Attention, Parents and Teens: Boredom Is Important
Let’s call it what it is: Being a teenager is just damn hard these days. Back in the Stone Age when I was sixteen, I didn’t spend six months planning my summer in order to ensure I was filling the requisite boxes for my college apps. No, I was busy perfecting my tan (grease up with baby oil, wait 15 minutes, turn), chasing down my latest crush (is he at the beach, the swim club, or the movies today?), and reading every Jacqueline Suzanne or Judith Krantz novel I could get my hands on. Sure I had a summer job. I babysat my neighbor’s kids in the mornings so she could go to her yoga class (Yoga? What weirdo does that?). It was a great summer. I was bored all of the time.
Bored enough to realize that when three of my friends got pregnant, it was time to do something. I decided to volunteer at Planned Parenthood which lead to a lifetime commitment to ensuring women and girls, men and boys, have access to good sex education. I have taught classes, marched in Washington, volunteered, and given money. I even spent six years on the board of Planned Parenthood. None of this would have happened if my sixteenth summer hadn’t been boring. Sadly, my son won’t be bored this summer. He is too busy planning for his future.
It started last fall when I suggested to my son he might consider getting a summer job. “If nothing else, you can begin saving money for that car you keep telling me you want.” He quickly learned most places won’t hire you until you are eighteen and even then the market is so competitive that my friend’s daughter, home from college, could only find work at Victoria’s Secret for the summer (now that is a job I am sure my son would have loved). He spoke to the school’s guidance counselor. She told him that students need work/study approval through their high school if they want a job. Something about a California state law to prevent child labor abuse. Abuse? The kid just wants to work at J. Crew (for the employee discount, of course). But, a summer job was not meant to be. He told me, “It just isn’t good enough.”
Good enough? Apparently not. Getting into college these days means you need to have proven your mettle through “meaningful volunteer and educational” activities. His teacher told him, “You know, you really should consider trying to gain enough community service hours for the President’s Award. All the best colleges expect it.” “Mom,” he declared that night, “I need a 100 hours, fast!” So we spent the next few weeks researching programs that would give him the credits he needed. He began tutoring at the Boys and Girls Club and found a volunteer job working at a summer camp for underprivileged kids. By the end of this summer, he should have more than enough hours to get his award. Check.
Next, he learned that “everyone” was spending their summer at some educational program. A few friends were going to a Johns Hopkins camp for the gifted (yeah, won’t be checking off that one), others were going abroad for language immersion, a few were sticking around town but mostly because they were doing internships at Stanford University researching DNA. One was starting her own summer camp for the intellectually challenged. My son convinced himself that three weeks taking classes at a pre-college program on a highly desirable college campus was the best way to start his summer and gain the education creds. In order to apply for said program, he needed a certain GPA. He got it and is now ensconced in said program. Check.
Sure, feel free to scold me for giving in to the college rat race. Trouble is, I want my son to have all the boxes checked so he can have the benefit of the best education available. But I worry about all that is lost in the process. When I was applying to colleges, you didn’t need perfect SATs and 4.0s. You didn’t need to have started your own summer camp for the developmentally disabled or helped discover the mouse genome. You just had to do something that was good enough, like a summer job for example.
I worked most summers in high school. I pierced ears at a jewelry store (there are a lot of uneven pierced ears out there thanks to me), I scooped ice cream at the local shop (“Oh, you wanted chocolate and strawberry not chocolate and vanilla? No worries, I’ll eat it for you”), I sold clothing at a boutique (ah, that employee discount). These weren’t life-changing jobs, but they were just good enough. They left me plenty of time to be bored, and being bored allowed me to consider what I wanted to do with this “one wild and precious life.”
Joseph Brodsky said in his 1995 commencement address to my alma mater, Dartmouth College, “Boredom is your window on the properties of time that one tends to ignore to the likely peril of one's mental equilibrium. It is your window on time's infinity. Once this window opens, don't try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open ... For boredom is an invasion of time into your set of values. It puts your existence into its proper perspective, the net result of which is precision and humility.” Being bored which leads to daydreaming is the antidote to this chaotic world and we are now just learning that it is when the brain is most alive and when creativity is most likely sparked. (Read Jonah Lehrer’s lovely blog on day dreaming for more.)
So here we are, days after the summer solstice, with July and August looming before us. I will be in Annisquam reading trashy novels, slathering sunblock on my body and trying to commit to my schedule of writing in the mornings. I plan to get as bored as I possibly can. Who knows what will come of it. My son? He is in classes every morning, studying three hours every afternoon. His efforts will likely lead to his dream of acceptance into a prestigious college, but he will not be bored and who knows what will be lost because of it.
Others on boredom and daydreaming: Karen Greenstreet writes that boredom allows us to look at our patterns and to heal them. No one could be bored after reading Erin “Elvis Lives” boredom blog. She’s hilarious and odd and perfect in every way. For a visual vacation from boredom and to spark your creativity, visit daydreamlily.com
If you do nothing else, be bored this summer.
Lisen Stromberg www.invinciblesummer.org