I was raised Mennonite, but many of my friends were Amish. When Amish youths turn sixteen, they go through a period called rumspringa, which means “running around.” It’s a time for them to experience the outside world before deciding whether to join the church for life. During rumspringa Amish teenagers may drink alcohol, drive cars, listen to pop music, and wear “English” clothes.
My friend Lucy had Amish cousins, and when I went to slumber parties at her house, we’d often watch porno films from her cousins’ secret rumspringa stash. Our Amish friends wore borrowed jeans, their faces shiny with makeup in the TV’s gray-blue light; their hair, previously hidden under bonnets, now falling to their shoulders. We were all in awe of the women in these movies, of their naked desire and how they bent their bodies and looked straight at the camera. Would we be expected to do this?
As we got older, we’d sample cheap wine and cigarettes and make hour-long treks to gay bars, the most exotic and dangerous places we could imagine. Afterward my Amish friends would go home to houses lit by kerosene lamps and candles. They were getting “the world” out of their systems.
I went on to explore “the world.” It took years of broken relationships and depression to realize that the core of who I am still sings a cappella hymns, revels in simplicity, and — above all — craves community. On visits to my parents’ place, I sometimes run into old Amish girlfriends. They have been married for years and are driving buggies, their little ones tucked in their arms or peering at me from behind their mothers’ skirts. I’m working on my second master’s degree. Though recently married, I’m taking birth control because I want to focus on my writing, my teaching, and my new husband. When I see these Amish friends, a part of me wonders at how they’ve made peace with the role given them by their culture.
My son Tom slams the farmhouse door on his way out, rattling the glass. I sit down on the carpeted staircase, my heart pounding. The shards of the cellphone he hurled at the wall, narrowly missing my head, lie on the floor.
Tom didn’t graduate from high school with his friends. He took a gamble with the attendance policy and lost, overshooting the allowable number of absences by three. Angry, he wrote an anonymous letter accusing the school of failing to educate him, then made copies and placed them on the windshields of all the teachers’ cars. They knew right away who’d done it, and some teachers felt threatened, so the dean suspended Tom with two weeks left in the school year. He didn’t get his diploma.
Tom’s father, John, died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm when Tom was seven. Now I sit on the steps and ache to ask John, What else can I do for this man-child of ours? Does Tom need more understanding and support, or more tough love and restrictions? Am I too soft or too hard? What do you think, Johnny? What should I do now?
Tom’s memories of his dad are of a big, friendly person who drove him to school and karate lessons and T-ball practice. Summer mornings at the beach John would tuck Tom into his kayak and take him off for a paddle, singing silly songs as they went.
A few years ago some squirrels made nests in the attic of our farmhouse, and the day after we sealed the holes, Tom came home from school and found a baby squirrel that had fallen from the roof.
“I didn’t know what to do for it, Mom,” he said when I got home, “so I put it under that bush over there. I don’t think it’s going to make it. I don’t know. I have a hard time with death.”
Two years ago I was assigned to teach English to a group of high-school seniors the guidance office made it clear didn’t have a prayer of graduating on time: special-ed kids, behavior problems, truants, expectant parents. Their average reading level was seventh grade. Regardless, I was to hold them accountable for the regular senior-English curriculum.
At the start of the school year I charged into class hoping to inspire them to learn, maybe for the first time in their lives. They either sat staring or ignored me. So I dropped the teacher persona and spent a few weeks getting to know them. I admit there wasn’t a lot of English teaching going on, but there was learning — mostly on my part.
After gaining their trust, I gave them their first official writing assignment: “In one detailed paragraph tell me who you are, how old you are, and whether or not you’re happy with your life.” I expected responses like “I’m Joe, I’m eighteen, and I hate school because it’s boring. I’ll be happier when I’m out of this place.” I was wrong.
James, seventeen: “I’m not happy at all. Last year, my girlfriend had a stillborn baby, and we don’t know why. I don’t know how to get over this.”
