I’m going to say it: Jessica Watson isn’t so extraordinary.
Okay, so maybe a little. The whole globe-circumnavigation-solo thing is completely amazing, but as someone to whom a trip to the Western suburbs counts as exploring, I can’t even really fathom that. Let alone comment on it.
What I would like to comment on is Watson’s tender age. She’s not yet 17. That a teenager was able to execute such a sailing feat is exciting news not because it proves that she’s an exceptional teenager but rather that she has exceptional adults in her life.
I used to spend a lot of my time around a lot of teenagers. Some of the teens I taught were incredibly clever and sensitive, some were boisterous and impulsive, some were irritating and self-centred. All were capable of understanding complex ideas and of taking on responsibilities — with varying degrees of success. In other words, they were, um, people.
I recall that one of the more difficult aspects of teacher-training for me (and I think, my peers) was learning to approach the young people in my classroom as their superior. Traditional education (that is, the school system), demands that there is “classroom discipline”, requiring that teachers command respect and maintain a certain professional distance from their students. That’s the way to do it in a regular classroom and that’s the way I did it. But wow, those early weeks of learning to say “sit at your desk and listen quietly now please” with authority to people who were at times only five years younger than me, were very difficult. Because I didn’t believe – don’t believe – that I was inherently different to or superior to them. What was between them and me was some education, a few years of life experience, and the authority bestowed on me by largely arbitrary school rules. (I did get used to it, though, and learned that sometimes professional distance is vitally important as well as convenient, and that when students actually do sit down and listen quietly in an environment where learning is set up to depend upon that kind of formal behaviour, things work much better. And yeah, teenagers are quite capable of learning to sit down and listen without being told but there are most certainly times when it is far more efficient to just tell them already and get to the questions on page 33.)
But the efficiency of educational processes notwithstanding, the reality remains that the stereotype of the surly, irresponsible teenager may say a lot more about adults and our prevailing power structures than it does about young people themselves. So, what is extraordinary about the Jessica Watson story is not so much that a person of that age has displayed great skill, physical endurance, intelligence and courage, but that her parents and presumably other important adults in her life supported her in what certainly seemed like a completely outrageous dream.
When we talk of young people “growing up too fast these days”, we don’t really mean growing into maturity. We mean that they are being exposed to narrow and damaging expectations of gendered behaviour at very young ages. (Behaviours – hyper-sexualised or violent – that we rightfully attribute to the adult realm.) But being exposed to pornified culture isn’t really growing up – or if it is, it is only one facet of growing. Because working in tandem with this increasingly early exposure to certain types of adult content is a decrease in the amount of autonomy and independence that children and teenagers are allowed to enjoy and learn from. In the name of ‘safety’ – and for other social, economic and ideological reasons – we are loathe to trust young people to do almost anything unsupervised. (For more commentary on that phenomenon, Free Range Kids is a good place to start.)
This certainly isn’t all down to parents — I think it’s very clear that parents are actually struggling to deal with the intense expectations placed on our parenting. Certainly, before Jessica Watson set off on her ground-breaking trip, a lot of media commentary slammed her parents as everything from delusional about their daughter’s capabilities to blatantly uncaring for allowing her to risk her life.
She was risking her life (though not recklessly or flippantly). But she was also clear about her reasons for doing so and displayed great determination and courage. That she was two years off voting age didn’t – doesn’t – seem entirely relevant. And I think that’s refreshing.
In today’s Age I read an interesting article about blogging by Steph Bowe, a teenager who is soon to have her first novel published. Melina Marchetta famously wrote the teen novel well-remembered by most in my generation, Looking for Alibrandi, at 16. In fact, very young authors, song writers and activists are at work all of the time.
Even so, it is very difficult for a young person to be taken seriously. This wonderful post by Chally about ‘coming out’ as a teenager says it all really.
I don’t advocate that we stop parenting teens, as if they don’t still have something to learn from their parents (they almost certainly do: most adults could learn a thing or two from more experienced adults too!) And I’m not suggesting that a grand gesture of independence like that made by Jessica Watson is what every young person needs to make. But I do hope that once images of her safe arrival at Sydney Harbour are no longer monopolising the Australian media, that Jessica’s own assertion that she is ‘ordinary’ is remembered. Because ordinary young people deserve the right to try extraordinary things; and sometimes just asking to be judged only on one’s own merits as a human being, is extraordinary.