Last month my wife, Rabbi Loren Filson Lapidus, and I saw “Beautiful” at the Fox Theatre here in Atlanta. The show captivated me because, like Carol King, I’m a songwriter/composer. The creative tension writing incredibly personal music that is then performed by other people– that’s something I’ve thought a lot about. I’d LOVE to chat with Carol about it. But that’s not what this post is about.
And this post isn’t about the fact that the couple behind us at the show sang along (albeit with original harmonies) to every song in the play bill.
And this post isn’t about the interesting fact that every time a Carol King song comes on the radio people of a certain generation (particularly women) start hip shaking and singing along.
This post is actually about working with and living with adolescents.
For the last couple of months I’ve been thinking about my interactions with adolescents. Here’s what I’ve been thinking about…
- As a rabbi, school administrator, and teacher I am inherently an authority figure. Much of adolescence is, as many developmental psychologists have noted, about rebellion and testing boundaries. I’m happy to be an occasion for healthy rebellion and boundary testing and I know that most of us that care for and educate adolescents are as well.
- Every year I lead our 8th grade students on a trip to and from Israel. The trip is, by virtually all accounts, profoundly life changing. It’s something the kids look forward to, make the most of, and reflect on for many years after the fact.
- As the trip leader, sometimes the responsibility falls to me to “lay down the law.” International travel with adolescents isn’t a casual undertaking when you and your team are responsible for taking care of them and returning them home safely!
- Being the trip leader (and an authority figure more generally) means that there are times when I have to “administer” tough love to these kids. It means that there are times when I have to redirect and occasionally even reprimand. Every adult knows this comes with the territory.
- Because of this, some kids (hopefully temporarily) are of the opinion that “I’m mean.”
As a rabbi, teacher, and human being I pride myself on being compassionate, loving, kind, patient, funny, empathic, and so much more. I don’t think of myself as mean. So hearing that “I’m mean” is jarring. Especially when I’ve known these kids for most of their lives and the entirety of their educational journey. It’s a perfect reasonable thing for an adolescent to feel but a part of me wants to cry out, “I’ve known you your whole life. I’ve helped bring you to this moment. I care about you and value you as a person. I’d do just about anything in this moment to keep you safe or guarantee your happiness.”
The cognitive dissonance has led me to really reflect on what’s going on here. How can a 9-10 year relationship based on love and care allow an adolescent to fully internalize the idea that their rabbi is mean? Here’s my thinking…
There’s a lot going on during adolescents. Sometimes there’s such rapid growth that the kid standing in front of you on Friday seems like a different kid than the one who presented on Thursday. For that reason, adolescents want to be judged on the merits of their most current self. In reflecting, I’ve come to realize that adolescents are so desperately wanting to be judged on who they are in the current moment that they do the same to others. As their rabbi, I don’t want the current moment to be the only point of reference in our relationship. I want them to remember when I celebrated their arrival in kindergarten, their first siddur, dancing with them when they chanted Torah for the first time, and so much more. But they don’t want to be treated like a kindergarten, 2nd, or 5th grader. They wanted to be treated like the person they are in the current moment. And as we know, sometimes they aren’t able to see that person very clearly. Which is fine, because they likely won’t be that person for very long.
Eventually they’ll come to recognize that they, like the rest of us, are on a journey. They’ll realize that the past is the past that it means something in the present. They’ll realize that it’s best not to judge themselves or others only on the basis of their most current interaction, but rather in the context of a relationship that has ups and downs but that is hopefully fundamentally predicated on love and respect.
What this means for how I approach my interactions with middle school aged adolescents I don’t yet know. But in the meantime I’m going to come back to “Beautiful” and to the song, “Will you still love me tomorrow?”
What a beautiful and vulnerable question! Each of us, on some level, must wonder what the future of our most cherished relationships has in store for us. Fortunately, most of us can ask the question, “Will you still love me tomorrow?” and the answer will be “yes.” But somewhere in the vastness of our hearts we wonder about our love-ability and the capacity of those that we interact with to love us not in spite of, but because of who we are. Not in spite of our last interaction with them, but because of the long and winding road (to take my cue from another song) that we are traveling together.
Enjoy this clip of Carol King singing Carol King.