Anthony, seventeen: “I don’t know if I’ve ever really been happy. I was ten years old when I watched my father die on the streets of New York. Someone shot him, they never found out who, and I couldn’t save him. He just laid there, and blood was everywhere. I remember crying. My brother’s in jail, and my baby girl is due in November. I hope I make it to graduation for her.”
Heather, eighteen: “If I don’t graduate this year, I’m going to be kicked out of school. I have a lot of absences because both my parents are in jail for domestic abuse. My little sister was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, and her eyes have a lot of problems. She’s had fifteen surgeries so far. She is twelve. I take care of her, and I’m all she has. I’m miserable.”
Michael, seventeen: “The state took me away from my mom, and I was sent to a boys’ home when I was a kid. My first night there they broke my nose in three places. They beat the hell out of me for weeks until I learned to fight back. When my dad came home from the war, he was supposed to come get me. He left me there for six more months before he showed up. I’m still pissed off. So, no, I ain’t happy. I don’t think I know what that means.”
I cried for their hurt, their loss, their fear, their anger.
We did read Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, Macbeth, and Frankenstein. They wrote essays and satire and drama. I may have had an impact on their lives, but it wasn’t as big as the one they had on mine.
My daughter Karen was very self-conscious as a teenager and kept a low profile at school and in public. One time I took her to get her hair cut. Among the other customers was a girl her age in a tank top, short shorts, and platform shoes.
When Karen’s haircut was finished, I called across the room for her to come and get the money from me to pay the beautician. She did, but when we got into the car, she exploded.
“How could you do that to me?”
“Do what?” I replied.
“You embarrassed me to death! A girl from my school was in there. How could you? That was the worst moment of my life!”
When we got home, we went to our separate rooms, and my daughter made sure to slam her door. I wondered how anyone could be that self-conscious.
Years later I remembered the time I’d won an academic award in high school: As I walked to the stage in front of an applauding student body, feeling ecstatic and embarrassed at the same time, I hung my head and giggled. Afterward my favorite nun called me into her office and lectured me about my “ridiculous” response to the honor. I could have died.
Even in my twenties I couldn’t handle special occasions where I might be required to say something. I needed a few drinks to get me through. It’s still hard for me to get up and dance at a party. There have been times when I’ve chosen not to participate in a raffle because if I won, everyone would look at me.
I’m as self-conscious as my daughter ever was. I couldn’t or wouldn’t acknowledge it when she was younger, but now I see: there’s still a teenager inside me.
When I was sixteen, I saw a woman interviewed on television who ran a nudist camp twenty miles east of town. Her description of men and women playing tennis and volleyball naked in the sun sounded intriguing, so one Saturday I rode my motorcycle out to the camp. Finding it was easy; getting in was another matter. I decided to climb the hill in back and bushwhack my way in. I arrived at the compound covered with brambles and dirt, but once I disrobed, I fit right in.
Everything was fine until I ran into a girl from my high school. She had been going there for years with her family and seemed relaxed about our encounter. I, on the other hand, had to use all my will-power not to stare at her body. None of her friends knew about her family’s “lifestyle,” she said. At least she wouldn’t be telling anyone from school that she’d seen me there.
I went home and told my best friend, Phil, about my adventure. The next weekend we rode out on my motorcycle together. Once we were in, we agreed to go our separate ways.
About twenty minutes later a man approached me and asked if I had come with Phil, who’d quickly been identified as an interloper and had named me as his co-conspirator. We were reunited in the manager’s office. Suddenly our daring adventure felt stupid and reckless. We listened as the manager (the woman I’d seen on television) called the sheriff’s office to report two underage boys caught trespassing.
A deputy arrived ten minutes later, handcuffed us, and placed us — still naked — in the back of his patrol car. I imagined an article in the paper the next day. As we drove away, the pressure of our humiliation got to Phil, and he began to cry. “Don’t worry,” I whispered in his ear. I figured the deputy was more interested in teaching us a lesson than in destroying our lives. I also doubted his willingness to haul two naked sixteen-year-old boys into the county jailhouse.
