When I first started working in the Detroit Public Library's HYPE Teen Center three years ago, I received a number of reactions from people. “Oh, I could never do that.” “I’m allergic to teens.” “You’re pretty big, so you might have a chance.” From the offered opinions you would have thought I was working with the Berserkers from Clive Barker’s Cabal. (Cabal was later made into the movie Nightbreed, which was actually a pretty good translation of the book.) Young Adults can be trying, but in the end it is both a joy and fulfilling to work with them. A lot is said about teens today being different from previous generations. That they are more disrespectful, less focused, always stuck to their digital devices. I would disagree with these assessments. While the teens of today are digital natives, many of the interests, wants, needs, and concerns are identical to those of past generations.
Young adults are at a pivotal time in their lives. As they near adulthood, teens try on different personas and identities, in an attempt to figure out just who the heck they are. When I was a teen it was the exact same process. For me it was being preppy with my letter jacket and khakis one day. Doc Martin steel-toe boots with a black shirt and jeans another. Maybe a Hypercolor color-changing shirt and cut-off pair of jean shorts that we won’t talk about any further. Matched together with this quest for identity, is a rush of hormones and limitless teen energy. It’s enough to make any settled adult run for cover.
My philosophy in running a teen center is “No matter what, this will be a safe and respectful place.” Without those two things we cannot build anything else. This goes both for our teen customers and our library staff. We treat teens as adults, and let them know we expect them to behave as such. If a teen comes to us with an idea for a program or a concern we listen to them fully. The only time we bring our staff power to bear, is when the fun gets a little too out of hand. If our teens start pushing each other to get a little louder, or wilder, attempting to see what the limits are. When behavior starts to get out of hand, we try to address it within 3 seconds.
I like to think of our teen center as a nerd incubator, a nest for young geeks to grow.
Programming at our library is keyed towards activities that are “full of awesome,” which means teens will both have fun and learn through their participation. We have partnered with Handmade Detroit, a local crafting collective, to facilitate DIY crafting. These events have included: Sew Your Own Monster Pillow, Jewelry Making, Silk-Screen Shirt Making, and Papercraft Holiday Cards. The crafters we host are also entrepreneurs, many of whom have their own side business and sell on Etsy. During each of our craft events, we remind our teens that entrepreneurship is something well within their ability. Beyond crafting, video game events are consistently popular, as are the Anime Club, Theater Club and Poetry Group. We also have engaging guest speakers, such as NY Jets receiver Braylon Edwards, Motown legend Martha Reeves, and even a visit from Bill Cosby. (Bill Cosby yelled at me, story for another time)
These programs work so well for us because we’ve gotten to know our teens. This is imperative. Learn all of their names, know what school they attend, and ask how things are in their lives. When speaking about our teens, I try never to say “the teens,” it is always “my teens” or “our teens.” I take full responsibility and ownership of their experience and growth as people when in my department. It sounds basic, but I have heard stories about YA staff who do not want to interact with their teens. If that is the case, hit the eject button and get out of YA immediately. There are plenty of avenues in the library field to take if working with teens isn’t your thing. Recently on a listserv, a YA librarian wrote:
I’m starting to really hate this generation… Are these kids even the same species as me? Are they all getting lobotomies at age twelve? I really feel I have nothing to offer them anymore, but somehow I have to find the will to keep trying. It’s not like I can afford to quit my job.
One would hope that listserv post was the result of a particularly bad day at work, and not the writer’s true outlook on the youth of today. While growing up as a teenager, I didn’t know everything that was going on in the world. I, too, held an optimistic outlook on the future. It’s called being young and invincible. I would dare say the above author may have suffered similar symptoms when he was a teenager. Confession – I’ve had some tough days when I wasn’t connecting particularly well with our teens, and even thought about putting in for a transfer once or twice. But, I always gave myself a couple days to cool down, and things returned to a good place of equilibrium. Yes, it can be tiring, and sometimes aggravating to work with young adults. It can also be inspiring, heart-warming, and hugely rewarding. This past spring one of our teens invited a co-worker and me to attend her high school graduation. It was unexpected, and we both eagerly agreed to be there as her guests. At the ceremony, we saw over a dozen teens, all of whom we worked with at the library, and knew on a first name basis, graduate. I cannot tell you how much pride and satisfaction we felt that day. For all the hard days, when you want to throw your hands in the air, a day like that restores your commitment big time.
We are on the cusp of a brand new school year. With it brings new faces of students we have never seen before. Also, it means some of the teens we are used to working with have graduated and moved on to new phases in their lives. Some days will be great, and some will be “meh,” but I look forward to the new adventures all of us will have.
Steve Teeri is a library technology specialist at the Detroit Public Library’s HYPE Teen Center. He is a member of his library’s Social Media Team, and Website Development Committee. When not making libraries better, he enjoys collecting records, collecting experiences, and playing with his son.