The Search for Self: Voices of Adolescence in Literature
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After viewing our curriculum units, please take a few minutes to help us understand how the units, which were created by public school teachers, may be useful to others.
In her novel
, Nikki Grimes explores the struggle of adolescence though a fictional "open mic" project set up by the classroom English teacher, Mr. Ward. One by one students enter the novel, explaining their struggles and conflicts first in narrative and then in poetry which they share with the class. All of the characters seem to benefit from the program as each student tries to work through his or her problem through the "open mic" sessions and the sharing of their ideas through poetry. This unit will attempt to do in real life what Grimes has attempted to do in fiction with her characters: explore and sift through the inner conflict and confusion that many students feel when they reach the middle school years.
Something magical happens to all of us when we reach the confusing and often traumatic teen years. I am not referring to the physical change or the hormonal explosion that teachers and adults continuously use as an explanation for behavior that is often deemed as less than civil. There are also changes going on mentally that reveal a natural search for an identity that makes each of us so unique and individual. This struggle that goes on in adolescence signals the beginnings of the shaping of an adult personality. The adolescent years are transitional ones in which children either consciously or unconsciously struggle to grasp at what or who they will be for the rest of their lives.
This search for self, a search for an identity in literature is nothing new. Grimes'
is exploring themes that have been explored in literature for ages. Shakespeare's young Prince Hal in
Henry the IV, Part One
, loves to play the prankster, but at the same time he begins to realize that he will soon be leaving behind his pranks, and some of his closest friends, as he grows into his role as a prince and a leader.
Yet herin will I imitate the son,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him. (Act I, sc.iii, 220-226)
The young prince knows that he will be king, that he will have to leave his youth behind. But for now he relishes his youth and will play and play. There is maturity in his
voice as he seems to simply repress or put off the strains of adulthood that will later come with his coronation.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
, Huck, not unlike Prince Hal, is very satisfied with his youth. Huck has escaped the adult world, an abusive father, clothes that are too tight, conformity. Huck has run from his conflicts and problems and will find his way through the turbulent times at his own pace. Jim and Huck cannot avoid the hardships of life altogether, but like Hal they are very good at putting off adulthood. At times the raft is a refuge where Jim and Huck haven't a care in the world.
Soon as it was night, out we shoved; when we got her out to the middle, we let her
alone, and let her float wherever the current wanted her to go; then we lit the pipes,
and dangled our legs in the water and talked about all kinds of things-we was
always naked, day and night, whenever the mosquitoes would let us- the new
clothes Buck's folks made for me was too good to be comfortable, and besides I
didn't go much on clothes, nohow (Twain, 131).
Huck escapes the problems of his life by taking to the river. Here he is free to remain a youth, carefree in a world where even the discomfort of nice clothing can be eliminated by simply being "naked."
No matter what grade level you are teaching there are examples of literature that can be used in place of the material I use in this unit. In
The Catcher in the Rye
, Holden Caulfield's trip to New York City becomes a maddening rush to find some meaning, to explore some elements of himself that he cannot find in the boarding school that he despises. His journey to the big city, his search for some sanity in his confused life just makes him more confused. The examples are endless: Doctorow's Billy Bathgate; Squeaky from Toni Cade Bambara's "Raymond's Run" and more than a dozen characters in Nikki Grimes'
. Adolescent voices lead us through their struggle in literature that reflects the reality of the adolescent search for self. As writers over the years have sought to discover the voices of adolescents in literature, so too will I attempt to help students discover their own voices through their own writing.
This search for identity has become more desperate in the technologically advanced 21st Century American society. Children seem to be leaping into adulthood at a much earlier age. They are taking on more adult problems, getting sexually active at a younger age and being pushed into a sometimes ruthless world where time for working through adolescence seems to have shortened, leaving them with little chance to develop an identity, to find themselves. It is not unusual for me to hear stories of my eighth graders getting themselves and siblings off to school on their own due to a parent working early. How many of my eighth grade students wear buttons symbolizing loss of loved ones, family members, cousins lost to the mean streets? Some students don't really have a chance to be children as they grapple with adult problems like loss, drug abuse and pregnancy. In my opinion eighth grade is the most important grade in the psychological development of students because it is really a turning point for them. Students are not only stepping from middle school to high school; they are really going from childhood to young adulthood, from playful children to more serious students and young adults. Eighth grade gives us one of the best times in a student's development for them to latch onto some piece of their changing identity. Like Hal they are playful, like Holden confused, and like Huck, they simply want to be left alone. As eighth grade teachers we have a chance to help students discover an identity that is just aching to be heard.