Boredom, restlessness, apathy—
we can turn these common adolescent traits
around if we introduce elements of adult work
into teens’ school experience.
Joseph P. Allen and Claudia Worrell Allen
At first glance, Ray’s story seemed disappointingly typical. Although he had been an amiable and eager preteen, his grades began
to drop dramatically in high school. In
response to parental lectures, he always
promised to do better, but never did.
What made Ray unusual, however,
was that his lost motivation wasn’t
the result of drug use, family conflict,
or falling in with the wrong crowd.
Rather, he could trace the start of his
disenchantment with school back to an
offhand remark by his dad as the two
were washing the family car one Saturday afternoon.
Ray and his dad had been talking
about school as they passed the soapy
sponge back and forth. Ray was anxious
about how he would do in 9th grade
that year, and his dad was trying to put
things into perspective:
I know you’re thinking about this year as
counting toward college some day, and
that’s great, but once you get into college,
those grades are going to matter, too.
And for me, even after college, in medical
school, how well I did still affected what
kind of a job I’d get. So this year is just
one piece in a much bigger puzzle.
Ray’s dad was trying to be reassuring.
But as Ray listened, he suddenly realized
he wasn’t gearing up for a few years’
push, but for a slog that would last
more than a decade before real results
would appear. Ray didn’t say much that
day, but the thought ate at him: Would
studying Charlemagne or cosines or
physics tonight really affect his life a
decade hence? His report card every
nine weeks reflected his answer.
The Teenage Twilight Zone
Ray was unusual in being able to precisely describe the root of a problem
that many students face: The Big Wait.
The problem shouldn’t be hard to
understand. Most adults on diets find it
difficult to pass up that tasty chocolate
cake tonight knowing that the results
won’t appear on the bathroom scale for
a few days to a week. Yet we routinely
ask teens to study hard each night
knowing that the real benefits won’t
show up in their lives until far in the
Of course, the teenage years have
always involved some waiting and delay,
but lately something has been changing.
For most of human history, adolescence was a fleeting phase between the
time when a teen first gained adultlike
capacities and the time when some
adult noticed and insisted that he or
she put those capacities to use. Even
for the grandparents of today’s teens,
adolescence was considered to end at
17 or 18. Now, we see 24-year-olds just