Serving Full T.I.L.T. : Empathy, remembering what it’s like to be a teen and how it helps us be better teen services librarians
In the summer before I began my Junior year of high school my family moved. Again. That’s what happens when you are a military family. But even though you know it’s going to happen, it doesn’t make it suck any less. A few weeks into the new semester at a new school I received a devastating phone call. My best friend in the universe had been in a car accident. That morning my mother woke up and drove me the 3 hours to visit her in the hospital. One week later, the phone rang again early in the morning and I knew. With the shrill trilling ring of that phone I knew: my best friend had died.
A few days later I sat outside a pizza place as our friends inside laughed and joked and told stories about Teri. But I didn’t understand how they could do that, how they could eat, how they could laugh, how they weren’t dying inside. This wasn’t my first experience with death, that had come earlier when a friend of my father’s took his own life. It was just my first experience with death in a way that was so immediate and personal. I had already lost so much, moving and starting over, and now this person was gone. This person that I had made batches and batches of rice krispie treats with (it was our favorite). This person I had obsessed over Duran Duran with. This person that had shared my first concert experience with (yes, it was Duran Duran). This person that had helped me navigate my first dates, my first boyfriend, my first everything.
Years later, as a teen librarian, I would be in a room full of teens many times when they had just learned of the death of a classmate or friend. The boy who was in a car accident drag racing on a Saturday night. The girl with childhood cancer. The boy who took his own life. And as those teens sat in the room with me, crying and remembering their friend, I am always taken back to this moment, this memory of Teri. And because I could remember, I could empathize. I felt their pain so genuinely because I know visceral how this pain feels.
The thing I have often found about the staff who complain about teens in the library is that they have forgotten what it is like to be a teen. I understand wanting to forget, being a teen sucked in epic ways. That constant struggle between wanting independence and the adults around you fighting for control. The expectations. The stress. The way the adults around you want you to be act like an adult but still treat you like a kid. Then there are friends and boyfriends and the high school hierarchy. Your body often feels like it is betraying you, causing you to rage with anger in one moment when in the next you are reduced to a puddle of insecurity and sometimes tears. The zits that pop up on your face that make you want to wear a paper bag. The anticipation of when you like a new person at school, the heartache when you learn that they don’t feel the same way. That first kiss. That moment when you realize it’s all over.
One of my favorite staff training exercises is to invite my co-workers to try and remember what it was like when they were teens. What was your favorite song or tv show or movie, I’ll ask. What did they mean to you? What were your fears? What were your favorite moments? Biggest embarrassments? You don’t even have to ask them to share it out loud, that’s not the point. The point is to remember. And when you remember, when you put yourself back in the shoes of your teenage self, you can better understand and empathize with teenagers today.
Serving Full T.I.L.T. (Teens in Libraries Today) series:
January 14 By the Numbers, making the case for teen services using basic demographic information (Karen Jensen)
January 21 Sarcasm, Spice and Everything Awesome: The Developing Teen (Rebecca Denham)
January 28 Teen Brain Science 101 (Heather Booth)
February 4 Asset Building 101, How using the 40 Developmental Assets can help us plan and evaluate teen programming (Karen Jensen)
February 11 Diverse teens, diverse needs (Eden Grey)
February 18 Sharing stories, how knowing and sharing the stories of our teens can help make the case (Heather Booth)
February 25 Empathy, remembering what it means to be a teen and how it makes us better teen services librarians (Karen Jensen)
March 4 A Teen Services 101 Infographic (Rebecca Denham and Karen Jensen)
March 11 Talking Up Teens: Discussing Teen Services with Library Administration (Eden Grey)
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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