Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Ethics Schmethics in a Charlie Brown World

Beckon - I Nine (mp3)
Scared, Are You? - Better Than Ezra (mp3)
NOTE: (8/20 - 2:20 p.m.) is back up. For the moment. Enjoy the songs while they last!

With the return of hundreds of adolescent males into our daily existence inevitably comes the reminder that this time in their lives is chock full of absolutes and absolute uncertainties. If there's two things teenage boys know for certain, it's (a) they have no doubts about some stuff, and (b) they are totally clueless about other stuff. Often they don't even know which things fit into (a) and which fit into (b) until decades later, but they'll rarely admit it.

Teenage boys love breaking rules and dancing on the edge of the cliff, but apparently they also insist that the edge of that cliff be defined and clear. They push limits by their nature, but to do so requires that they know what the limits are to begin with.

Two of the topics central to both of the summer reading books I proctored were how teenagers create and hone their own ethical framework, and the minimal sideline role adults tend to play in the crucial moments of a teen's life.

The Charlie Brown Factor

This observation is neither original nor uniquely named. It's merely observing that, in most young adult fiction and in most teen-centric movies, adults serve minimal purpose. They are the incompetent, clueless, comic relief. Or they are the overmatched and overconfident enemy. Or they are the helpless concerned observer unable to reach the drowning teens, doomed only to see them swallowed by the water.

If you need to meet any of these archetypes, rent any two John Hughes films, and you'll find them.

Adults like myself, who feels connected to students and their lives, who has dedicated a hefty portion of his life working to serve and direct them, don't particularly cotton to the notion that we are fringe players at best, comic foils at worst. What makes this all the more agonizing is how true it feels.

When I think back to my miserable teenage existence, adults were almost always limited to these roles. Not because I didn't respect them. Not because they weren't important to me. I listened to them. I craved their advice and presence. I dearly loved my parents and many of my teachers.

However, when I think of those crucial moments in my young life when the shit hit the fan or the rubber hit the road, it was almost requisite that I had no port -- no adult -- in the storm. In fact, perhaps because of my love and respect for so many adults, their absence was all the more essential for me to cut my teeth on life's hard knocks.

Adults were still vital, though, and I try and remember this in my current role. I relied on adults for advice. Sometimes the advice was prior to the tempest, and sometimes it was afterward. Sometimes it was during the calm amidst the storm. But just being able to go to them before or after made all of it seem more survivable. I also relied on them to nurse my wounds when I fucked up, or electrify the fence when I tried jumping over, or hug me when I felt so alone that the word alone seemed insultingly insufficient.

We can't be there for them in those life-altering moments of crisis. But we still have a part to play on their stage.

Ethics, Schmethics!

If as teenagers we must most often face our darkest moments without the lifesaver of adults we love by our side, we still manage to go into battle with our ethics as our shield. Some of us bring our faith as our sword. (Or our helmet, if you're not the aggressive type.)

Teens often go into the darkest battles without adults because adults tend to weigh down this armor. We older folk are often so concerned with protecting the perceived ethics of a situation that we neglect the human being trapped under that heavy ethical gear.

David went into battle with Goliath with no armor, no massive weapons. He went in without shield or sword or helmet. He had a strap of leather, and that's it. He picked up a nice-lookin' rock on the battlefield.

I'm inclined to believe that ethics make us the Goliath. Ethics weigh you down. They make it tough for you to breathe. You can't keep that shield up high enough to protect you. You can't swing that sword fast enough to hurt anyone. You can't see anything clearly with that damned helmet swallowing your skull.

Don't misunderstand. I'm all for ethics. But they weigh a ton, and the best ones make for better lovers than fighters. Working in a school that claims to value character education and ethical development, I've witnessed dozens upon dozens of boys whose ethical armor proved brittle and irreparable. What's more frustrating is that the fewer ethics tethering a boy down, the more he seems to get through adolescence unscathed. He tends to do the scathing. Sometimes to others, but eventually to himself.

I realize I've made David the bad guy in my crappy little metaphor, but the more I'm here, the more I see the kids I most loathe sliming their way through the system with smiles on their faces. They bring little of value to themselves into the battle and thus have less to lose, less to repair in their losses. They win because they bring nothing with them but a little strap of leather and a few rocks they can pick up on the way. They're guerrilla warriors who do whatever it takes.

As a teenager -- hell, even as an adult -- it's terribly difficult to hold onto your ethics when witnessing one battle after another where the dude with fewer or no self-regulated rules comes away bloodied but seemingly victorious. We're left repeating our little mantra and working to convince ourselves we believe it: It's not a sprint; it's a marathon. It's not a sprint; it's a marathon.

Often, if we can just survive those vicious blows and keep plugging away underneath all the heavy trappings of ethics, we can even take comfort that, eventually, our mantra proves true. If we manage to live that long.

"Beckon" is from I Nine's debut album, Heavy Weighs the King. "Scared, Are You?" is from Better Than Ezra's second album, Deluxe, Baby. The first is available only on iTunes, the latter on both iTunes and's mp3 site.

Other inspirations for this post: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, Hacking Harvard by Robin Wasserman, and this article on

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