The deputy drove us for a few tense miles, and with each bend in the road my confidence ebbed. Then he pulled over and said, “Look, if you two guarantee me you’ll never trespass there again, I’ll reconsider.” We promised. As he turned the car around and headed back for our clothes, my relief was mixed with a strange thrill that we were actually riding naked in the back of a patrol car. None of our friends will ever believe this, I thought. They didn’t have to, because I never told anyone.
Francis Collin Brown
Port Townsend, Washington
Here is what I loved about my kids when they were teenagers: Their energy, frailty, and bravado. How they wanted me to drop them off a block from school so no one would know they had a mom. How they warmed up to me as they grew older, my daughter nuzzling my neck, my sons draping their arms around my shoulders as if I were their date. How effortlessly they took on the high-tech world of texting and iPods and Facebook. How they wore their jeans so low their boxers showed. Their new slang, like “What the steez, dog?” and “Let’s bounce.” How evening activities didn’t even begin until after 11 P.M. and how the fridge would be almost empty by morning. How their friends filled our house because we had good food and cozy places to hang out. How they respected my rules and left everything clean. How they knew I was safe to talk to.
Now I have no more teenagers, only confident young adults who visit me for a week at a time, if I’m lucky. They cuddle with me by the wood stove, and their friends hug me and want to fill me in on their lives. But I hunger for those teenagers: their insatiable appetites, their coarse, honest assessments, their slang, their baggy clothing, their enormous hearts.
When I lived in Ocala, Florida, I volunteered with a local organization called “Church without Walls” that helped kids in trouble. I offered to teach a yoga class, and they assigned me to the county youth correctional facility, a last stop before prison for fourteen-to eighteen-year-old boys. I went there one Monday night with Sandy, a representative from Church without Walls, and we were escorted through locked doors to a small, carpeted recreational room. In walked fifteen teenage boys, looking like my kids’ classmates. I introduced myself, and Sandy explained what I was there to do and warned them to be “good” so I’d come back.
They were, and I did for about ten months.
I managed to teach them the sun salutation and some Pilates. I showed them how keeping the head up is the key to balancing in crow pose, and they showed me break-dance moves and handstands. One kid demonstrated every week how good he’d gotten in toe stand. For a while it all worked.
Then some of the boys finished their sentences and left. New students came in. One complained that the floor was “nasty.” Kids lost interest, and it became harder to have class. One week Sandy didn’t show up, and Monday nights became just another Bible study led by a new teacher.
The one true success of the yoga class had been the deep-relaxation part. For five minutes each week these kids, whose home lives had been chaotic, who were always bouncing around, always trying to con someone or avoid being conned, could lie on the floor motionless and pay attention only to their breath.
When I’d go to rouse them, they wouldn’t want to stir, and I’d let them lie quietly for just a few moments longer.
I was a shy, quiet teenager who didn’t dress well. Even worse, I had a large, crooked nose. On the school bus I was bullied by a group of boys, so I decided to walk the two miles back and forth every day, carrying my heavy books. As the bus drove by, the boys hung their heads out the windows and called me names, but I was safe from their verbal assaults the rest of the way. If my parents or friends asked why I wasn’t taking the bus, I said I liked walking.
I graduated from high school in 1962. Six years later I had surgery to straighten my nose. I have never had any desire to attend a high-school reunion. I am still uncomfortable around teenagers.
Five years ago I worked the night shift as a nurse while a friend baby-sat my three young ones. Then the friend’s teenage son was accused of sexually molesting someone else’s children.
I had been friends with this mother for years and trusted her completely, but I had to confront her about the accusations against her son. She vehemently denied his guilt. He was a wonderful child, she said, and would never hurt a soul. When I looked at him, however, I saw a sullen, almost-grown man who was angry at the world. How could she be so sure he hadn’t been a perpetrator? How well did she really know him? He didn’t even deny the accusations.
I stopped taking my children to my friend’s house for day care, and she didn’t speak to me for almost two years.
Now my oldest son has grown into a teenager. His once-spindly arms and legs are covered in muscles, and his easy smile has been replaced by a scowl. Behind all this he is still a child, innocent and wide-eyed, learning about a world that is increasingly wary of him. If someone were to accuse him of molestation, I would say it was impossible. How could they think such a thing of my sweet boy? Couldn’t they see the shyness behind that tough exterior?
