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Photo illustration by Laura Weiler for The Free Press

A Constitution for Teenage Happiness

Ruby LaRocca—the winner of our high school essay contest—urges her generation to read old books, memorize poems, and invite senior citizens to parties.

Back in June, when we announced our first-ever high school essay contest, we invited teenagers to describe a problem troubling American society—and how they would fix it. We told young writers that we were especially interested in hearing about challenges older generations have misunderstood, missed, or maybe even created. 

More than 400 teenagers entered our competition. Yesterday we introduced you to two promising young writers: Caleb Silverberg, 17, who wrote “Why I Traded My Smartphone for an Ax” and Isabel Hogben, 16, who wrote “I Had a Helicopter Mom. I Found Pornhub Anyway.” 

But out of the hundreds of essays we read, one writer really stood out: 17-year-old Ruby LaRocca from Ithaca, New York. 

Ruby is a homeschooled rising senior. She told us she entered the contest because she believes in our mission of finding “the people—under the radar or in the public eye—who are telling the truth.” In addition to a lifetime subscription to The Free Press, Ruby’s essay has won her a $2,000 cash prize.

The Free Press high school essay contest winner Ruby LaRocca.

When we tried to reach Ruby to tell her about her win, she gave us the number for her mother’s cell phone because she doesn’t have one of her own. And when we asked her to respond to some of our edits, she said she’d tackle them as soon as she was done “putting in 15-hour days at a Latin program. I translated about 500 lines of the poet Propertius today!” 

All of which is to say: Ruby lives by her ideals, as you will see below. We look forward to seeing what she does next and we’re sure you’ll understand why. —BW 

When people ask me why I sacrificed the sociable, slightly surreal daily life at my local school for the solitary life of a homeschooled student in 2021, I almost never reveal the reason: an absence of books.

For many students, books are irrelevant. They “take too long to read.” Even teachers have argued for the benefits of shorter, digital resources. Last April, the National Council of Teachers of English declared it was time “to decenter book reading and essay writing as the pinnacles of English language arts education.” 

But what is an English education without reading and learning to write about books? 

Many of our English teachers instead encouraged extemporaneous discussions of our feelings and socioeconomic status, viewings of dance videos, and endless TED Talks. So five days into my sophomore year, I convinced my mother to homeschool me.

Distance from high school affords a clearer view of its perennial problems. As I head into my final year of homeschooling, I often think about the dilemma in American education, which perhaps should be called the student crisis (it’s also a teacher crisis). Students and teachers are more exhausted and fragile than they used to be. But reducing homework or gutting it of substance, taking away structure and accountability, and creating boundless space for “student voices” feels more patronizing than supportive. The taut cable of high expectations has been slackened, and the result is the current mood: listlessness.

Like human happiness, teenage happiness does not flourish when everyone has the freedom to live just as they please. Where there is neither order nor necessity in life—no constraints, no inhibitions, no discomfort—life becomes both relaxing and boring, as American philosopher Allan Bloom notes. A soft imprisonment.

So, here is my counterintuitive guide for teenage happiness:

#1. Read old books.

In Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, the profoundly human (i.e., imperfect) teacher, Hector, reminds his students that “The best moments in reading are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

Today’s teachers and students talk a lot about “relatability”; they want to see their own lives and experiences reflected in the books they read. I, however, am electrified when a book gives me the feeling Hector brilliantly describes—words from someone who is not at all like me, from a very different time and place, yet speaks words that feel written just for me.

Books that are “representative,” that are more easily “absorbed,” undermine the main reason to read them: to push readers beyond themselves in uncomfortable and productive ways.

Bloom wrote about the disappearance of books from our educational lives back in 1987. Books, he argued, “are no longer an important part of the lives of students. ‘Information’ is important, but profound and beautiful books are not where they go for it. They have no books that are companions and friends to which they look for counsel, companionship, inspiration, or pleasure. They do not expect to find in them sympathy for, or clarification of, their inmost desires and experiences.” 

The worst part is that we students are blind to the extent of our loss.

#2. Memorize poetry. Learn ancient languages.

In another scene from The History Boys, one English schoolboy preparing for Oxbridge entrance exams, Timms, asks Hector why they are reading the poetry of A. E. Housman instead of doing something “practical.” 

