“A Little Genius In Every Madman”

Joey Ramone of The Ramones was always “different.” (image credit: Adam Louttit)

In our culture, when a teen is really different, the adults in his life often feel a crushing pressure to try to fix him and to get him to conform.  “How will he ever succeed in this world?” we ask.

Joey Ramone’s brother, Mickey Leigh, had this to say about how his brother’s unique gifts were supported:

“Fortunately for my brother, our mother was an incredibly nourishing person, and raised us in such a way to never think of any individual as useless because they may not be on a par with the status quo. That because a person might be struggling with whatever mental or physical condition they have been afflicted with, it does not mean they have absolutely nothing within them to offer society, or to contribute, be it artistically or another way. She instilled that in me, and though it was very difficult to grow up sharing a room with someone turning lights on and off, running the water in the bathroom for hours and hours, unable to throw things away; or to walk to school with him as he stepped on and off the curb while the other kids pointed and laughed- due to the way my mother raised me I was about as sensitive as a younger brother could possibly be.

“If I had been like a jock, or macho type of kid, I don’t think he would have fared as well. I’ll admit I lost it several times, but l never treated him as a hopeless lump of flesh. I encouraged him as much as possible, taught him how to play the guitar, and encouraged him to get into bands.

“When he found himself unable to deal with his problem and felt suicidal, he voluntarily admitted himself to St Vincent’s Psychiatric Ward for evaluation. That was when I told him ‘don’t worry, there’s a little genius in every madman.’

“We were not your average family. Our parents got divorced when we were very young. Our mother was an artist who encouraged us to recognize and express our individuality. I knew we were different from the other kids. My brother was not normal, and we lived in the same room, so neither was I. It was impossible for me to be. I shared his problems right along side him, and knew I had to, like it or not. We were both freaks. Fortunately he was able to tap into his inner strengths and realize them, unleash the incredible talent he had within him, and was in an environment that allowed him to thrive. And as fate would have it, thanks to rock & roll, it worked out pretty damn well for him.”

Supporting and accepting a teen for being exactly who he or she is — that’s where it all starts at Open Doors, whether it’s through our regular program or our Summer Art Program.  There are many, many ways to be in the world — many ways to make a living, and many ways to contribute.  Help us explore these many ways with our teens:  donate or contact us to find out more.

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“I’m Bored!” Four Ways to Really Help Bored Teens this Summer

As a quick Google search revealed, there are a slew of Internet articles about how to handle boredom in your teens this summer.  They suggest organizing your young person’s time, making sure they get up everyday, and limiting “screen time.”  Though we can understand the concern that teens will curl up in their bedrooms with the blinds down, watching TV all summer, all these suggestions deal only with surface issues.  Our culture has a long way to go when it comes to delving into what boredom really is for a teen and what it could mean for them.

Summer Swing
Summer can mean a time to reflect.

1.  Ask and listen.

We at Open Doors have noticed that “I’m bored” can actually mean a lot of things.  Think about how boredom feels.  It can feel restless and discontent — or it can feel lethargic or even despairing.  If we can help our teens explore that, we can find the deeper truth underneath.

For instance, complaining about being bored often means is that a teen is looking for connection with a person they care about.  They may be feeling disenchanted with the world and need help finding their inner spark again.  They may mean that they have lots of half-formed ideas about their next direction, but they need help sorting them out.  And many teens are remembering the playfulness of their younger days, and wishing for a way to recapture it.  Only when you know the deeper need underneath the complaint can you work towards a solution that really fits.

Also, keep in mind that what a parent is seeing may not be what the teen is experiencing. If the same video game has been on for hours, check in and see what it means.  The teen may be really enjoying the challenge and the chance to immerse herself in it.  Or she may be feeling disconnected and unsure what else to do.  Ask with an open mind, and listen carefully to the response to make sure you understand.

If you don’t feel able to connect with your teen in this way, that’s okay.  Many parents were not treated with this kind of respect when they were young, and they find it hard to do so with their own kids.  At Open Doors, we may be able to help with our Summer Art Program.  No art experience is required, and your teen can participate as much or as little as they’d like.  We can help them connect and sort things out — not to mention having a lot of fun along the way.

hands collaborating
Connecting with others.

