One of the joys of working with youth is being there when they suddenly lay themselves bare. Most educators would consider this phenomenon nothing less than a minor miracle. I don’t mean this in a “let’s talk about our feelings” way, which not everyone responds well to. Besides, I am not a therapist, and that is not my approach. The point of the discussions and the activities I develop, rather, is to expose the minds of participants, and to do so in such a way that makes them feel safe. My Tribal Rites of Passage activity is a deeply personal exercise that asks participants to elaborate a very individual definition of adulthood and to think of tests and accomplishments that will bring him or her closer to that definition. By avoiding putting certain questions directly such as, “What do you value in life?”, and by allowing the imaginations and creativity of the youth to run free—their rituals could be as fantastic or pragmatic as they wish—I framed the activity as play, rather than as classroom work or an exercise in self-betterment.
The beauty of an activity like this is that it meets participants exactly where they are. After all of the presentations I felt like I was suddenly given much deeper insight into the minds of each young person. If you’ve read my descriptions of their rituals, I am sure you, too, could infer a lot about the people who designed them—what they value, the shape of their ideal society, and even to what extent they’ve seriously thought about the sort of person they want to become in adulthood.
I got such earnest responses that I felt called to write out a detailed letter of evaluation for every participant. The intention was to continue the dialogues that the rituals initiated. I let each young person know what I understood of him or her just from their rituals. I highlighted their obvious strengths and also pointed out some areas for improvement or further thought. For A., the participant who set his initiates on a quest for diamond-encrusted stilettos, I urged him to specify what the true object of his quest was, because as long as he kept certain goals in mind, his life would never lack direction. For B., by contrast, I sought to re-frame adulthood in a way that avoided two common misconceptions (both of which cropped up in his ritual): as a daunting life stage dominated by unappealing obligations (the three-month period of independent living), or alternatively, as a time when one can do whatever one pleases (the post-celebration part of the ritual, where new initiates return to their parents’ homes but don’t have to follow any of their rules).
All the rituals definitely established a baseline for where each youth was for his or her path toward adulthood, and moreover, they gave the mentors, the group facilitators, and me footholds for engaging them in conversations about their visions for their future selves.