just like using the letters A-F in schools as some kind of magical code for success. The test and its results are arbitrary. No one cares except the teachers and the test results never have any meaning outside school - a place few teenage boys want to hang around. So, if they'll graduate anyway why should they care? So they don't.

    Your situation aside, I'd bet money that if you met these same students after the test was over in a neutral setting you'd see a different side to them. Find a teenager who's excited about something and your faith will be restored. Our entire education system needs a complete overhaul IMO.

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