I never discovered whether or not the accusations against my friend’s son were true, but I did learn why she acted the way that she did. I know now that I would do the same.
One of my first jobs after college was working at a group home for emotionally disturbed teenage girls in Berkeley, California. These girls were tough, sometimes violent. They had experienced abandonment and abuse. Many had grown up in the inner cities, and some had been involved in gangs.
When fights broke out, I would close my eyes and throw my small body between the pummeling fists and just hope for the best. Oddly it worked. I theorized that these girls didn’t really want to fight each other but felt they had to in order to save face.
On Friday nights we would rent a movie. The black girls would bring out their tubs of hair grease, and they would partner up — one sitting in a chair, the other on the floor in front of her — and moisturize each other’s scalps. They would divide the hair into sections and rub grease into each part, doing this meticulously over the whole head. Then they would pull the hair back into a smooth ponytail or make numerous braids that they clipped with barrettes.
Each week one of them would ask to do my hair, and I’d feel honored that they were including me. Their favorite style was french braids. They would pull my hair so tight that my eyes would water, and I’d say, “Ow!”
“Oh, Kristin is tender headed!” they’d say, laughing, but they didn’t stop, and I didn’t want them to.
When I was eleven years old, my family moved to a small town in Germany. The summer we arrived, I met a boy just a year older than I was. With his dark eyes and hair, leather jacket, and tight jeans, he seemed mysterious and even a bit dangerous. Because I hadn’t yet learned German and his English was rudimentary, we couldn’t talk much, but it was obvious to me that beneath that rough exterior was a sweet, vulnerable boy. We became inseparable and would often sneak away to the old ruins at the outskirts of town to make out and explore each other’s bodies.
After nearly two years of this, we finally made love on a blanket at the edge of a meadow. I had just turned thirteen and remember the experience as uncomfortable but pleasurable, reverent, and safe.
I moved back to the States the next year and listened to girls’ stories about how far they went with boys and how the boys were always pushing for more. When these girls lost their virginity, it usually involved heavy drinking and took place in the back of a car or on a sofa in someone’s family room with parents asleep upstairs. They described it as quick and painful and worried whether the boy would talk to them the next day at school.
My oldest daughter is now thirteen. I look at her and her friends, half-grown creatures, and hope they will wait, but I suppose that’s hypocritical of me. Perhaps what I wish for them even more is to be cherished, respected, and looked upon with awe and wonderment.
I threw Barry’s initial ring at him as hard as I could. I wanted to hit him in the face, but instead the ring ricocheted off a locker and skittered down the hallway. Barry went running after it. He had asked Marilyn to the dance and not me, so he definitely wanted that ring back.
As Barry crawled on all fours to find the ring, I burst out of school and ran to a nearby park. I would miss my bus home, but I didn’t care as I began the arduous two-mile walk, my arms crossed in front of my chest and my head down so that my long hair shielded my tear-stained face. I wanted to be invisible.
Just then a familiar powder blue car pulled up next to me. It was my cousin Betty, a senior in high school. She dangled one hand out the window, a long white cigarette between her fingers.
“Hey, cuz, want a ride?”
I leapt into her car without a word.
Betty did not question me about my red eyes but rather offered me a smoke. “Teenage boys are dogs,” she said.
Instead of taking me home, she drove downtown, where she waved at teenagers on street corners while we dragged the strip. “It’s going to get better,” she said. “Don’t let them get you down.”
When she pulled up in front of my house, I could not open my mouth to say thank you, so I sat there for a minute while the song on the radio ended. Before I dashed inside, Betty said, “Call me anytime.”
The first time I saw your son, I thought, He can’t have come from you, with your gentle green eyes. His eyes were dark, and when he held my gaze, I felt uncomfortable. He was five.
I watched you help him with homework. He clenched his fist beneath the table and punched himself in the thigh when he grew frustrated. “It’s nothing,” you assured me. “He just gets upset with himself.”
