Saturday, August 05, 2000

Awkward age

Preteens need to be needed

        Early adolescence is the age of invisibility, not invincibility, as is often thought.

        When you are 10 or 12, it is possible to get lost in plain sight. You stand in line at a store, and the clerk passes over you and waits on an adult. You stand on the fringe of a group of adults understanding full well what they're discussing, but nobody invites you in.

        You stand watching the world — seeing a million places you could contribute — but no one wants your help until you're 15 or 16. By then, you've moved on to other things.

        The loss to the child, and to the rest of us, is inestimable. A young adolescent needs nothing so much as to be needed. And he or she has a great deal to contribute — clear thinking, honesty, a burgeoning social consciousness, a refreshingly forthright way with others.

Adolescents at work
        How wonderful, then, when somebody actually understands what 9- to 12-year-olds can do.

        Register for a tour this summer at the Weston Art Gallery in the Aronoff Center, and your guide will likely be a Harry Potter aficionado. A program called Docentitos puts young adolescents in charge of interpreting exhibits for individuals and groups. The young docents, ages 9 to 12, went through an intensive two-week training camp to prepare, spending eight-hour days discussing visual art, meeting artists, being quizzed with pop tests and flashcards.

        It worked. As guides, they are confident, enthusiastic and engaging.

        Francesca Veitch, 11, walks a group through an exhibit of African American folk art, stopping silently in front of a stark painting of an anguished woman watching a lynching.

        “This painting is so vivid you can feel the woman's pain,” she says finally, describing the bold colors and themes of Kentucky artist O'Leary Bacon, whom she has recently met.

        Upstairs, Amy Fletcher, 12, explains Patrick Dougherty's towering woven sculpture to a group from the Madisonville Senior Center. She tells them the formal tour talk — that this is installation art, built specifically for this site — then adds a fresh, joyful perspective that only a kid would think to bring. “The artist used young saplings and vines, and there were seeds all over. Some of us had sneezing fits,” she says with a grin.

        The preteens are a perfect fit for the docent position, says gallery director Dennis Harrington. “It's before cynicism sets in. They're totally open, and sponges to the information. It's a unique opportunity for a unique age.”

Dedicated to the job
        Assistant director Kelly O'Donnell, who oversees the program, says the students are more intensively trained than are adult volunteers. “They do homework. They take tests. We set very high standards for them.”

        Then she adds, “We depend on them.”

        It is the key that unlocks every adolescent door.

        They become dependable when we are willing to depend on them.

        They assume responsibility when we give them something to care about.

        They live up to what we believe them to be — competent or careless, ambitious or lazy.

        And when we let them share in the real work of the world — what they long for — they are wiser, kinder and more committed than we could ever have imagined.


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