Painting by Harold N. Anderson
This is an excerpt taken from a treasure of a book published in 1924 called The Catholic Teacher’s Companion – A Book of Inspiration and Self-Help.
It was originally written for teaching Sisters….
How beautiful is youth! how bright if gleams
With its illusions, aspirations, dreams!
Book of Beginnings, Story without End,
Each maid a heroine, and each man a friend!
No phase of character training is more interesting or more important than the education of the adolescent. Adolescence has always appealed to the heart of the true teacher. At least one biographer of Our Lord is of the opinion that many, if not most, of the disciples chosen by Christ were adolescents.
Socrates knew that there was no more fertile source for inspiration than the companionship of adolescents. Plato is at his best in those dialogues in which adolescents play the chief role. G. Stanley Hall confesses of himself: “As for years an almost passionate lover of childhood and a teacher of youth, the adolescent stage of life has long seemed to me one of the most fascinating of all themes, more worthy, perhaps, than anything else in the world of reverence, most inviting study, and in most crying need of a service we do not yet understand how to render aright.”
Adolescence is, indeed, a fascinating period in life; it is the second birth of the child, and the morning hour of life when the whole world turns to gold.
THE YEARS OF ADOLESCENCE
The years of adolescence are also the best decade in life. “No age is so responsible to all the best and wisest adult endeavor. In no psychic soil, too, does seed, bad as well as good, strike such deep root, grow so rankly, or bear fruit so quickly or so surely.”
Adolescence is likewise the most critical period in life. It is the time when the child discovers the other sex, and passes through the fire and water of temptation. The years between fourteen and sixteen are the most dangerous in a boy’s life, and most boys that go wrong do so between nine and sixteen.
Every step of the upward way is strewn with wreckage of body, mind, and morals. “There is not only arrest, but perversion, at every stage, and hoodlumism, juvenile crime, and secret vice seem not only increasing, but develop in earlier years in every civilized land.”
The angels of heaven and the devils of hell wage a fierce war for the possession of the soul during these all-important years. Defeat or victory may eventually mean hell or heaven for the soul.
Alas, that the enemy gains the victory so often! The scandals in some public high schools are a sad story. But in our own high schools devoted Brothers and Sisters often fight a losing battle, and the moral lapses, mixed marriages, and apostasies among the graduates of Catholic secondary schools raise the heart-searching question: Have we done all in our power for the boys and girls during the most critical period of their lives?
Not only the soul but the body, too, passes through a crisis during this period. Adolescence is the time of rapid physical growth. The features begin to reveal the mental development; there is more expression in the face; the eye is more eloquent; and the forehead begins to shape what Byron calls “the dome of thought, the palace of the soul.”
There is deep thought in Riickert’s lines on the forehead of the adolescent:
But now I saw above the eyes
The columns, bows and towers rise;
And ‘neath a roof of golden locks
The structure slowly vaults and rocks;
High swings the arch, far-flung and free—
God’s blessing on this building be!—
A mind of man thus rears a dome
To make therein its lifelong home.
Many mistakes are made by teachers because of their ignorance of the changes occurring both in the body and the mind of the adolescent. Honest teachers will admit that the period of adolescence is the most mysterious in life.
If childhood is a riddle, then adolescence is a Chinese puzzle and invites every new generation of educationists to attempt a solution.
There is a wall around Boyville and Girldom, and the gate is closed to all adults. Novelists and play-wrights, philosophers and psychologists have tried to break through the wall, but the sincere investigator must confess that the period remains full of mysteries.
Catholic scholars in this country have kept strangely aloof from the subject. We hope the day is not far distant when some Catholic educator will have the courage to record for what he and his brothers and sisters in the profession have gathered from intimate contact with the boy and girl.
But until that day arrives we must rely upon our limited experience or go to foreign Catholic writers or to Protestants and pagans (ancient and modern) to get a glimpse into the mysterious country.
GLIMPSE INTO A MYSTERIOUS COUNTRY
Horace’s characterization of the adolescent is brief but to the point: the beardless youth delights in horses and dogs and the verdure of the Campus Martius; he is pliable as wax to the bent of vice, rude to advisers, a slow provider of useful things, wasteful of his money, high-spirited, amorous, and hasty in deserting the objects of his passion.
Aristotle has given the best ancient characterization of adolescence. He speaks of the strong sex instinct of adolescents., their fickleness, love of honor, sympathy, charity, hope, bashfulness, valor, high aspiration, omniscience, cocksureness, fondness for extremes, and love of laughter.
G. Stanley Hall says of adolescence and its modern environment:
“Modern life is hard, and in many respects increasingly so, on youth. Home, school, church, fail to recognize its nature and its needs and, perhaps, most of all, its perils . . . There are new repulsions felt toward home and school, and truancy and runaways abound.
The social instincts undergo sudden unfoldment and the new life of love awakens. It is the age of sentiment and of religion, of rapid fluctuations of mood, and the world seems strange and new.
Interest in adult life and in vocations develops. Youth awakens to a new world and understands neither it nor himself. The whole future of life depends on how the new powers now given suddenly and in profusion are husbanded and directed. Character and personality are taking form, but everything is plastic.