For his seventh birthday you took him out for pizza. When it was time to leave, he screamed and punched you, then grabbed a fork from a table and threatened you with it.
I sat in the kitchen while you tried to coax him into his bedroom on nights he stayed with us. When you finally closed the door on him, he kicked and scratched it until he bled.
“Perhaps he should see a psychologist,” I suggested. No, you said; you didn’t want to burden him with that stigma.
The school guidance counselor called: he wasn’t doing his assignments and was filling his notebooks with drawings of guns. “He likes to draw,” you said.
We went to dinner, and he told us about the movies he watched with his mother. He liked the part when one guy was split in half by machine-gun fire and the blood erupted from another’s head. He was ten.
“I don’t want to live with him,” I said, when you talked of letting him move in. “I’m afraid.”
“But he needs to go to a good high school,” you said. “The school where his mom lives is gang-ridden. We can give him a better life, a better education.” For your sake I agreed.
He brought friends over to eat our food, have sex on our beds, and wreck our home while we were at work. You told me you couldn’t punish him because you couldn’t prove he was responsible. You couldn’t take his keys away because it was his house, too.
He refused to do his homework. He failed his classes. You called his teachers and persuaded them to accept makeup assignments so he could advance to the next grade. He still filled his workbooks with drawings of guns and violence.
When his first girlfriend broke up with him, he cut his arm, stole a BB rifle, and shot his friends with it in our backyard. He set his notebook on fire on our patio. “Why did you do that?” I asked him. He narrowed his dark eyes and said, “Because I was bored.” He was fifteen.
He left his computer on, and I read his instant messages. “I have so much HATE,” he wrote to a friend. “I scare myself sometimes. If I let it show, I can’t control it. Last night I smashed a car window.”
I read the note to you.
“I wish he would remember to turn his computer off when he leaves,” you said.
He blames us for his failures: We would not buy him a truck, so he won’t get a job. We’re forcing him to take out loans for college, so he just won’t go. We harp on him for bad grades, so he chooses to fail.
Soon he will be eighteen and legally able to buy a real gun. He e-mails photos of the ones he wants to his friends. You say he isn’t serious about it.
I wonder, when he comes for us, will we be awake? Will we know what happened?
Amanda was referred to me the second day of her junior year. Sixteen and pregnant, she explained at our first meeting that she wouldn’t repeat the cycle of teen parents in her family. “I want an abortion,” she told me.
As a social-work intern in a high-school clinic, I’d never received training on abortion. I put Amanda in touch with Planned Parenthood, and they scheduled the date. I promised transportation, a day off from school, and moral support.
Amanda asked me to sit with her during the procedure. I held her hand and reminded her to breathe as she dug her nails in deep, leaving marks on my palms. The doctor spoke softly and completed his work in less than fifteen minutes.
Amanda did not know that I am infertile. I will always be pro-choice, but I admit that a part of me wanted Amanda’s baby as it vanished before my eyes.
Amanda had explained to me that her previous therapist had established a no-hug policy. As she regained full consciousness and began to sob, I pulled her toward me and hugged her as if she were my own child.
My younger sister Norma called from Los Angeles, distraught. Her thirteen-year-old son, Blake, had been picked up for shoplifting — again. He was in trouble at school and was no longer allowed to ride the bus because of his behavior. My sister said she was actually afraid of her son because he had threatened to hit her more than once. She complained about his disrespectful attitude, his foul mouth, and his “baggy gangster clothes” (which she’d bought, I refrained from pointing out). She had no idea who his friends were, and she suspected he was drinking and doing drugs.
Arrangements were made for Blake to come live with my two boys and me on our cattle ranch in the heart of Montana, eighty miles from the nearest town and three miles from my mailbox. When we picked Blake up at the airport, he cockily strutted up to us with a look of contempt. I welcomed him to Montana and offered him a hug, which he refused.
There were days when I wondered if I could reach this kid, but Blake slowly came around. He lost the baggy clothing once he realized it snagged on barbed-wire fences and hindered his movements around ornery cattle. He attempted to run away only once. No one said a word about it the next day after he’d come tiptoeing back at four o’clock in the morning, exhausted from his long hike to nowhere.
