When my Facebook Messenger app “dinged” this evening, I crossed my living room to glance at my cell phone, expecting to find a shared video or article to read from friends or family. What I found instead was a message coming from abroad, from a former student of mine, a student who arrived in Berlin a few days ago, on what is truly her biggest adventure yet: studying abroad, surrounded by a culture, a city, and a language that are all entirely foreign to her…When I was 18, I was an American kid who’d grown up in Germany, attempting to navigate the rolling hills of West Virginia and the Appalachian version of culture shock that I was experiencing. Today, I’m 32, and I’m sitting in my living room in my home, which is located within the rolling Appalachian hills, messaging with an Appalachian born and bred, sixteen-year-old student who is in the initial days of her study-abroad-in-Germany-adventure. “Does the homesickness and the fear ever go away?” She texts, “The culture is so different here. I’ve been yelled at twice, and I had no idea what was being said…”
I can see the rolling, green hills from my windows, where I’m seated right now. I can see the hillsides that my former student grew up on, and I can feel my feet upon German cobblestone streets. I can’t help but smile. I can’t help but chuckle a little. What an adventure she is on! And what an adventure I am on! I am so overcome with gratitude for this moment, this connection with a student of mine. Oh, how fondly I remember those days of culture shock, fear, and complete misunderstanding when I traveled to various countries…the Africa trip and the dog bite…the songs of the Nigerian refugees..the raw, relentless heat, and the rhythm of Life that is unmistakably consistent…the cold Russian air, the fear of knowing no one and no more than ten words of the native language…the courage of being a teenager willing to stretch herself far beyond her comfort zone, willing to experience and uncover the unknown.
Tomorrow marks 21 days since my last contractual work day at Floyd County High School. 21 days ago, I thought I was spending my last day as a teacher to a large group of kids that I learned with, grew with, cried with, and laughed with over the last two years. I knew I’d see them in town, and I knew I’d more or less know of the kids of mine who grow up and choose to stay in our small county. But, what I didn’t know is that being a teacher doesn’t end. Over the last 21 days, I’ve not only run into my kids in town, I’ve heard from my kids too: I’ve received emails updating me on family situations, emails updating me on junior year class changes, emails updating me on college plans, emails sharing students’ writing, emails notifying me of new blog posts by students, and even a few emails inquiring about my summer, my health status, and my plans of starting a family. A few days ago, a student’s grandmother drove her to town to meet me for a short visit. The “hello” hug, the “see-you-later” hug, and the conversation in between, was a God-send. I knew my kid was “okay.” I got to look her in the eyes, listen to her stories, and tell her I love her, in person.
The teenagers at Floyd County High School blessed me, challenged me, and loved me in a way that I haven’t been able to describe as of yet. January 6th, 2015 was my first day: I started with the intention of intriguing young minds, stretching comfort zones, and igniting the freedom that comes with being willing to scribble one’s thoughts on paper, entirely unbridled by the constraints of the rules of language usage and composition. I intended to rock their worlds by challenging their thought systems and enabling them to embrace their individual and collective greatness, from the inside out. That’s the power of writing. That’s the gift I had to share with them. What I didn’t know during that first week of school was that those Floyd County teenagers would end up rocking my world, challenging my thought systems, and enabling me to embrace my individual greatness, from the inside out.
A powerful and tragic wave crashed upon the Floyd County community within three weeks of my first day on the high school campus, and no one was left untouched. No one was left unchanged. One of our young people was lost to suicide, and all of our young people were trembling, shaking, breaking, and changing in the aftermath. Connections were forged between my students and me in an unparalleled, unmistakable fashion, as we attempted to authentically navigate our way through confusion, grief, and irreversible loss. I felt their tears. I read their stories. We blasted rock music, and we poetically released our pain on the page. We were raw, and we were very real in our suffering. I witnessed and experienced a riveting level of passion and compassion while learning and growing alongside our Floyd county teenagers, and the immeasurable gifts they gave me through that process will remain with me to my grave.
It’s true that teenagers are challenging to work with and especially to teach. Any parent or teacher of a teenager can attest to that. But, what I’ve also learned is that it’s even more true that teenagers have more to teach us in return than we are willing to give them credit for. In a modern world that is so frequently described as violent, bigoted, and dangerous, our millennial teens are often painted as disrespectful, lackluster, undisciplined, and flat-out lazy. As a former teacher, I will tell you this: to say that today’s teenagers are entirely lacking in motivation and drive, is to completely misunderstand who our millennial teenagers are, the backgrounds our millennial teenagers are coming from, and the untapped talent and ingenuity that our millennial teenagers bring to our local community and our world at large. Our Floyd County teenagers are hands-down some of the most compassionate, motivated, and genuinely courageous human beings I have ever come in contact with. Our teenagers have a lot to say and a pulsing desire to be listened to, to be considered, and to be embraced. Our teenagers are a generation of entrepreneurs who create according to the rhythm of their own drums. Our teenagers seek to know themselves and ask honest questions about who they are. Teenagers today may not sit quietly at a desk nor do a task or assignment just because they are told to. For many adults, including me, that can be a frustrating and even anger-inducing experience at times. But, when we lean into frustration and anger towards our teenagers, we stop listening to them, and we stop valuing who our young people today are. And that, is truly tragic. To say that “our children are our future” may be an overused cliche, but it’s also the capital-T-Truth. Our teenagers are asking big questions, and they are challenging the world around them. In that, they are challenging us, the adults in their lives, to be willing and grateful guides who participate in their struggles and their triumphs, without disregarding and dampening their vision for our world.
When I see the smiles of former students in town or in various parts of our county, I am reminded of the hope and brilliance that is within our youth. Further, I am reminded of the unique abilities and talents of the growing young people in Floyd County. After a week of violence and terrorism in our nation, I find hope in knowing that my students, our Floyd kids, are a part of our future. Their compassion, their introspectiveness, and their ideas have the capacity to heal our world, if we choose to honor their voices, their stories, and their vision. I am hopeful, amidst a time marked by chaos, confusion, and catastrophic change, because of the lessons I learned working in cooperation with our Floyd County young people. There is a hopeful future for us. There is reason to believe that love and understanding will ultimately triumph over the hateful violence currently ravaging our communities nation-wide. Our teenagers have given us that gift.
(Emily Stansberry joins Blue Ridge Muse to bring added perspective and new points of view to our readers. We welcome and are honored to have her. A “military brat” who lived all over the world, she and her husband now live in Floyd County. She taught English at Floyd County High School before deciding to focus on her writing and other interests. We’re glad she did.)