The new student in the advanced English class, a 16-year-old, was a large, soft-looking young man with a round face, barely defined jaw, and floppy brown hair almost to his shoulders. Plumped in his seat, he reminded me of an oversize stuffed animal, a peluche. I expected him to be slow and quiet, perhaps bumbling, but instead he was an interesting combination of assertiveness and diffidence, full of opinions given without embarrassment—The view from this corner into the street is very nice! The lights in the street are pretty!—though in answering a question, he often paused in search of the right word, then expressed doubt that he had found it. His voice was loud and clear, and I liked him as soon as he spoke, and the feeling increased steadily, notching up every time I looked his way or he gave his opinion. At the end of the first class, he stood up and turned to the other two students, who were pulling on their coats, and said, “You know, these chairs are really comfortable!”
The chairs were old and battered desk chairs, not chairs for desks but ones that incorporated a writing surface and substituted for a desk. They were surprisingly durable and had lasted many years, but the Formica surfaces were nicked, the plastic strips on the rims of the seats and backs were peeling, and the glint of metal showed through the chipped black paint on the legs. I laughed and said, “That’s the first nice thing anyone has said about these chairs in a long time.”
“Really very comfortable,” he repeated.
He did not make the remark in passing but as if he’d discovered something of interest to everyone. I found him disarming. “I don’t know if you understand me,” he had said several times during class, squinching up his face in worry. He couldn’t be only 16, I thought. No 16-year-old could be so free of self-consciousness, so open. His demeanor suggested someone who had advanced beyond fear of what others thought. “I don’t know!” It wasn’t a disavowal but an appeal. In another class of 16-year-olds, the students routinely shrugged when they didn’t have the answer, and had I asked those students to elaborate, I feel sure they would have said, “Who cares?” Not this student. He cared enough to ask for help—help in choosing his words and shaping his sentences, not as in I can’t do it, you do it but as in Does this work? Communication appeared to be a team task. I was captivated.
So when on the second day he said that he believed high school students often questioned their purpose in life, I didn’t blink, though I had just minutes earlier suggested the opposite—that high school students generally don’t think about a purpose to their lives or wonder why they are here. They don’t think in terms of the meaning or point of their existence. At best, I believe, they think about the meaning or the point of a particular action or particular moment, but the trajectory they don’t question. They seem on the whole to be fairly confident that enjoyment is the point of life. To have a comfortable life, have friends to socialize with, a family, a job with a good salary, time for hobbies—this is what the high school students usually tell me they want from life. However, when I had asked the new student to select a statement that he agreed with from among the 10 we’d been looking at in the class book, he’d chosen the statement that said it is normal to start questioning your purpose in life when you’re young. “You agree with that?” I asked, to make sure.
“Do you know many people your age who do that? Or do you?”
“Yes,” he said and began to talk about what he wanted to do, and where he’d like to be, and what choices he might make. He often wondered, he said, about all of this. It occurred to me, looking at his very earnest, open face, that he was talking about what track to follow to reach his goals, but not about whether his goal was good, or whether any goal might exist beyond satisfying his own desires.
“Are you sure it’s purpose you’re talking about?” I asked. “I think it’s something a bit different.”
“Okay,” he said, cocking his head. He waited with an air of willing expectancy.
“Maybe it’s not a purpose you’re describing but a path.”
“Yes!” he said. He raised his fist as if in exaltation. “That’s exactly right. That’s the right word.” He smiled at me. “You got it!”
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.