A few years ago, I had a reunion with some old high school buddies that I hadn’t seen in nearly 50 years. It was an amazing experience and a lot of fun.
But I remember one comment my old friend Brian made about me: “Coates, you were always up to something. I never knew what you’d do next.” He was talking about mischief, not science projects. I thought it was an odd perspective, and at the time I didn’t know what to make of it. A lot of water had flowed under the bridge since I was a freshman in high school – an inconceivable amount of life experience, learning, and change. I’m not at all the same person Brian knew back then.
I’ve been writing about the teen experience, a topic that has become a passionate interest. Recently I did the memory work to recall my own teen journey. And much to my surprise, I concluded that I was indeed a trouble-maker!
Yes, I was an Eagle Scout, active in my church, and a straight-A student. In fact, I was the only student at the high school who made an A in every course.
But I cut up in class a lot. You might even say I was disruptive. In science class my buddy Dick (who was also at the reunion) and I used to sit in the back of the room and draw Mad Magazine cartoons and compete with each other to catch flies. We’d grab them out of the air, mark a score sheet and then turn them loose. One day we hid in the storage closet and tried to hypnotize each other. On another occasion, we persuaded the science teacher, who had a fine singing voice, to sing pop tunes for us. I think I paid attention to his instruction only 10% of the time. Amazingly, in spite of my shenanigans, my teacher considered me his best student and gave me an A. But when I think about how hard I made his job, I feel regret.
And that was the least of my misdeeds. I did things that were destructive and against the law. I won’t go into the details in this post because to tell you the truth, it’s embarrassing to even think about it. Just take my word for it – I had a secret life that could have launched me on a pathway towards big-time trouble. The more I remember about my early teens, I have to admit that yes, Brian was right. I was always up to something.
I can only give the same strange answer that teenagers still give to this day: “I don’t know.”
Like every teenager who ever lived, my prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that handles foresight, logic and critical thinking, was “under construction.” I made a lot of my decisions impulsively based on emotion. My pranks seemed like something exciting to do at the time, and I gave no thought to the consequences.
And that’s one of the perils of the teen journey. Kids do wild and crazy things for no good reason. The consequences can be enormous. People can get hurt. Kids can befriend the wrong people and get in trouble with the authorities. They can ingrain bad behavior patterns. Alcohol and drugs can keep their brains from developing normally, and teens can become addicted to these substances.
Worst of all, if their failure to exercise critical thinking isn’t corrected and becomes a pattern that persists into their early 20s, the window for brain development will close and their intelligence will be dramatically limited for the rest of their lives.
A lot can happen to help a young person survive the teen journey and become strong for adult life – good parenting, adult mentoring, team sports, a job, religious faith, a passionate interest, etc.
More than anything, what rescued me was nothing more than luck. First of all, I never got caught. Secondly, my father was in the Army and my family moved away from this community to Germany. I left my buddies and all the silliness of early adolescence behind. My dad went overseas ahead of us, and as the oldest child I had to take responsibility for helping my mother with the relocation. When we finally made it to Germany I was a stranger in a strange land. At the age of 15 I became one serious dude. I later graduated as high school valedictorian, went to West Point, served a year in Vietnam, got a Ph.D., and retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel. I’ve been a successful small business entrepreneur for the past 35 years.
I was lucky to survive my own adolescent mischief, become a lifelong learner, and use my creativity to make a positive contribution. Now that my passionate interest is helping parents of teens, the goal of my work is to help the parents take luck out of the equation.
More about this in my book: How Your Teen Can Grow a Smarter Brain.
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