Every good story has four key elements; one person who is the protagonist, a group of people who are key players in the protagonist’s story, a problem, and a prize if the problem is solved or overcome. Luke becomes a Jedi and defeats the Empire with the guidance of Obi-wan and Yoda and his friends Leah, Han, Chewbacca, and a couple of robots. Frodo throws the ring into the fires of Mordor and protects peace in the Shire (while saving Middle Earth) with the guidance of Gandalf and the other diverse members of the fellowship. Daniel-san finds balance in spite of the Cobra Kai with the support of Mr. Miyagi, the babysitter, and his mom. Maria rescues her family (the von Trapps) from patriarchal authoritarianism and the Nazis by singing fa so la te do and falling in love. Harry defeats Voldemort with Ron, Hermoine, Hagrid, and Dumbledore. Simba becomes a wise king after a meerkat, a warthog, and a monkey help him overcome his self-doubt shame.
In a lot of our own stories over the last few years, our work together on the problem(s) has yet to produce the prize. As someone who works with the younger generation, I have observed that this is particularly true with kids. The statistics, educators, parents, and counselors support this observation. Depression, anxiety, anger, violence, and loneliness are way up.
I’ve heard many theories for why this is the case. Mostly centered around the impact of the pandemic. I agree in part. The pandemic provided a pretty potent problem. But I’d like to point out that for the protagonist in the kind of stories we want to read or watch, the problem they are confronted with usually calls forth a positive change that is guided by their community. Whether it’s an evil arch-villain, war, destructive weather, self-doubt, or sickness; the hero gains strength and emerges from the crucible with a boon to share with the larger community they serve. They grow from independent to interdependent. Sometimes from lonely to connected, ignorant to wise, and from beaten down and dejected to strong and victorious.
For so many kids struggling to navigate the halls, classes, and social structures of our schools right now, this is not the case. They entered into the pandemic problem and they are still in their crucible because they are fighting a battle with insufficient resources. In particular, they lack examples of and relationships with positive and caring adults.
It is not just the pandemic and that they missed a year of “normal” school (whatever that is). It was not just that their social lives suffered, their academic progress was stunted and they spent too much time on their phones or playing video games. All those things are true and the self-aware kids I know would tell you they are definitely factors. But that is not enough of an explanation. This is a complex problem with many complicated interdependent parts.
I write in a geeky, sciency, hopefully poetic way about belonging, storytelling, community building, deconstruction and construction,