Self-feeling and ambition are increased, and every trait and faculty is liable to exaggeration and excess. It is all a marvelous new birth, and those who believe that nothing is so worthy of love, reverence, and service as the body and soul of youth, and who hold that the best test of every human institution is how much it contributes to bring youth to the ever fullest possible development, may well review themselves and the civilization in which we live, to see how far it satisfies this supreme test.”
From the plays of Shakespeare we may select some thirty characters as typical adolescents. Booth Tarkington has given us an amusing picture of adolescence in Seventeen. His hero finds it unendurable not to seem perfect in all externals. Yet while William Sylvanus Baxter would strut about as a full-grown man, the child that he still is betrays him while he would play the other role.
He is still fond of green apples, and his steps often wander to the candy store, the soda water fountain, and the ice cream parlor. Yet he resents it when his elders would treat him as a little boy.
This trait is reminiscent of the complaint lodged by A. C. Benson in The Schoolmaster against the children’s hymns he was compelled to sing in his boyhood days:
“I did not like to sing ‘We are but children weak,’ because I did not feel weak, and I did not wish to be reminded that I was; still more offensive was being made to sing about ‘my little hands.’
I did not think them little, and did not see why they should be made the subject of oral remarks. Such hymns are more force pleasure of elder people, who are alarmed by the sight of innocence and weakness asserting their own claims.
But the boy delights to feel himself a pilgrim, a soldier, a hero; and he should be made to feel that his part in the battle is as important as that of his elders.”
MANHOOD AND LIBERTY
The consciousness of incipient manhood and womanhood is the outstanding feature of adolescence. The adolescent feels that his childhood days are past. He feels himself at home among adults, and resents being treated as a child.
He worships the teacher who recognizes his manhood. He approves heartily of the principle that baby-methods must give way to man-methods.
Feeling himself a man, the adolescent is bent on asserting his manhood. He is according to the expressive phrase of Vives, like an unbroken horse that would get rid of both rider and bridle.
His idol is personal liberty, But he has an erroneous conception of liberty. What he craves is license: but it would be disastrous to indulge his wishes:
Give a boy an inch and he’ll take an ell;
Give him a horse and he’ll ride him to hell.
One of the principal duties of the teacher of adolescents is to bring home to his pupils the idea of true liberty. The adolescent must learn that liberty consists in freeing ourselves from the tyranny of our passions and the influence of bad environment and evil companions.
The teacher may appropriately quote to his adolescent boys the lines from Shakespeare:
Brave conquers-for so you are
That war against your own affections
And the huge army of the worlds desires.
The adolescent must learn to appreciate the liberty of the children of God. Hence he must be taught to stand on his own feet, to recognize no authority except out of his own conscience and the representatives of God.
He must be trained to brave the cheers of the crowd, to be not only a man in the world but a man against the world. Let him remember the story of the father and son and their mule. Do what they would, the people had something to criticize.
True respect comes only to those who stand on their own feet, heedless of the jibes of the rabble. If the adolescent is afraid to act on principle, if he must always do as the rest do, he may as well wear a button with the text, “Smith and Company,“ for he is not an individual person, but merely a member of the gang.
No matter how lowly the duty let him perform it proudly. When carrying a basket for his mother or sister, he should carry it proudly because it is an honor to do one’s duty well. If we make our boys think right about liberty, we shall make it hard for them to do wrong.
Still, it is not enough to make the boys think right. They must be given an opportunity to do right, i.e., to submit to legitimate authority.
The teacher will find that she need but assert her authority in the proper way to obtain cheerful obedience from all who have gotten right ideas about authority in liberty.
There is much lamenting about the lack of obedience in American homes and schools. There is, however, just as much obedience as ever in America, only now the parents and teachers obey the children.
Too many teachers coquet with the likes and dislikes of their pupils, and naturally such teachers cannot teach duty or the spirit of obedience.
Where there is energy to command well enough, obedience never fails.
There are a thousand books on the duty of obedience, but very few that teach the fine art of how to enjoin the obedience properly.
Let the teacher appeal to the manhood of the adolescent, his sense of duty and honor; let her demand obedience in no uncertain terms; let her make it plain to her pupils that she will insist on submission; and her pupils will comply with her every demand. Let the teachers first lesson be obedience, and the second maybe whatever she will.
The teacher’s personality plays an important role in this respect. The adolescent boy and girl are hero worshipers and hungry for ideals. If the teacher represents their ideal of what a teacher ought to be, they will respond to the teacher’s efforts. But the teacher must herself have confidence in her own willpower if she would hope to control the wills of her pupils.
She must be conscious that the will is our highest and most perfect faculty; the best thing we have, our royal faculty, and the most effective weapon that we wield.
If the teacher has confidence in the untold possibilities of the will, she may hope to arouse in her pupils a deep interest in the training of their will.
For herself she will find helpful information in Father Barrett’s Strength of Will, and her pupils will find inspiration in the same writer’s The Will to Win.
Undoubtedly youth is a most beautiful thing of itself. But, if you have in this tender flower, the shining whiteness of Christian purity, then you have human beauty displayed as something noble and exalted, attracting the admiration and imitation of those who see it. – Pope Pius XII
Two Titles mentioned in the article by Father Barrett:
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