2.  Be open to exploration.

For a parent, it can feel so different when a teen who was up early every day for school and activities starts sleeping later into the sunshine hours.  But exploring a new sleep schedule can mean exploring the feeling up being up at night, when the world is quiet and the night sky invites reflection.  It can mean the kind of intense half-awake dreaming that comes with dozing in the sunlight from the window.  Our culture doesn’t value the rich inner life that can be explored by spending some time just “vegging,” but it’s there, and exploring it is an important part of teen development.

Happiness
Happiness is an inside job, and often it’s found with some time spent in reflection.

Our Summer Program has flexible hours so that night owls can sleep in and still connect with others in a gentle space that honors their journey.

3.  Don’t compare.

It can be easy to comment, loudly, that the neighbor’s teens seem to be industriously running their own lawn mowing business, and hey, they’re not bored.  Resist the urge.  Every teen has his or her own journey, and you have no idea what’s going on behind-the-scenes in that neighbor’s home.

sad teen
How it feels to be compared.

If you find yourself tempted to compare, re-focus on connecting, exploring, and playing.

4.  Be playful.

As we mentioned in the first tip, many teens feel torn about growing up.  That’s a natural part of the process, and it encourages us to bring the best aspects of childhood — playfulness, spontaneity, laughter, creativity, and our honest emotions — into our more adult lives.  Model your own playfulness, and look for ways to support playfulness in your teen — whether she is with friends, family, or engaged in an activity.  Play is such a revitalizing part of life.

At the Open Doors Summer Art Program, we look for ways to bring play and creativity into community life.  We believe that a lot of adults would be more fulfilled if they found ways to integrate the childlike into their lives, and so we use all kinds of art as a medium for helping our young adults do so.

Dandelion fluff on parking lot lines
Creative fun in everyday life.

This post is part of our “Your Life – Your Learning!” series, designed to help the Grand Rapids community rethink teen learning, and brought to you with support from the Wege Foundation.

 

How We Grow

In the extended quote below, John Holt speaks mostly of young children.  While reading it, you could replace each instance of “little child” or “small child” with “teen.”  Teens carry with them their sense of the wholeness of life, even as they navigate their new ability to think abstractly, even as they explore their new and bigger bodies, even as they face their transition into adult responsibility.  Here’s the quote:

My grandfather used to say of certain people, “Know nothing, fear nothing.” We tend to think of this of little children. We see their long-run fearlessness, their hopefulness, as nothing but ignorance, a disease of which experience will cure them. With what cynicism, bitterness, and even malice we say, “They’ll learn, they’ll find out what life is soon enough.” And many of us try to help that process along.

But the small child’s sense of the wholeness and openness of life is not a disease, but his most human trait. It is above all else what makes it possible for him—or anyone else—to grow and learn. Without it, our ancestors would never have come down out of the trees.

The young child knows that bigger people know more about he world than he does. How they feel about it affects, and in time may determine, how he feels about it. If it looks good to them, it will to him.

The young child counts on the bigger people to tell him what the world is like. He needs to feel that they are honest with him, and that, because they will protect him from real dangers that he does not know or cannot imagine, he can explore safely.

We can only grow from where we are, and when we know where we are, and when we feel that we are in a safe place, on solid ground.

We cannot be made to grow in someone else’s way, or even made to grow at all. We can only grow when and because we want to, for our own reasons, in whatever ways seem most interesting, exciting, and helpful to us. We have not just thoughts but feelings about ourselves, our world, and the world outside our world. These feeling strongly affect and build on each other. They determine how we grow into the world, and whether we can grow into it.”

– John Holt, “What Do I Do Monday?”

Can You Find Your Calling?

Consider the story of the famous Spanish bullfighter, Manolete (1917 – 1947), whose life was the subject of the 2008 film The Passion Within (UK) starring Adrien Brody.  No matter what you think of bullfighting, the story of Manolete’s calling has some interesting things to say about the journey of self-directed learning.

Born Manuel Laureano Rodríguez Sánchez, Manolete would grow up to change the face of bullfighting, inventing new methods and revitalizing the ideals of el corrida de toros, which some would say holds the soul of Spain.  And yet, Manolete was a timid and fearful boy.

Delicate and sickly, having almost died of pneumonia when he was two, little Manuel was interested only in painting and reading.  He stayed so much indoors and clung so tightly to his mother’s apron strings that his sisters and other children used to tease him.  Around his hometown, he was known as “a thin, melancholy boy who wandered around the streets after school lost in thought.  He rarely join other boys’ games of soccer or playing at bullfighting.”  This all changed “when he was about eleven, and nothing else mattered much except the bulls.”

