January 26, 2015

This is What We Do to Young People in our Society (and What We Could Do Instead).

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I have seen young people—who are broken—compartmentalize their fears and their pains and even their dreams.

I have seen young women stuff their bras and push their breasts out and sexualize themselves to be more feminine. I have seen young men be shamed and bullied for having feelings because it is not manly enough.

I have seen students cry because they have been failed by the system. But they don’t see it that way because they have learned to self-identify as being stupid, as being below-average, as being worthless.

I have seen young people go in and out (and in and out) of prison because they too have been failed by the system. But they don’t see it that way either because they have learned to self-identify as criminals.

I have seen whole schools be labeled as “persistently dangerous” and “worst school in the country” enough times that it becomes the culture of the school, the impression and assumption of the young people within it and—soon enough—the identity of those young people too.

I have seen young people born addicted to drugs; young people who turn to drugs during puberty in their attempt to self-regulate.

I have seen young people say that yoga and meditation are not for them because they are “not white enough,” “not thin enough,” “not wealthy enough,” “not calm enough.”

I have seen young people wish their skin was less dark because they felt ugly inside of it.

Because this is what we do to young people in our society.

We place them into categories. We label them. We marginalize them. We force them to look at and verify things externally, but we do not teach them how to look at and verify within.

For several years, I worked for a supplemental educational services program which provided supplemental learning to young students who failed to meet adequate yearly progress. I had one student who would sit beneath the desk—as if he was beneath the ability to be educated—and he would sulk and say “I’m stupid” because people told him so many times that he believed it.

Because this is what we do to young people in our society.

I have worked in high security, orange suit, don’t-see-the-light-of-day prisons where the young people within these institutions are being fed fuel for their anger; where they are bred to believe that they are criminals, and so of course they reoffend. Because it is their identity.

And because this is what we do to young people in our society.

I now work at a high school in North Philadelphia where I teach mindfulness and meditation to young people who often feel worthless because they know they go to what is considered to be “one of the worst schools in the country.” And so, to an outsider looking in, the whole building is filled with broken dreams and broken people. A façade of criminals-in-the-making and uneducated folks.

Because this is what we do to young people in our society.

But let me tell you a little bit about the young people within the school.

Inside, there is a young lady who wants to be a counselor so that she can help people like her mother overcome drug addiction.

Inside, there is a young man who wants to make it as a professional football player so that he can afford to bring his whole family out of poverty.

Inside, there are young people with talent. There are young people with voices. There are artists.

Inside, there are teachers of life and teachers of their own subjects.

And, inside, we meditate. We learn skills to calm ourselves and to be less reactive. Inside, we learn to balance between what circumstance commands and infinity implores.

Because this is what we should be doing for young people in our society.

In our school, we teach yoga and meditation during our mandatory Advisory period each day, Monday to Friday. We also offer yoga as an optional activity during lunch period, where students can choose to spend the time in the weight room, in the gym, or in the yoga room, instead of in the lunch room. When they choose an activity, they are given a pass with the name of the activity on it.

A young male approaches the yoga room for the first time, looking around somewhat reluctantly. I greet him and ask if he is here for yoga, and he responds “No, no,” as he proudly shows me his pass for the weight room. The weight room is on another floor in the school.

But this is what we do to young people in our society. They are indoctrinated to believe what is manly and what is feminine, and they are ashamed to diverge from those roles.

So, I play along with the young man’s fib, knowing he had come to yoga but did not want to get caught by his peers with a yoga pass. And we started there. We worked on exercises for his anger management. We worked on poses for relieving tension. And we talked about how we can practice out of the class in the real world, where it matters most.

He returned each day with his weight room pass in hand. I knew that as long as I did what I had to do to create a safe space, he would do what he had to do to get there.

Two weeks in, he approached the yoga room with a smile on his face as he said hello. I greeted him and asked how his day was. He responded, “Look” and handed me his pass as usual. This time it said “Yoga” on it.

We need to invest in our young people.

We need to position them to get more from—and bring more to—their education. Because education is the path out of poverty.

We need to see that, although there are large proportions of cultures living in poverty, there is no culture of poverty. We need to see that violence, aggression, anger, anxiety and trauma are symptoms; they are responses to a situation—to an oppression, to poverty.

They are an inability to self-regulate. We need to teach young people how to properly self-regulate. We need to create a culture of change. We need to know that behind everything we can see about someone there is a whole matrix of things we cannot see.

This is what we should be doing for young people in our society.


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 Author: Kristen Sylvester

Apprentice Editor: Hilda Carroll / Editor: Travis May

Photo: Author’s own


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