Like most teenagers, I had a mouth on me. I got myself into trouble by making sarcastic comments at my mother and other family members in evil tones (there’s a difference, see. Now I make sarcastic comments at her, but I say them in a joking tone and so she doesn’t want to smack me that way). Also like most teenagers, I found myself grounded frequently with no use of the phone, computer, or television. In a shocking move, I was also pretty moody.
Where I differed from most teenagers was that instead of feeling like I was invincible, I always felt the exact opposite. I always felt like danger was lurking just around the corner and something really bad would happen to me if I didn’t work hard enough to keep it away. I think that perhaps the fact that my life as a teenager wasn’t quite as carefree as most of my peers’ had something to do with it. Then again, it also could have been a lot worse.
The summer after sixth grade was when my mom made me “get a job.” “But it’s illegal for twelve year olds to work,” you say. Not on a farm. I ended up working for a local produce business, out in their fields at 6:30 a.m. picking strawberries. This was the worst job you could ever imagine, and when I tell people about how it was like child slave labor, they never believe me and think I’m being sarcastic. We literally weren’t allowed to stand up until we had an entire quart of strawberries picked and earned something like 5 cents per quart. I quit in July, at which point I had earned exactly $5. It took me twelve years to be able to stomach the smell of strawberries or eat them again. Between then and graduating from high school, I worked a host of other jobs (paper-carrier, amusement park concessions worker, amusement park ticket-seller, soft pretzel-twister, and barista). At the same time, I had a lot of responsibility at home. A lot of kids get away with doing nothing, but my mother didn’t subscribe to such a school of thought. Instead, we would have lists of things we needed to do (outside of cleaning our room) that could include dusting, vacuuming, doing dishes, scrubbing the kitchen floor, and so on.
When I was in seventh grade, both of my parents were back to working retail jobs full-time. My ailing paternal grandmother had moved in with us. My sister was in fifth grade and my brother was a toddler of three years old. When I would come home from school, I would have to be in charge of making sure the items on the list were taken care of before my parents got home. I would have to get dinner ready a few nights a week in addition to doing my homework, making sure my sister did hers, watching my brother, and making sure Grandma got her medicine. One night I came back the hall to find that my grandmother was having trouble breathing and she was panicking. I was 12; I panicked, too. I called my parents at work and they came home. An ambulance took my grandmother to the hospital and she never came back. It was determined that I couldn’t take care of her and so she had to go to a nursing home, which is where she died less than a year later. I’ve never totally forgiven myself for that.
What I see happening with a lot of teenagers now (and probably ten years ago too) is that they don’t have enough responsibility and they have too much time to think they’re invincible. A constant battle lately between me and my brother (who is now 17) is that I worry so much about him. I used to think that nothing broke my heart like teenagers in mourning, but that’s before I went to my first student funeral as a teacher. That wasn’t just teenagers in mourning; that was actually being able to walk up to a casket and look at the face of my student inside. That was fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds (the boys are the worst) clinging to me and crying into my shoulder. I’ve had two students die in car accidents because they tried to pass the test of invincibility. One crashed into a tree, killing himself and his best friend. The other rolled an F-150, killing himself and his friend. Earlier tonight as a blizzard was happening outside our window, my brother opened the curtains and said, annoyed, “It’s not that bad out there.” He wants to be in a car. He wants to be driving, doing something. I want him to live his life, but I also have a mascara stain on my white sweater from crying into it the last time he thought he was unbreakable.
I can’t decide which is worse: teaching your kids to be totally paranoid or teaching them that nothing can ever hurt them. I certainly don’t fault my parents for this because I think I’m the way I am largely because of circumstances no one could really control. I’ve got a while before I need to worry about parenting, but I feel as though I’m going to butt heads with my children in much the same way. Maybe I’m wrong. I might become more enlightened by then, and maybe having been through these fights with my brother, I’ll be prepared. What does it take for a teenager to slow down and be careful? It certainly isn’t losing one of their own. I wish he understood that I’m not out to ruin his life. I just never want to go to a funeral for a teenager ever again. Especially one who thought he was invincible.