We stepped inside the public bus and hurriedly inserted our reduced-fare youth tickets into the clunky scanner beside the sullen driver. As the vehicle began to pick up speed, we ambled down the rows searching for vacant seats, they were usually in the back. The bus was full of tired commuters heading to work that morning, the same as every weekday morning. It was always full of them whenever we boarded to and from school. But it didn’t matter if they were going to or from work, they always had the same weary expression. A weariness that seemed to coat everything with ash. As we walked down the length of the moving vehicle, I tried not to make eye contact with any of the somber adults. I kept my eyes darting across the vibrating, diesel-fumed interior to the windows on either side, milky with grime and condensation. Whenever I happened on cold eyes freezing into a glare, I would quickly look down at the dirt covered floor.
They hated us. How they hated us.
It was so obvious: lips pressed into thin lines, gazes fixed, faces unmoving, unmovable. Could we blame them? We were teenagers.
We were open books. We were naïve. We desperately wanted to be cool, to be taken seriously, to be seen. Youth might as well be a blazing sheath of stupidity.
This is one of my most poignant memories of being a teenager. Many people may look back on their teen years with nostalgia, remembering the keen pangs of new love, first heartbreaks, raw emotions of furtive explorations. Perhaps it was a time of invincibility, a ground of unchallenged assumptions once so delightfully firm. Perhaps it was a time of intense self-centeredness, genuine ignorance in all its glory. Perhaps it was time of wavering innocence and tender new longings. It was all those things for me too. But there was something else as well.
That something compels me to add “unconventional” to describe my childhood. My teen years were an especially dark time. It was then that I became more acquainted with forms of self-hatred, which I would struggle with continuously.
Now that I am an adult, back then feels like a lifetime ago. Ironically, despite my best efforts at empathy, I can’t help but feel a surge of resentment whenever I encounter teenagers myself. Teenagers loitering on sidewalks, rambling in cliques, puffing away theatrically on their vapes. Mock-fragile drama queens and goofy jocks with practiced drunk-lazy affectations, mini hipsters and reckless show-offs talking incessantly in half-jests, trying so hard not to care, crossing streets without looking, their rambunctious jeering and whooping echoing in courtyards and alleyways. I kind of hate them. But I love them too.
I’ll never be a size small again, or have all that time to waste, gossiping schadenfreude with fake friends on the latest break-ups, hook-ups and humiliations. I’ll never have that shiny whole lifetime again to dangle over the chasm of fresh compulsions, bad decisions, drugs or alcohol. I’ll never be that stupid and that innocent again. I’ll never want so badly to be an adult again.
Perhaps it’s only natural for adults to hate teenagers, it’s like looking into a magic mirror at your younger self when you’re making all those bad decisions, the ones you’ll certainly regret for the rest of your life.
Or looking at your younger self before you learned the “hard” life lessons, the ones that supposedly made you smarter and wiser. That’s what I thought the other day at the pediatrician’s office with my kids when I watched a brazen teenager complaining to the receptionist that she had waited “a whole 45 minutes for the doctor!” Everyone else had been waiting about the same length too and she had spent the time playing loud games on her smart phone, not bored out of her mind staring at the wall. The receptionist eyed her wearily, her frown deepening. “Back in my day, young lady, I would be lucky if I had to wait only 45 minutes! If there are a lot of people to wait behind, you’ll have to wait your turn like everyone else!” The lecture ran its course unuttered behind the glares of the adults. No doubt, by the time she grows up, the wait time will be nonexistent, and she will find herself glaring at a spoiled teenager for complaining about having to visit the doctor at all, instead of being diagnosed by an app.
It’s one thing to be occasionally confronted with hostile adults as a teenager, rebelling against them like any cool punk. It’s another thing to know that hostility well, to be able to predict it and internalize it. My devout Catholic parents, likely to make up for their own reckless and excessive youth, believed it was their sole duty to expose the many shameless vanities within me and in the world at large. They urged me to contemplate death, the afterlife and the ramifications of my behavior every moment I could. A teenager who was proud, who talked back and challenged authority was the biggest waste and ingrate of all. The ideal teenager was humble, quiet, and respectful; they did what they were told.
There were so many strong emotions surging and conflicting in me growing up. Although my parents loved me and had good intentions—they were better suited to prepare me for death than for life. My life felt prematurely over. As a teenager, I had no idea how to be. Every time I tried to please my parents, my friends made fun of me for being so nerdy and timid. Being ridiculed as a “dork” by my peers was much more painful than disappointing my distant and solidly uncool parents. Every time I thought I found an acceptable way to be, a tiny candle I could light in an unbearably dark and damp room, someone found a way to snuff it out.
When I saw the recent news of the teenage survivors of the Parkland massacre bravely speaking out in support of tighter gun control, I felt my heart swelling with pride and pain for these kids. They had lived through unspeakable horror, hiding for their lives in closets and locked classrooms. Even as they anxiously awaited safety or death, they had the wisdom to foresee how the mass shooting would play out in the country—that it would result in inaction and complacency, like the many, many terrible times before:
“I don’t really think there’s anything new to say, but there shouldn’t have to be,” an unnamed student said while she was hiding from the shooter, “Because if you looked around this closet and saw everyone just hiding together, you would know that this shouldn’t be happening anymore, and that it doesn’t deserve to happen to anyone.”(source)
As the teenagers continue to rally and speak out against gun violence, I will gladly support them, but I also can’t help hearing the stern voices of adults who once told a younger me to “stop being so dramatic”. Adults so quick to put kids “in their place” for their so-called lack of experience, knowledge, their idealism and naiveté. Adults so quick to sully the strong emotions and voices of teenagers with accusations of vanity, self-interest, theatrics or being easily influenced or coached. These teenage survivors can’t even make an appearance without being coated with the ash of corruption or intrigue cynical adults have come to know so well. There is nothing new to this kind of dismissal and silencing of the young. It seems as ingrained in us as surely as a brutal initiation into adulthood and its privileges: to have the power, to know better, to be respected.
Teenagers may not have the experience of adults, they have what everyone else has: One life, a life full of possibilities, emotions, complexity. A life worth fighting for. A life worth living. A life worth cherishing. But they have one more precious thing, something beautiful and crucial, tragically missing in many adults: hope.
Text and images by M.P. Baecker © 2018