Here’s the thing about adolescence, it can be lonely. Kids arrive at an interesting stage in their development when they reach the age of 10 or 11. This fraught stage of life is characterized by remarkable physical, intellectual, and emotional changes in the life of an adolescent. The typical pre-teen wonders, “Is it me, am I the only one feeling this way? It must be just me.” It’s a sublime irony that all of these kids find themselves together in middle school, surrounded by others who are undergoing the same singular experience, and yet they feel like they are the only ones.
They feel alone.
I recently read an interview with the phenomenal author of horror, supernatural fiction, suspense, science fiction and fantasy, Stephen King, one of my long-time favorites. He recounts that when he was younger, he was afraid to go into a certain room in his house because he was convinced that there was a bogeyman in there who wanted to get him. Naturally, King had a vivid idea of what this creature looked like and the horrible things it would do if it captured him. He avoided this room at all costs.
I enjoyed this story because when I was a kid, there was a certain closet in my house that terrified me. I was convinced there was a witch in there. In my imagination it was the Wicked Witch of the West, from the movie the Wizard of Oz. She’d jump out of the closet as I walked past and pull me into a dark void of terror from which I’d never return. I won’t compare my imagination to Stephen King’s but I had a vivid mental image of what it’d feel like. I had to pass that closet to get to my bedroom and I would do anything to avoid walking past it alone. Three of my brothers shared that bedroom with me and I would wait until one of them was already in bed before I’d go past that closet. If it was during the day, I’d trick one of my siblings to accompany me by telling him I had a new toy or baseball cards in the bedroom to show them (it worked every time).
But there was something that was even worse than my fear of the witch in the closet, it was my conviction that I was the only one who felt this way. I thought I was the only kid who was afraid of witches in closets. It made me feel somehow like I wasn’t normal, that I was different in a way that wasn’t OK. Little did I know that EVERY kid in America who’d ever seen the Wizard of Oz was afraid of that witch popping out of a closet in their house. If only I had shared my fear with somebody (did I mention that I have many siblings?), I’d have recognized that I wasn’t the ONLY one who felt this way, that I wasn’t alone. So here I am, so many years later, and it made me feel validated to read Stephen King describe his memorable dread of a particular room in his house. I wasn’t alone!
This got me thinking about the power of reading. This is exactly why it is important for young people to read, to read in large volume, to read many different kinds of books. There is a singular power in discovering our own experiences mirrored in another person’s on the printed page. For every adolescent who encounters fear or conflict or love, there is a person, real or imagined, whose life is described in words and whose experiences can help them realize they aren’t the only one. When kids read books, they come to recognize that the world contains innumerable thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
They realize, they are not alone.