#7: May Retreat: ‘Just a Kid’: Teenagers Thinking Outside the Box

Part I:

During this school year, I have had to prioritize and compartmentalize more than I ever have before. Multi-tasking seems a necessary skill for most teenagers, yet it is a department in which I am terribly lacking. However, ‘What’s the Story?’ has aided me greatly in concealing my incompetence as it has taught me to organize my priorities and tackle them one at a time. In school, I am constantly being asked questions to assess my ability to analyze or problem-solve or comprehend, but ‘What’s the Story?’ is not an assessment. It is not another way to judge me and see how I measure up against a standard. ‘What’s the Story?’ has forced me to ask my own questions and come up with my own standards and goals.

At first, it was overwhelming. How could I, as a high school sophomore, rack up nearly that amount of motivation and willpower? That’s adult stuff, you know? But as I dove into the topic of mental healthcare history, stigma and accessibility– a topic that I really care about– I found myself asking questions and answering them without even thinking twice. My curiosity was strong enough to motivate and inspire me to create something that would help others feel the way that I feel. This meant that I had no trouble with self-direction as I often do when I find myself finalizing essays three minutes before they’re due. Often, the only thing that inspires me to write papers or do homework is the due date, but ‘What’s the Story?’ has no due dates, and I had no shortage of inspiration.

As the year progressed, I found myself drawn more and more into my project. I was excited to see what would come of it and what we could change. I wanted to showcase as many points of view as I could on mental healthcare because I wanted everyone to feel represented. I got caught up in the excitement and scale of it all. Knowing that mental healthcare can be a hard subject to talk about, as it is quite touchy and the language is ambiguous, I knew that my team and I couldn’t afford to misrepresent anyone or anything in regard to mental healthcare. In fact, people shy away from mental healthcare so often for fear of misrepresenting them, resulting in a lack of education and leaving little to no room for empathy. My team and I worked well together, and we got better as the year went on. We became much more effective in communicating with one another and that meant that we also became better friends.

Another thing that I enjoyed about ‘What’s the Story?’ was that no one ever told me how I was supposed to think about something. In high school, students are given prompts and told how to answer them– how to think about them. For example, in my classes I am often told that the questions I want to answer are too big for someone like me. “Someone could do years of research and write a three-volume series on this topic,” but no one ever thinks that that person might be a high school student. At ‘What’s the Story?’ your interpretation– your analysis– is your own responsibility and your own creation. Your topic can’t be “too big” because ‘What’s the Story?’ recognizes that every topic is equally huge and deep and that anyone can write a three-volume series on it if they set their mind to it. If you look hard enough, you will find someone to back up your claim, no matter how far fetched it may seem. Evidence can be what you like. There is evidence for any theory if you look hard enough. If you want a question answered, answer it. If you want an answer proved, prove it.

As a result of this new way of thinking, I feel as though I have also opened my mind to other perspectives. I have learned to keep an eye out for other stories that people seek to tell and other changes they hope to inspire. I can’t wait to see what comes of this.

Part II:

I think that what I didn’t expect to learn in ‘What’s the Story?’ is how complicated people are. My interviewees were so much more than their positions as psychologists or nurses, their struggles with their own mental health or their ideals. They were all complex and unique characters. It is hard to capture that in documentaries so the casual observer might be able to really feel that and understand it. The fact of the matter is that there should be no casual observers of your work. Your work should challenge and inspire and force understanding on people who have avoided it all of their lives. It should be scary and dangerous because that is how you push boundaries because everyone has a story that is worth listening to.

Earlier this retreat, we were all sitting around the campfire, eating s’mores and singing along to Fiona’s guitar. None of us were singing in the same key and we probably sounded awful. But then someone, I don’t remember who, had the idea that we should sing the “acoustic version of Toxic by Britney Spears.” Now anyone who has heard that song knows that it is not an acoustic, campfire song, but nonetheless, we gave it a shot.

“I’ll say this,” said Bob, standing over all of us and looking around, both amused and bewildered. “I’ve never heard Britney Spears around a campfire before.”

“Welcome to Generation Z!”

I think that this perfectly encompasses ‘What’s the Story?’ not because the acoustic version of Toxic was necessarily a good idea, but because it was an idea, about as far-fetched as you can get when it comes to campfire music. We tried it, we failed, but we had a good time and a good laugh and we moved on to Riptide. No one discouraged us, no one advised us against it, and even though the stakes were about as low as they could be, even though we all knew it would likely end badly, we tried it anyways.

‘What’s the Story?’ is a program unlike any other that opens up a new generation, often written off as ‘screenagers’ or ‘overachievers,’ and challenges us to answer one simple question. “What’s the story?” and through this program we have come up with several documentaries with several different answers to that same question. We all think differently, we all have our own, complexly wonderful lives. We all have different perspectives and different ways of seeing the world. Yet, as teenagers, we are constantly told that we are not old enough to have ideas or opinions of our own. But we do! We have so many ideas that on occasion, they overwhelm us and we need somewhere to let them out. Sure, not all of those ideas are gems, like the acoustic version of Toxic or Sexy Gandalf… However, other ideas like protecting Lake Champlain from blue-green algae, creating an environment in our schools where non-native speakers of English have the same opportunities as we do, helping migrant farm workers, thinking outside of the gender binary, bringing to light the connection between the dairy and veal industries in Vermont, creating multiple pathways for kids to journey through the education system that will utilize their unique learning styles… just to name a few are all incredible and challenging ideas that ‘What’s the Story?’ recognizes we cannot ignore.

I am often surprised by the fact that not everyone thinks the way that I do. Not everything that is important to me is important to everyone and there are things that I have never even thought about that my own peers are passionate about. Everyone has their own story and every single one of them deserves to be told.

Maisie Newbury

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