Although he became more involved with ranch life, Blake never let down his guard or showed affection. Distrust and hostility were always just below the surface.
I arranged for Blake to become involved with a 4-H club program in which teens raised animals for market. He had no interest in getting a “stupid pig,” but I purchased a black-and-white piglet anyway. Blake was expected to feed and water it, clean its pen, groom it, keep a record of the expenses involved in raising it, and train it to move about a show ring. He named his pig “Harley,” after the motorcycle.
My boys had market-hog projects of their own, and once a month we attended 4-H meetings as a family. Blake stayed in the background, refusing to sit with the other kids. When it was time to take their market animals to fair, Blake reluctantly participated in the fitting-and-showing class with Harley. He received the second-place red ribbon and a twenty-five-dollar prize. Although he tried not to show it, I could see both surprise and pride in his eyes.
Then came the auction, where the kids sell their hogs. Blake entered the auction ring with that old cocky attitude. After Harley sold for an impressive amount, he went to shake the buyer’s hand. I waited by Harley’s pen for Blake to return, but he never came back. Concerned, I asked around and discovered he had gone out to the parking lot. I found him sitting in our pickup truck crying his heart out, grief-stricken to see Harley go. That’s when he finally allowed me to hug him.
There must have been at least six empties in the back of Austin’s truck when I first saw the headlights. We were parked at the end of the service road, a good quarter mile from the highway.
“Someone’s coming,” I said, and I hopped off the tailgate. I could tell from the lights that the vehicle was a Chevy pickup. “Damn,” I said. “It’s probably my dad.”
I had a twelve o’clock curfew, and he’d made a habit of finding me if I stayed out too late. It was only a few minutes past eleven, but more than once he had come early just to remind me of my curfew. My friends found this amusing.
“It’s not your dad,” said Austin. “That truck’s white.”
The truck pulled up, and two guys got out. One was Jake, who had graduated the previous year. I didn’t recognize the other. My last encounter with Jake had been when he’d punched me in the groin and called me “faggot” in the school hallway. Jake told us about a party down by the river. “You should go, Hamel,” he said to me. “You might get laid. Are you still a virgin?”
I was, but I said, “Hell, no. I bang anything that moves. Just the other day I screwed Austin’s dog. She said I wasn’t as good as Austin.” Everyone laughed.
“Seriously, you should go,” Jake said. I had no idea why he was so interested in me. This was the longest conversation I had ever had with him.
“I can’t,” I said. “Poison and Slaughter are going to be on ABC in Concert tonight, and I was just about to leave so I won’t miss it.” It was a lame excuse, but it was sort of the truth.
I told my friends I would see them tomorrow and went to my car. As I opened the door to my Camaro, I heard Austin tell Jake, “He has a curfew.”
I couldn’t get home fast enough.
The next day my dad asked, “Were you with Jake last night?”
Jake had beaten up some kid from Blanton, who’d gone home and returned with a bunch of buddies. (My friends were gone by then.) The Blanton guys surrounded Jake, and he pulled a rifle out of his truck. When they refused to let him leave, he fired into the crowd and hit a kid in the neck, killing him.
“He’s in custody now,” my dad said.
For once I was glad I had a curfew.
My thirteen-year-old daughter, Lacy, shines with nervousness and excitement when her boyfriend, Reece, is on his way over. Reece is thin and gangly with unwashed hair that falls across his face. Walking past Lacy’s door, my wife and I discover them physically entangled, and we make rules: No closed doors, and no lying on top of each other. “You’re treating us like little kids,” she protests.
At fourteen Lacy brings home Doran, a skater with shaggy blond hair and unkempt clothes. “Hey” is the extent of his vocabulary. In the yard he jumps on our dilapidated trampoline, doing crazy twists and flips that I’ve never seen before. “Misty, Crippler, McTwist,” Lacy says, naming each trick as I watch, stunned. “He’s going to get sponsored,” she says.