Timms: I don’t always understand poetry!

Hector: You don’t always understand it? Timms, I never understand it. But learn it now, know it now, and you will understand it. . . whenever.

Timms: I don’t see how we can understand it. Most of the stuff poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet.

Hector: But it will, Timms. It will. And then you will have the antidote ready!

Like Timms, I sometimes don’t understand what I’m learning or memorizing when I study poetry, but I believe Hector when he says it prepares us for the very real events of the world—going to war, falling in love, falling out of love, making a friend, losing a friend, having a child, losing a child. 

Understanding ancient authors as they understood themselves is the surest means of finding alternatives to our current way of seeing the world. It is what Bloom calls one of the most awesome undertakings of the mind. The first step to reading ancient authors is learning ancient languages—Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Old English. I have found the work of learning languages and the difficult art of translation to be the most taxing and pleasurable method of training my brain, combining technical rigor with poetic insight. It doesn’t matter if all the hours you spend studying gerundives, middle-passives, and semi-deponents seem to offer no immediate service. Learn them. It will serve you in a way you don’t yet know.

#3. Learn from the monks, and slow your pace—of reading, of writing, of thinking.

Someone once told me that I look like Martin Luther—you know, the sixteenth-century German clergyman who called for reformation in the Catholic Church. This comment referred to my bangs, which are somewhat short and monastic. I think it’s funny that my hairstyle echoes my lifestyle. I wake up at 6:00 a.m., work alone for many hours on subjects that seem arcane—Latin, German, applied mathematics—spend more hours caught up in an actual printed book, and get to bed at a very reasonable, grandmotherly hour (we have a family saying that “nothing good happens after 9:07 p.m.”). 

I used to think speed equaled competence. If you’re a motivated student, you may find yourself on the “accelerated” track. Instead of learning things that challenge you, you are simply rushed through the curriculum, “covering” concepts at a faster rate than your peers. Since I transitioned to homeschool, I never move on from a problem or subject before I am ready. I find knowing that I truly understand something—or at least, have spent time trying to know it, thus expanding my mind—far more rewarding than the fleeting frisson of being the first to finish.

#4. Learn how to conduct yourself in public.

It all begins with knowing how to arrange your face when having conversations with real, living people. No one wants to talk to someone who has a slack jaw and glazed eyes, who yawns openly, who doesn’t laugh at jokes or nod in recognition. Too many Zoom school sessions involved speaking into a void of faceless boxes.

So for my seventeenth birthday, I threw an intergenerational celebration of First World War–era poetry. I labored lovingly on a historically accurate chocolate cake modeled on the trenches and the waste of No Man’s Land. When I told my best traditional high school–aged friend to come with her favorite war poem, she said sarcastically, “It will be so hard to choose.” I invited my favorite teachers, family members, and friends of my parents. A little weird, but it was a great party, and the conversation flowed.

Part of learning how to conduct yourself in public is learning how to interact with people of different ages and experiences—who read different books, watch different shows, and grew up in a different time than you. 

#5. Dramatically reduce use of your phone.

The final key to being a happy teenager is to do away with the “machine for feeling bad,” as we call it in my house. Seriously, walk away from your phone. You’ve seen the statistics, you’ve read the Jonathan Haidt articles, and you’ve watched that Netflix documentary with Tristan Harris. You know it’s bad for you. 

But let’s make it more concrete. Having a phone in your pocket is like always carrying around a glazed donut that constantly tempts you to snack on it—but if you do, you know it will ruin your appetite.

Sure, the phone is a good way for people to get hold of you—just like smearing yourself with blood before you go swimming in shark-infested waters is a good way for sharks to reach you. Now how appealing is that?

My roommates at Latin summer school, a group of some of the kindest and sanest teenagers I have ever met, agree that most of their friends are unhappy and anxious. 

“I wish there were higher standards for us,” said one. Another declared, “I wish we had higher expectations for what we learn.” Teenagers actually crave self-guided, unstructured time and the kind of rigor in school that makes you feel energized, not enervated. 

My suggestions for teenage happiness are, I know, unlikely to appeal to the intended demographic. And yet I hope my peers will hear me: if you choose to take on three out of five of these precepts, I guarantee your heart will stop sinking. 

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