by Erin Burke

Last weekend, some friends and I had a bowling fundraiser for a close friend of ours: a young woman battling an aggressive form of breast cancer for the second time. I happened to mention it in passing to my junior and senior Rochester High School students, but I do understand how busy and overloaded their schedules are, and I didn’t expect them to drive out to Ferndale on a snowy Saturday to bowl with their English teacher. To my utter surprise, several of them came to support my friend.

I begin with this anecdote because I so often hear people speaking in a disparaging way about “teenagers today.” Honestly, my students are kind, respectful, funny and under an intense amount of pressure. Between media scrutiny, the mounting pressure of test scores, taking AP classes, and the social pressure to portray the exact image on social media that is going to achieve the most “likes,” I have seen kids breaking down more than ever. I think about being a teenager in the ‘90s, and it was so incredibly different. Social media wasn’t even a thing. My friends and I wrote notes to each other. When I came home at the end of the school day, I was home. I was safe. I could tune it out and be with my family. That isn’t the case today. It never shuts off for them. When I went to U of M in the mid ‘90s, I actually had an assignment to obtain an email address and email my professor! This thing called email! It blew my mind! I have had students tell me that they will delete a post on social media because it’s embarrassing if they don’t get enough “likes.” One girl told me that she has friends on SnapChat, but she won’t say hi to them in the hallway at school. When I questioned her on that she simply said, “In real life, I don’t look the way I do on SnapChat.”

I teach five AP English courses, and my students are incredibly motivated. But the pressure has become insurmountable for so many of them. Each year, I have an increasing amount of students with anxiety disorders. They feel that if they aren’t taking all AP classes and scoring well on the SAT and ACT (and AP tests) that they will be failures in life. Plus, they have to be doing extracurricular activities, many of them work, and then have to come home to do homework. They are hardly sleeping and it is taking a toll. When I ask them what, exactly, they are doing this for they routinely say, “To get into a good college.” But when I ask them about their plans beyond college, I’m met with silence. They’ve been conditioned to think of college as the only option for happiness, but they haven’t really defined what happiness means to them. I look at my nephew in first grade, who is so happy to go to school every day and learn, and I wonder how we, the educators, have failed them somehow. I try to do what I can in my own classroom. I try to bring creativity back; to perhaps make learning fun again. To be honest, though, it’s difficult due to the limitations that teachers are faced with today (though that is a whole other article).

I had something of an epiphany at the bowling event for my friend. The kids came out — not only because they care about my friend’s personal story, but because they care about me. And they care about me because I often communicate that I care about them. I care about them beyond their grades and writing assignments. I care about them as people, and I care about their mental health. See, that positivity is reciprocal, and it really is what we need in the world right now. Though I’m a huge advocate for female empowerment, and I work with my girls on increasing their confidence and valuing their own worth in their media-saturated environment, we can’t forget about our boys. They need us too. They need to see examples of strong, confident women in their lives. The take-away is this: please consider supporting the young people in your community in any way that you can. The future is so worth it.

I watched the kids at the fundraiser and realized that several of them showed up by themselves. They were talking to other students outside of their social cliques. Yes, they were actually talking to each other! They bowled and ate pizza and laughed together. And they were not on their phones. They’re interested in buying vinyl again. They have a fascination with Polaroid pictures. They like to play Scrabble. They genuinely want to connect with each other. There is, indeed, hope for the future.

Erin Burke has been teaching high-school English in Rochester for 20 years. She loves travel, books, and her students.