A year later she is spending every moment she can at Doran’s parents’ condo. His mom isn’t home much, and his unemployed stepfather acknowledges nothing but the television. Lacy, who is bright but has always struggled with studying and tests, begins talking about quitting high school and going to the “continuation school” that Doran sporadically attends. She also starts taking birth control. “I’m not a virgin anymore, Daddy,” she tells me. Sponsorship eludes Doran. He is stoned behind his aviator glasses, and, though she defends him, Lacy cries constantly.
Lacy, sixteen now, is finally over Doran. She is back with her old friends and realizes she doesn’t want to quit high school. Then she finds Diego the way she might a puppy in front of a grocery store. He’s had a tough life, but there is something tender and vulnerable about him. Diego’s father died of drugs and alcohol, his mom’s current marriage is tumultuous, and he’s been kicked out of their house. He’s a couch surfer, staying where he can. After my wife discovers him crying in his car in our driveway late one night, he begins to sleep on our couch. The rule is no sex under our roof, and they respect it enough never to get caught.
I pay Diego to help me landscape our yard, and he’s a tireless and enthusiastic worker. There is something burning to be expressed in him. My wife helps him return to community college, and he gets financial aid and his own apartment. He’s studying to become a paramedic, but he and Lacy fight all the time. She is seventeen, and the radiance we saw when she brought him home has given way to dull disappointment. When they break up, I know it’s best for her, but I feel like I’ve lost someone.
At eighteen Lacy is going to college. Ryder is a couple of years older than she is, a shy, good-looking, adventurous kid. I don’t talk to him much — I’m preparing for the breakup — but Lacy has that sparkle in her eyes again. One night they come over for dinner. Lacy and I kid each other, and Ryder joins in. They offer to help with dishes, but I tell them I’ve got it. When I’m done, I walk past her bedroom and see them reflected in a mirror, lying on the floor, denimed legs tangled, caught up together. I keep walking.
When I was still in high school, my parents divorced, and each went off to start a new life, leaving me to my own resources. After a year of spending nights alternately in my car, at my grandparents’, or at a friend’s house, I decided to get a place with another teenager. My morning job at a bakery supplied plenty of day-old bread, and between us we could cover the rent with ease.
One afternoon, on my way to my evening job as a restaurant hostess, I stopped to tour a newly remodeled one-bedroom house in a seaside community that suffered from drugs and poverty. Some of the homes there appeared built of the flotsam and jetsam that the sea had coughed up on the sand, but the house I went to see was an optimistic attempt at gentrification.
The property-management agent looked up as I removed my leather gloves and put them in the pocket of my tweed overcoat. My long hair was pinned in a coil at the nape of my neck. I’d wiped away my black lipstick and replaced it with a subtle toffee-colored gloss.
“You’re asking six hundred dollars — is that right?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, “but I wasn’t expecting anyone of your caliber to come and see the place.” She snapped open her briefcase and handed me a rental agreement.
“I work in Arcata. It would be an easy commute,” I said.
“Just fill that out and drop it by the office as soon as you can,” she told me. “I think you’ll like it here.”
I took the paperwork to a coffee shop and filled it out. For a moment my pen froze over the date-of-birth line. I looked at my work history and references and, confident that my track record would speak for itself, decided not to lie.
The agent never returned my calls. I didn’t manage to rent a place until I turned eighteen and got married.
I was originally hired to tutor students who were too ill to attend school. Then the zero-tolerance policy was enacted, and students who broke certain rules were expelled for one year. Immediately my caseload changed: I began to teach teens who were not sick but had been expelled.
Greg, my new seventh-grade student, had been described to me as “a time bomb,” “dangerous,” and “a fighter.” “He doesn’t care about anything,” one colleague said.
I found Greg’s address, a 1920s bungalow in a high-crime neighborhood with rusted cars in yards and rotting couches on front porches. I knocked, and the door creaked open a crack. I couldn’t see who was there.
“Hello,” I said. “I’m Greg’s homebound teacher.” The door didn’t budge. “The school district sent me out to teach him for the rest of the year.”
The door opened a few inches more, and a blowzy woman in a thin negligee stared at me with dazed eyes.
“I tried to call before I came, but no one answered. I have Greg’s books with me.”