– Barnaby Conrad, The Death of Manolete

As James Hillman tells it, “at his first corrida, Manolete, hardly out of short pants, stands his ground without moving a foot — and does in fact suffer a groin wound, which he regards diffidently, refusing to be helped home to Mother, so as to return with the comrades with whom he came.”

Was a dim knowledge of the call there all along?  Then of course little boy Manolete was afraid and clung to his mother.  Of course he kept away from torero games in the street, taking shelter in the kitchen.  How could this nine-year-old boy stand up to his destiny?  In [the acorn of his soul] were thousand-pound black bulls with razor-sharpened horns thundering toward him, among them Islero, the one that gored him through groin and belly and gave him death at age thirty and the largest funeral every witnessed in Spain?

… Manolete exhibits a basic fact:  the frail competencies of a child are not equal to the demands of their daimon [or destiny].  Children are inherently ahead of themselves, even if they are given low grades and held back.  One way for the child is to race ahead, as in the famous cases of Mozart and other “infant prodigies” who benefit from good guidance.  Another way is to shrink back and hold the daimon [or destiny] at bay, as did Manolete in his mother’s kitchen.

James Hillman, The Soul’s Code:  In Search of Character and Calling

At Open Doors, our teens do come to us with their code written deeply into their souls, their calling hidden among the glimpses we get of their passions, fears, and dearly-held opinions.  It is up to us, the adults, to listen and to become a student of that code.  Come to our events to find out how we help teens discover who they really are.

 

Member Feature: Evolving My Dream

By Adena Koslek   

Tara self-portrait in shadows
Tara Burns: Self-Portrait in Shadows

In this interview, Tara Burns sat with me and shared her experience since she opted out of her old high school and jumped into the self-directed approach of the Open Doors Center for Self-Directed Learning. Tara is a teen who went on a quest in the summer of 2013 to find out who she could become without the distractions of traditional school, something her experience told her “didn’t quite fit with what she was feeling within.” It was so pleasing to hear of her empowering experience at Open Doors. Tara went from having low attendance and low grades in her traditional school setting to feeling pangs of guilt if she ever has to miss a single class at Open Doors.

The insight gained by her self-directed studies has helped Tara discover what had long been her inner dream: to become an Art Therapist. Tara’s confidence has increased now that she has a specific direction in life: not only does it feel great, but she is pleased that the outcome is going to benefit others.  Within six months of being at Open Doors, Tara is able to take significant steps to begin actualizing her desired future. With assistance from Rebecca Kirk, the Director of Open Doors, she’s been developing a Personal Learning Plan which includes setting up interviews and internship possibilities to help her learn and grow in the direction of her dream.

Here’s the interview:

Adena: Who do you feel you were when you began at Open Doors?

Tara: I didn’t know. But, I was excited. It felt like new things and opportunities in life were happening. High School was feeling really “out of reach” for me after freshman year. It felt impossible. I tried Online Schooling but that wasn’t fun.

Adena: What was the biggest need that was not being met in your traditional school setting?

Tara: It felt like subjects were being pushed. Like, we would start something I was interested in and then we would change the topic in a couple days and begin talking about things I wasn’t really interested in. I really wanted to keep studying the subject I was interested in more deeply.

Adena: What are some of the classes you are taking now and your opinions of them?

Tara: I am learning a lot in all my classes. I know we don’t do grades here, but (giggle) I would give me an A in every one of them. (We both laughed.) I like the U.S. History Class because I am really drawn to learning about Civil Rights and we are really staying focused on that because that’s what the class members want. Personal Finance is interesting because when I took the little test on “what I knew” before the class started it was interesting to see what the answers to things like ‘saving’, ‘taking care of yourself’ and ‘paying bills’ really were. And I love my Film Studies class. I am also learning some really neat things in a class called Stalking The Wild Asparagus which teaches about wild edibles. I also take a Non-Violent Communication class with many of the adult members, and a Feeling and Critical Thinking class; both of which are very helpful when considering the direction I want to continue to take with Art Therapy.

Adena: Is Open Doors satisfying you as your needs grow and evolve?

