Now. Living in the present moment. For better or for worse, it’s where young adults live. For adults, this can be frustrating. We have a keen sense of the past’s influence and perhaps a keener sense of what needs to be planned and prepared for the future. We want teenagers to understand the history of their grandparents, their country, their world. We want them to plan how they will accomplish all their schoolwork, involve themselves in activities that will become bridges to their futures, and we want them to work hard enough to keep open the doors to colleges, internships, and travel. How often have we heard the complaint tossed around about what’s being read in class? You know it. It’s so old! It has no relevance to me, today, now. How often have we felt the tension as young adults strive to seize the day? We all did it. Cut class on the first warm day of spring, left a class assignment undone to buy a prom dress, or got lost in a song played over and over again. Perhaps the intensity of Now in young adults’ lives is what drives so many YA authors to write in first person, present tense, focusing so often on short periods of time exploded out with all their nuances into whole stories.
The present moment, the now, is a gift. Teenagers are acutely aware of it, perhaps because they live in a land between fading childhood and endless adulthood. As an adult, my anxieties about the past and my plans for the future constantly distract me from the present moment. I covet young people’s ability to be present, but much as I strive to be present, to just be here now, it might be my greatest challenge. World-famous philosopher, Eckhart Tolle, urges us, “Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have.” How true. How true.
Teens today live in a unique brand of now. When I went off to college, I left my friends. We spread across the nation, lost to each other, save for the rare letter writer. But when my brother left for college ten years later, he took his friends with him. Through e-mail, then Facebook, and texting, he had constant access to the countless Nows of his friends and they to his. Technology is so often disparaged, especially as it relates to teens, but how spiritual, almost, to be able to tap into any one of your friends at any given moment, your now connecting to his.
Not that the power of Now, particularly as it relates to technology doesn’t come with its dangers. There is the obvious –plugged into the web, it is easy to disconnect from the now as it is forged to our location in space. Unplug, and you are not only present, but present here. At this crosshair of time and place, now becomes more challenging.
Living as part of technology’s social network also exposes young people to all kinds of media. I wonder sometimes if the ability to access information too quickly supersedes opportunities for personal, original thought. For instance, I’ve watched young student teachers create lesson plans by going straight to the Internet instead of considering their students’ needs and their own abilities.
It cannot go without mention that living in the social network presents young people with challenging dilemmas about materialism. They are targets for advertising, each keystroke personalizing the ads appearing on their screens. And how easy a trap to fall into. How easy to want that now, and with a click it is yours, arriving on your doorstep almost immediately. M.T. Anderson’s Feed is coming true.
But beware the other greater dangers of Now. Dangers that affect YA authors in particular. Now can be so powerful for teens it may blot out possible futures. I am thinking of Whaley’s Cullen and Zarr’s Jill whose college plans become stymied by their present circumstances. Clay and Hannah in Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why exist so in the present moment the tension in this novel blows through the roof! This novel gave me the only delicious migraine I ever had as I read on into the wee hours of the morning, unable, myself to leave the present moment for a rested tomorrow. In Thirteen Reasons Why, Clay receives a box of tapes from Hannah, who has recently committed suicide; on these tapes Hannah explains to thirteen people, including Clay, how they played a role in her death. Her two rules: You listen. And: You pass it on. [To the next person on the list.]
The tapes are so compelling they become all-consuming for Clay. All through the night, he keeps listening until, finally, after mailing the tapes on, [SPOILER AHEAD!] he encounters another student fading ghostlike from the social scene, and he must decide whether to acknowledge her. This final scene is haunting to read because Asher has built to it in a way that the very atoms in the air of that present moment are singing. Clay is a character who uses the power of now to grow. Hannah, on the other hand, so absorbed in the angst of her situation, cannot see beyond it. Hence the challenge to YA authors. To write in the present moment, but aim just high of its horizon so young adult readers might glimpse their way to the future. Jay Asher does this and more. Though Hannah is lost to the Now, Clay gives readers a glimpse of Now’s power to grow the next moment. And Asher’s vehicle of Hannah’s cassette tapes does an amazing job of bringing the past to bear on the present as well.
In Invitations to the World, Richard Peck describes YA Lit. as being “on a collision course with our readers’ most deeply held beliefs”, as testing the boundaries of those beliefs. If young adults believe in the Now, YA Lit. explores that territory, but also acknowledges what lies beyond that. It challenges Present Moment Beliefs like: Young people don’t die and Rules don’t apply to us, so that in the long run the young adult reader sees we are all, Hannah and Clay both, held responsible for the consequences of our actions.