Talking about the teenage years

Fardowsa Mohamed is NZ-born of Somali descent, and says sometimes she doesn't know where she belongs. Photo / NZ Herald
Fardowsa Mohamed is NZ-born of Somali descent, and says sometimes she doesn't know where she belongs. Photo / NZ Herald

At the time, the trials and tribulations of being a teenager are all-encompassing. Here are two perspectives on the teenage years - one looking forward, the other looking back.

JUST STARTING OUT

Fardowsa Mohamed's family is from Somalia although she was born in New Zealand. She plans a career in science and medicine and is a youth leader for Mixit, a multi-cultural platform for young people, from refugee, migrant and local backgrounds.

"Being 17 is a time in my life where everything seems so important. Graduation from high school is like entering a brave new world as I try to navigate my way through the confusing world of securing employment and other areas I must master before I become totally independent. All seem like the world's heftiest tasks. I am naturally inclined to idealistic and hopelessly ambitious dreams, and every day I seem to find out how little I know, or maybe how little I understand, about the world I live in. I think that's the difficulty of being a young person of the 21st century - the world is moving forward at unfathomable speeds and we have to find a way to set ourselves up so we can keep up, and to also answer the ultimate question 'How am I relevant to the happenings of this big world?'

"Perhaps it is through social networking that my peers and I are most affected by this expanding world. I love social networking. I find that the connections I can make all over the world and knowledge I gain from it is remarkable. The friendships I have maintained, and the influence I feel I've had on Facebook has been equally irreplaceable. My relationships have evolved from being based only on face-to-face communication, to existing in at least four different mediums. But, as I've learned, social networking is not all emoticons and breezy chatting. I've seen in the teenage world that it is becoming more and more rare to meet people and engage with them in person. Not only this, but when you have to constantly switch your mind from Facebook mode to texting mode and back to one-on-one interaction, social skills often fall through the cracks. We may be losing our ability to simply talk to one another without even knowing it. I feel this is a challenge teenagers face, and perhaps this issue may be more noticeable in the generation after mine.

"One of my greatest challenges would come from being Somali by ethnicity. I was born and raised in New Zealand, but being fluent in Somali and having obvious influence from my parents, I am a mix of Somali and New Zealander. At times, it gives me perspective - the ability to speak another language, understand different cultures, and perhaps be better able to adapt to different environments outside of New Zealand - but other times, it is like sitting between two chairs and ending up falling on the ground, not belonging to either. It is both a gift, and a challenge and sometimes people around me are great, and sometimes not - especially with the repeated and irritating question, 'Where are you from originally?'

"When it comes to teenage social circles, with their cliques and groups and obsession with arranging people in neat categories, it can be almost impossible to avoid being labelled as something limiting, especially if you are an ethnic minority. However, it is amazing when you can find a place where you are simply what you make of yourself regardless of ethnicity, religion or stereotype. This place for me is Mixit. Mixit is a project aimed at youth with refugee backgrounds, mixing it up with migrants and locals. It's a workshop-based project in which we explore ourselves through the performing arts. I never knew what performing arts could do for my self-confidence, and it is only at Mixit that I see how much there is left to learn about myself. Here, there is no judgment; there is just fun and development. It is true the world is accelerating forward like a boy racer these days, but there are times where I love the simplicity of the teenage life. And at Mixit, life is at its simplest."

OLDER & WISER?

Sue Brewster is the CEO of the Sweet Louise Foundation which offers support and services to New Zealand women living with secondary or advanced breast cancer.

"Dear Sue,

You seem familiar. Have we met before? Ah yes, I remember you from some 30 years ago when hitch-hiking was an accepted mode of transport, small change came in the form of 1 and 2 cent pieces and elastic-waisted muslin skirts were all the rage (what were you thinking?). Wow, how time has changed some things , while others remain untainted.

"How to reacquaint myself with you? I looked back through old school reports and fading polaroid photos. I had to look in five different places but finally found these stowed away treasures which contained forgotten (sometimes conveniently) evidence of our journey together. It was lovely and refreshing to read common threads of compliments from teachers about the teenage you. 'Suzanne is a delightful and mature class member', 'She is a charming, vivacious student who is a natural leader and very capable' and 'Sue has an excellent personality, always positive and cheerful'. Those traits are still inherent parts of the mature you - they have helped with resilience, attributes that are called on in challenging times, that you would have used 30-something years ago to see you through the tough times of emerging into uncharted territories. The comments that I am less proud of (maybe a mix-up in report writing?) are from teachers that you and friends often pushed to the edge or from frustrated teachers who saw your potential - 'She needs to take care she does not distract others', 'More control and less volume is required", "I am sure Suzanne can bring her results up to what she is very capable of with more effort', 'A consistent study programme is needed.'

"What I would tell you now is that life is all about the effort. The more you put in, the more you get out. You put in half, you get out half. No amount of potential will ever be realised without doing the hard yards. Effort can help you grab hold of your dreams and nail them. Effort is the victor of complacency. Effort brings about the most satisfying levels of achievement, be they at the very upper end of excellence or the very best you can do. E for Effort should be a constant on your report card of life, adding in Energy and Enthusiasm. I am saying to you what I say to my daughters who are just on the cusp of becoming adolescents - 'I don't care if you aren't top of the class as long as you have tried your very best'. Then I tell them to go and tidy their rooms, which look just like yours used to.

"And what about time? Where did it go? How did those 30-odd years go by so fast? When you're 16, time is eternal and normally measured in good times and bad times. In the role I have now as the mature Sue, I know that time is one of the most precious commodities you can have. You see, I work for Sweet Louise and we help women and men with incurable secondary breast cancer. These women and men know the true value of time because that is what they have had taken away from them. As a teenager, your concept of time is that it is boundless and you can have as much of it as you want - a lifetime, I suppose, but that isn't so. Your time can be cut short, whittled away, spent waiting for something better, thinking it's up to someone else, seeking the green grass.

"So younger muslin-wearing Sue, my advice to you would be stop wasting that gold nugget of time and use it like the gem it is. I was just reading a published story from one of our Sweet Louise women, Vicki Wall, before writing this letter and here's one of her gems to share ...

'Someday I will not wake up. That is okay but I do not want it to be soon. I want people to remember me for who I am so try to live my life well. I may not always be right but I have fun, seeking the truth, learning, being grateful and finding joy. Laughter is food for the soul. I will stop and be present so I do not miss those moments of joy. I am grateful. I am strong. I love and I am loved. I am human. My life is a moment in time and I will always try to live it well.'*

"So would I do it any differently if I was a teenager again? Yes and no - no to muslin skirts, yes to effort, yes to making more of opportunities early on. Looking back 30 years, there is much to be thankful for. For liberal, caring parents who gave me boundaries but not restraints. For being allowed to take teenage risks but being grounded by good base values. For being given the confidence to back myself but not being afraid to speak up when times became too tough to navigate myself. For having the family, friends and love in teenage years that delivered me to where I am today. Yours, 46 years young ... Sue."

* Taken from To Live My Life Well, in Gratitude by Vicki Wall (Oysters for Lunch, The Louise Perkins Foundation, 2011) which is available here

- NZ Herald

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