Yesterday I was working in Starbucks rather longer than I intended. My client had cancelled and I was already there so I ended up eavesdropping on a group of sophomore students from St. Ignatius, a prestigious Chicago Catholic private school. Their faces betrayed recent childhood, one boy's cheeks still had the roundness of a child but as he said "fuck" every other word and referred to various classmates as "skanky whores" it was hard to accept that face with that vocabulary. They were desperate for someplace to hang out, preferably sans parents but everyone they called refused to take them all, one girl, four boys and I started to think about my own experiences at this age and also those of my son.
I was busted for smoking dope in tenth grade. It was my first time I smoked pot. I had left a dance with a cool girl who would become a world famous actress and a cool boy who would die of diseases related to alcoholism. I had left my house looking age appropriate but now I sported massive amounts of eye makeup, my hair had been released from braids to cascade down my back and a see-through shirt was revealed under my sweater. We were in the shrubbery directly across from the police station with this boy's pipe and a flashlight appeared. I had just taken a deep hit of the pipe and was told to throw it. I threw it at the light and managed to hit one of Princeton's finest in the center of his forehead. As we mounted the steps of the police station I felt stoned for the first time and asked the cop if it was all a dream. "No," he answered, the red ring attesting to the reality of the situation. My father was called, mascara streaked down my face, he looked at me as if I were a "skanky whore" instead of his fifteen-year-old daughter who had made a mistake.
This incident occurred during the first weeks of my transferring to the private school both my sisters had attended in their later years before college. I was screamed at, grounded and ignored except for subsequent incidents when I was told I was a terrible disappointment. The summer before this arrest I had spent bicycling across New England with my best friend, fell madly in love with the trip leader who rejected me after some inappropriate physical contact and during a babysitting stint in Maine the following month I was raped and slapped around by my first date, a local boy who told me that my beauty and my vocabulary had been the reason he had to hurt me so badly. No one found out. I told no one and would tell no one for years until my first college boyfriend was tender and kind enough to ask me what was wrong when we tried to have sex. By then I was drinking daily and had so many layers of lies and disappointment his attempts to save me were noble, but far, far too late.
My son is now in college and doing incredibly well but we have suffered through some frightening and difficult times. As I listen to these snarky kids at Starbucks I wonder how many nights he spent wandering around trying to find a place to hang out with his friends. I recalled times when those friends would show up at our house and most likely drink and smoke dope up in his room. I was his mother and blissfully certain such things could not happen under my roof.
I had to resist turning around to these kids and telling them they needed to go home to their own houses, stop drinking, stop hurting themselves and others. However, I work with teenagers and I know that adult insight is rarely appreciated while adult advice is neither welcomed nor listened to. No one could have stopped me as I drove around in the night with my unsuitable lovers, drinking, tripping, angry, miserable. But, my son knows he can talk to me about anything and he frequently does. There is no screaming, well I try, and no shaming. We are not friends. I am his mother but I am also his greatest advocate and supporter.
Teenagers remind all of us that we were once young and fearless and angry and ready to change the world. I understand play groups and Mommy and Me classes and all the attention we lavish on younger children. They are cute and they like us. Teenagers are rarely cute and they rarely like us. But if we want to see changes in the schools and a happier life for the future generation, these kids need to be given a place to belong and something to do that doesn't involve drinking and drugs. Poetry slams and athletics are great but they only net a few of these children. Adults need to think harder, find ways to employ and apprentice and pay attention. Finally, these almost adults are still children. They need to be protected from themselves the same way we kept our little ones from jumping off the roof wearing a towel.