Tara: Yes. I feel more freedom creatively and I like knowing where I take my education is my responsibility.

Adena: In order to opt out of traditional school and take the challenge to become Self-Directed here at Open Doors, a member must become homeschooled under the law. When your family first learned of this, how did they feel?

Tara: Excited for something new. My mom was very skeptical. It wasn’t until after our first meeting with Rebecca that she really began to feel more settled. It’s not what people might think.

Adena: What did you want to do with your life when you came to Open Doors and has that changed?

Tara: I couldn’t really say when I came here, but I knew I felt “Art Therapy.” I could sorta feeeel it inside me as an idea. Not really a concrete reality. It wasn’t until Open Doors members helped me learn how to research those things that I learned it was a real job! Art in my old high school was mostly me sitting with a group of kids who really didn’t care about art. It was a lot of talk about drugs and whatever their homework was for another class, but never art the way I wanted to learn about it. I don’t even think the art teacher knew my name. I’m pretty sure she called me by a completely different name during conferences.


After the interview, Tara got back to her projects and I to mine. At Open Doors we are pleased about the versatility that the timeless clock offers us and the great pleasure it brings to work with teens who simply need some respect and the opportunity to learn in their own unique way.

Adena Koslek is an Instructor and Teen Coach, as well as a founding member of the Leadership Team of Open Doors.

 

 

A Self-Directed Teen Speaks

A member of the Compass Centre for Self-Directed Learning in Ontario, Willow shares her story.  “I looked from the outside like I was thriving in school,” she says.  In actuality, “I had succumbed to the anxiety of school work, social pressures, and the constant feeling that I was only worth the grades I received.”

Even though she was unhappy, it was difficult for Willow to leave the established norm of traditional school.  We know it can be difficult for our teens and families, too.  Willow’s words of advice to those teens who are thinking about leaving school:

“You may feel lost and alone, but this life you are considering will be so much more meaningful to you, because it will be your own life, and in the end, that’s all that counts.”

Nurture What They Love

 

From The Mother List:

Kristine Barnett’s son Jacob was diagnosed with autism when he was 2, and doctors said he would never speak. She tried special education programs and therapies aimed at addressing his limitations. When teachers told her there was no hope, she rebelled and took her own path.

“A lot of people thought that I had lost my mind,” she recalls.

Instead of focusing on Jacob’s limitations, Kristine nurtured his interests. Now her 15-year-old son is on track to win a Nobel Prize for his work in theoretical physics.

Relying on the insights she developed at her in-home daycare, Kristine resolved to follow Jacob’s “spark” — his passionate interests. Why concentrate on what he couldn’t do? Why not focus on what he could? This philosophy, along with her belief in the power of childhood play, helped her son grow in incredible ways.

This is our approach at Open Doors.  We focus on what your teen loves — that passion will lead to a world of learning!  We can’t guarantee a Nobel Prize in Physics, but we can help your teen become happier, more confident, and more fulfilled in his or her learning.

Come see us to find out more, or support our scholarship fund.

Breathing

A few weeks ago, we had a new member join Open Doors.  Cecilia is fourteen years old and passionate about science, particularly biology and the healing arts.  But she noticed that nobody else at her school seemed to be as passionate as she was — they didn’t even want to be there.

Cecilia is also a hands-on learner:  the rote memorization required before she could dissect a simple worm felt lifeless and meaningless to her.  In her science class last year, the class got to do only one dissection, and her teacher had to leave the room because she was squeamish.

Cecilia was looking for people who could match her passion and meet her need for hands-on learning.  In her first week at Open Doors, she was dissecting pig’s lungs, facilitated by Rebecca Kirk — our director, a science teacher, and a hands-on learner herself.  Rebecca picked lungs first because the tissue feels and looks differently than any other tissue, and it’s not what you would expect.

lungs deflated and inflated
Pig’s lungs — first deflated, then inflated. Breathe out, breathe in.

Since that first dissection, Cecilia has her learning hands everywhere — feeling the chambers of a pig’s heart (in another dissection), drawing dissection diagrams, and even helping a veterinarian as he makes his rounds.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

She’s also full of explorations and questions.

“I feel like I know almost nothing about chemistry — where should I start?”  (We suggested Hunting the Elements, an excellent NOVA special.)

