On March 14, students across the nation are planning a walkout to honor the victims of the Parkland, Florida shooting. The recent surge of student voice has gotten me thinking about how much responsibility and trust we give, or don’t give, to teenagers. How capable are teenagers? How reliable are their opinions? How smart are their decisions?
In high school when I was 16, I had a Driver’s Education class which meant that I got to practice driving once a week instead of going to one of my regular classes. At first, my instructor just had me drive around the school parking lot, but as I got more experienced, we’d drive on highways and busier roads.
One day when I got into the car, my instructor asked me, “Do you have your learner’s permit?”
I realized I had forgotten my permit in my locker. One of my responsibilities in Driver’s Education was to always have my learner’s permit when we went on the road.
But I didn’t feel like going to my locker to get it.
“Yes, I have it,” I lied.
“OK,” he said. “Just follow my directions. I’m not telling you where we’re going today. When you leave the school make a right. Then down at the light, you’re going to make a left . . .”
He directed me until we were in the parking lot of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). “You’re going to take the test for your driver’s license,” he said.
I was shocked. I pretended to fumble in my bag for my permit. “Oh—I thought I had my permit but it’s not here,” I lied.
“You said you had it,” he sighed. “OK. Let’s go back to the school and get it.”
About 30 minutes later, I had passed my driver’s test, which consisted of driving around a parking lot with orange cones. There was no on-road driving, and when I didn’t know how to turn on the windshield wipers, the DMV official showed me how to do it. That afternoon, I walked into the house with my shiny new driver’s license.
My mother had a different reaction than my teacher and the Pennsylvania DMV. “You’re not driving by yourself yet,” she said. “You’re still learning. You need a lot more practice.”
I pretended to be annoyed, but inwardly, I was relieved. I was not yet a confident or skilled driver. Rationally, I knew my mom was right.
So was I irresponsible? Yes. Was I not to be trusted because I had lied about having a permit? Not exactly, and not always. I was also mature and capable in many ways. I was passionate about writing, I helped my classmates if they were struggling, and when I got a job in a supermarket, I was polite, quick and accurate with customers.
So was I capable of being a functioning member of society? In other societies, and in other time periods, 16-year-olds would be mothers or fathers intentionally, part of the workforce, and trusted with real responsibility.
In our society, we don’t trust or expect teenagers to have real responsibility. Yet in “Why We Should Lower the Voting Age to 16,” Laurence Steinberg states that teenagers are completely capable of sound reasoning in calm situations. On the contrary, the ability to reason in stressful or rushed situations, or in groups, does not develop until about age 22.
I’ve experienced these two states of reasoning with teenagers: the student who is a wise sage in a one-on-one conference in my office, completely respectful and rational, might be a different person in a crowded hallway, yelling and body-slamming his classmate on his way to math class.
It’s important not to be disappointed by that yelling and body-slamming.
Yes, teenagers sometimes make wildly irrational decisions when surrounded by friends, when they’re showing off, when they’re rushing, or when they’re stressed or upset.
And yes, teenagers can be incredibly wise and insightful and are worth listening to. They have a raw honesty and sense of justice that has not yet been weathered. They haven’t yet muted themselves. That’s why the rise of student voice has been so compelling to me: it has reminded me of why I love teenagers, why I love their passion for fairness, why it’s important to keep finding ways for them to show their brilliance, and why I happen to enjoy being around them.