She opened the door all the way, and I stepped into the living room.
“If this isn’t a good time,” I said, “we could work out another day.”
Her vacant eyes didn’t move.
I saw a scrawny kid in the dining room. “Greg?” I asked him.
“I’m your homebound teacher. I have your books. Could I see you for an hour to get you started on your lessons?”
He said nothing. The woman — his mother, I assume — had disappeared into a bedroom. I tried to make small talk, but Greg’s mouth seemed sealed shut. So I opened his book to begin a lesson.
A cockroach descended the wall and crawled in my direction. I took a sheet of paper and scooted the bug off the table onto the floor while lifting my feet up onto the legs of my chair. Greg pulled himself into an even tighter position. “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “It happens sometimes.”
A loud knock came at the door. Greg’s mom, still in her negligee, opened it and said, “Darling!”
A man’s voice replied, “Here I am, sugar.”
They went into the bedroom, shut the door, and locked it.
“Do you understand fractions?” I asked Greg, ignoring the activity in the other room.
I finished the lesson and was about to gather up and leave when I heard the lock click and the bedroom door open. Greg’s mom cooed, “Oh, hon, let me get your coat.” She held it up for the man to slip into and began to brush off his collar. “Now, you take care of yourself,” she said as she followed him onto the front porch.
I brushed another cockroach away.
Greg whispered, “I hate this place.”
My heart aching for him, I told him that there isn’t a kid in the world who can help who his parents are or where he lives. I knew: I’d grown up with a hell-raising, drunken dad. But I’d made up my mind when I was little that I wasn’t going to let it destroy my life.
Our eyes met, and Greg nodded.
“I’ll see you on Wednesday,” I said.
Rocky Ford, Colorado
A teenage girl’s greatest enemy is typically her mother, the woman she cherished as a child and struggles not to become as a woman, but I fought more with my father. We are just too much alike. Now we chuckle that two people can possess so many identical quirks, but in my teenage years we battled ferociously.
When I got pregnant at seventeen, I confided in my mother. She held my hand in the bathroom as we waited for that dreaded blue line to appear and later as I had the abortion. My father was working in San Francisco at the time and came home only on weekends. I was terrified of his return and having to tell him. I knew what his reaction would be: silent disappointment. I was, after all, silently disappointed in myself.
He sent a letter ahead of his arrival. In it this quiet, stoic man wrote only of his love and support for me. I had always taken his love for me as an unspoken truth — or, if it was spoken, I’d listened with the ears of an unhearing teenager. But as I held those pages and read the words, I felt for the first time the depth of his paternal compassion.
I often think of the baby I gave up, but rarely with regret. Inseparable from the abortion is the memory of my father’s unqualified expression of love.
Your teenager has the same eyes as the baby you nursed for years, the same body you had years ago. She loves you as fiercely as she hates you. She drives your car drunk, runs it off the road, and the next morning looks you in the eye and says she doesn’t know where the clumps of mud and moss under the bumper came from. Later she points out your “excessive” drinking when you have more than one glass of wine.
Your teenager knows all the ways of the world and thinks it’s fine to quit a job without giving notice. Why not? She tells you your jokes aren’t funny and your friends are laughing just to be polite. When she does laugh at your jokes, you feel warm inside. You try to encourage without directing. You try to let her make her own decisions. You fail miserably. She loves you anyway and tells you so, but only when you say it first. You are sure she is headed down the wrong path, but she laughs at your map and compass.
Your teenager gets upset when you join Facebook and calls you “stupid” and “too old” and blocks you from her page. A couple of years later she becomes your “friend” and ends up being the first person you ever chat with online. She uses a smiley-face emoticon, and it fills your heart. You would do anything for her, and she would just roll her eyes. (As far as you know, there is no emoticon for that yet.)
Sometimes when you hug her, she holds you longer and tighter than usual, and there is a vast need there that you don’t understand but somehow cherish, and it is beautiful and raw and a little scary. You hope someday when she is grown-up, the two of you will sit together and talk intimately, without any eye rolling, and she will tell you everything.