“It feels like humans are easier to help heal than animals — at least humans can tell you what’s wrong.”  (We passed on the DVD of Temple Grandin, to show how Dr. Grandin’s autism helped her understand cows through careful observation.  The reference to autism led elsewhere …)

“That’s another area — how the brain works.  I want to see it work.  And what causes it to work differently in some people?”  (It turns out that Cecilia was already pursuing a visit to a neurosurgeon at work.  After further conversation, we passed on a Psychology Today article called “Confessions of a Sociopath,” about functional sociopaths, which includes a bit about the role of genetics and environment on the brain.)

Then it was on to the Internet as we discussed cancer and how cells might replicate and what was known and unknown in that field.

Learning.  Often it’s as natural as breathing.

 

 

Media isn’t Passive

Some time ago, we heard an adult complain about a young person, the kind of complaint that seems to be pretty common about teens in general:  “He watches South Park, listens to music on his iPod, plays video games on his Xbox but has NO INTEREST in learning even the basics.  Kids today just seem to want passive stimulation.”

“Passive stimulation”?  That’s becoming a very foreign concept to us here at Open Doors.

For instance, some folks associated with Open Doors have a background in Film and Film Production. We notice that they’re always pointing out *how* TV shows and movies are made—how the perspective was framed, how the editing decisions worked with the overarching philosophy, as well as “how did they get that shot?” questions. That’s part of the conversation around here when we’re watching something together, or talking about what we’ve watched.

 

Those of us who have studied the dramatic arts watch a different set of skills at work:  the actors’ choices in every scene.  Contrary to the belief that actors are just glorified line-readers, actors develop a way of walking, of talking, of moving in relation to each character and their emotions.  For those who excel at their art, they can show us a character’s vulnerability in one gesture, one hesitation.  That’s some powerful stuff — enough to make you rewind and watch again, just to appreciate it.

The writers among us are always looking at the story behind the story as well. How is the plot structured?  What are the creators accomplishing by giving this action to that character?  We talk about those factors whether we’re discussing video games, TV shows, or movies. Our understanding is complex and is focused on the whole story system.  We explore each story as a fresh view of ideas that have been around for a long long time, some since the birth of human civilization.

As we’ve researched the video game industry, we’ve thought about the process behind the production—how the graphics are rendered, how some dialogue is written to be flexible enough to sound relevant at various stages of the game, how the process of creating the story is changed by adding interactivity.  We like to imagine the project management aspect of each game, especially the big ones.  There are passionate game designers in the industry, looking to push this media into new directions and tell new stories in different ways.  That’s exciting.

Many of us at Open Doors are music lovers. We love to scour out-of-the-way places for new music to share, and there are times our members are just taken with the music. They think about how the music is put together, and why it speaks to them.

When we’ve experienced live music in the community that surrounds Open Doors,  we could see all the connections being made—how the instruments were played, how the sounds and the rhythms came together, how it feels to move to the music and let it all come together inside of us. Our knowledge and awareness of music is growing deep and wide—it’s not about “the basics,” but about a gestalt — a holistic, systemic approach.

When someone complains about the lack of learning in media (or a word we prefer not to use, “screentime”), you might wonder if they’re looking in the wrong places? Are they looking only to see what a teen is doing or producing?  Are they expecting learning to look a certain way?  Are they missing the fact that when we watch, listen, observe, and respond, we are building an inner understanding that is deep and wide and whole?

At Open Doors, the adults blend our own experience and knowledge with what our teens seem to like doing. We remember to ask questions and start where they are—we get into their interest and appreciate it and enjoy it.  We don’t dismiss their love of media — it counts, and it’s a great starting place for more. Going to concerts, finding out how different bands have influenced each other, figuring out how people have made the movies they’ve posted on YouTube, researching FAQs, talking with different kinds of gamers, looking up the history of weapons that are used in video games, talking through the logic of different game strategies, looking up actors on IMDB—all of this keeps leading to more and more learning about how the world works, and about how the creative process works.

“Passive stimulation”?  No.  There is an aspect of of letting the experience fill us and wash through us as we consider how to how to store it and bring it into our worldview.  As Helen Luke says, “The person who quietly responds with intense interest and love to people, to ideas, and to things, is as deeply and truly creative as one who always seeks to lead, to act, to achieve.  The qualities of receptivity, of nurturing in silence and secrecy are as essential to creation as their [more active] opposites.”

Come see us to find out more.