I’ve been reticent to blog about my work with the AdoptMent group because they’re a younger set and I’m more protective of their privacy. This is a transitional year, not just within the program, but also in the lives of each of these young people. In my first session with them this school year, we returned to the tasks of adolescent development, but instead of focusing broadly on the topic of identity, this time we talked about personal values and relationships, especially how to strike a healthy balance between independence and connectedness.
Last spring I used Zits comics to get the conversation started. We returned to two strips that dealt specifically with identity exploration, and was really pleased that they all retained the biggest lesson from last spring’s identity self-portrait activity, namely that at this early stage in life staying true to yourself is overrated, and identity crises are actually a healthy part of psychological development.
From that group review, everyone paired off with their mentors to discuss comic strips treating the developmental tasks related to autonomy, relationships, and values. The mentors had handouts that indicated the tasks displayed in each strip, but the mentees first had to work on inferring the topic from the material. The second step in the exercise was to reflect on how they were progressing in each of those tasks. I got to eavesdrop on a lot of wonderful stories about how these young people set up challenges for themselves (e.g., earning the money and planning transportation for a solo trip to New Jersey), and noted how their relationships to their parents were in transition.
The final part of the workshop had everyone select one particular developmental task that posed a significant challenge to him or her. Continue reading
“You can be in love and still have a life, you know? You can build something.”
—Jennifer Egan, The Invisible Circus
One of the really brilliant aspects of Egan’s treatment of her protagonist’s coming of age is its depiction of teenage watchfulness. At 18, Phoebe reads the world and the people around her for clues on how to build a life and make connections. Unsurprisingly, romantic relationships are a particular point of fascination for her. Here is Phoebe, spying on her sister’s former high school sweetheart and his fiancée as they hunt through apartment listings in the paper:
Carla exclaimed at something she’d found, set down her cigarette and circled the item with a stubby pencil, her other hand groping for Wolf as if for a pair of glasses or a cigarette pack, finding his wrist without lifting her eyes from the paper. The gesture transfixed Phoebe—the inadvertence of it, the thoughtlessness. Wolf rose from his chair and leaned over her, his chest to Carla’s back. He kissed her temple, breathing in her smell while his eyes perused whatever it was she’d found in the paper. The sheer ordinariness of it all confounded Phoebe, as if any one of these things might happen several times a day, with no one watching. They belong to each other, she thought, and found herself awed by the notion—knowing someone was there, just there, reaching for that person without a thought.
Phoebe, trying to wrap her head around the difference between this calm vision of domestic partnership and the wild, youthful romance she saw Wolf share with her sister, asks him how those two relationships compare. He answers, You can be in love and still have a life, you know?
The highlight of any given week is easily whenever one of my advisors visits me at the Alley. You can imagine my elation when all three arrive together: magic happens! I just finished typing up the minutes to our last Minds On Fire advisory meeting and can’t help marveling at everything that we managed to talk about over a two-hour working lunch. It was even more intense than our first meeting because the main topic of discussion was the identity portion of pilot curriculum. The talented Candice Miller is steering the ship on this one, much to my delight (and relief!).
Inspired by the Casey Family curriculum on race and ethnic identity, we circled back to a question that I had posed to Nahjee some weeks back: what does “the culture of foster care” evoke for her, and how does it relate to questions of race/ethnicity? She talked about how she frequently sees children in care identify with the heritage of their foster parents and how it can be a challenge to discover one’s own family history. We also discussed the importance of learning how to relate to people of different races/ethnicities, including how to code switch without feeling like you’re denying a part of yourself.
We moved on to the topic of dating and relationships and two very weighty questions that my youth advisors suggested were jealousy and violence. I won’t write too much about this discussion right now because it makes me sad. From there we touched on gender identity and sexuality, and both my youth advisors said it would be helpful to learn how to help facilitate conversations with people who might not accept their sexuality, such as family/parents.
Lighter fare was also on the menu for the day. My advisors are all really into activities such as identity trees, letters to yourself, vision boards, and dream books. All of their ideas are going to replace the self portrait activity that I was struggling to refine. For these workshops I would love to hand over the reins to one of my youth advisors.
In true grad student fashion, my ideas have taken an inordinate time to coalesce. (Do you know how long it took me to write my dissertation?) I’ve shown up emotionally and intellectually to Minds On Fire for over two years now, but in these meetings I am graced by the brilliance of individuals who are able to sink their teeth into this work effortlessly and make incisive recommendations about what to cut, what to move around, and what to include. How lucky am I?