The Right Rebellion
I am not your classic rebel. I have never been overcome by the desire to dye my hair a shocking color or pierce a part of my body that would make strangers gag, nor is there any sort of intrinsic teenage longing to break mailboxes, have sex, and drive drunk hidden within my unstable and developing adolescent brain. It’s hard to believe that the majority of my peers could be particularly rebellious either. As I sit in my school’s library typing up this piece, I am surrounded by studious overachievers sitting at round tables, furiously studying for upcoming assessments and talking pre-calculus with as much passion as “high schoolers” in popular movies might talk gossip.
Does my lack of interest in the shocking and the dangerous make me a boring conformist with no power to create change? I would argue no (albeit with a strong bias). If we define rebellion as an attempt to incite change, then I am quite a rebel. Volunteering in my community and at my synagogue, trying to be myself despite social pressure to fit in, writing for a Jewish feminist blog—none of these are stereotypically ‘rebellious’ pursuits, but I’d like to think they do make a significant impact on the world around me.
Yet do a Google image search for “rebellious,” and “teenagers” has its own folder. Countless parenting novels with titles such as The Secret Lives of Teenage Girls, Yes, Your Teen Is Crazy: Loving Your Kid Without Losing Your Mind, and Surviving Your Teenager and Being Happy Anyway claim to have the secret for unlocking the hidden feelings and motivations of that strange, overgrown child who claims they are old enough to drive your car. Is this stereotyping of teens as disrespectful, lazy, cellphone-obsessed nincompoops based in fact? According to a recent poll by stageoflife.com, 86% of teens (and 89% of female teens) say that they enjoy school, 91% consider manners and etiquette important in their lives, and 75% set goals for themselves. These statistics suggest that the values of today’s young people are not so far removed from those of their parents and grandparents.
The primary difference, then, between the old and the young, is the difference between those with the experience to know what’s right and those with the naiveté to take action based on those ideals. From the high-school students who wore black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War to the brainwashed Hitler Youth of Nazi Germany who joined the Fascist party as an escape from childhood, young people have always wanted to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They want to see, in tangible ways, their impact on the world in which they live. Everyone, not only teens, wants to matter. But when people live in a world where they are valued neither as innocent children nor as intelligent adults, they feel trapped. They cannot make a difference, and they cannot matter. This is where that famous teenage reckless abandon comes along. Sometimes smashing mailboxes, getting tattooed, or driving drunk suffices for making a difference. It’s not teenagers that are the problem. It’s cultures that encourage the wrong kind of rebellion.
Those kids sitting around a table talking pre-calc probably did more with their day than talk pre-calc. Perhaps one of them went out partying with their friends, got drunk, and drove around all night. But maybe another went to the Human Rights club after school, or volunteered at a soup kitchen in Boston, and then went home and emailed a Senator about an important issue or wrote a blog post about the latest news story. Both rebelled, if in drastically different ways. One of them was just part of the right rebellion.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.