Tuesday, December 16, 2014
My eldest daughter is having one heckuva time adjusting to life as a ninth-grader. Her classes are harder. Her body is crueler. Her emotions are wilder. Like the speakers in Spinal Tap, everything goes to 11.
Each passing week seems to offer some sort of Christopher Columbus experience for her, uncharted territory fraught with danger and excitement that she seems to think only she, on the entire planet, has discovered. Because that's how teenage brains work.
Last weekend, she attended her first Real High School Dance. Not one of those after-the-game deals, mind you, but a “faincey” one, where everyone dresses up. She and a male friend not-boyfriend somehow backed their way into going together. Her anticipation of this pending adventure was something like the first time the Ghostbusters turned on their proton packs, where the power was difficult to measure on the outside, but you could hear that low, constant thrum of energy pulsing.
Our family dress shopping ritual follows a likely familiar pattern, known to middle-class families across the universe. The parental insistence that she already has several great dresses from which to choose. The predictable capitulation by a mother or grandmother that she really should get a new dress, being such a good girl and all. The intense negotiations over how much is too much to pay for a dress she’ll only wear once or twice, but probably only once. The inevitable victory of a new acquisition, some modestly-affordable and adorable piece of cloth without quite enough cloth to satisfy her father. The grumbling of a father, who claims he will not fight this battle so that he may win the greater war, but who knows full well he lost the war when he had children. Because if you had children so you could win wars with them, you’re probably a crappy parent. Good parents lose all the wars; they just lose them slowly, like trench warfare in WWI.
That she was going to this dance with a male friend not-boyfriend provided several adults who should know better the opportunity to make romance jokes at their expense. Adults joked that maybe more than friendship was in the mix. I didn't do that. First, because that’s exactly what awkward and uncertain learning-to-be-teenagers really need, is assistance feeling more awkward about what was already uncertain. Second, because I was generally that male friend not-boyfriend who actually did long for something more than friendship who would break out in flopsweat every time some amused adult would make that joke. Ha ha, clever adult. You're a riot. You're even funnier with this fork jabbed up your nostrils.
Fortunately, this friend couple enjoyed a nice dinner away from adult eyes and ears prior to the dance. They got to talk in whatever way young teen friends not-romantically talk to one another when we aren’t listening. Whether it was awkward or not only mattered to two people, and I know they appreciated a moment when they were the only two people privy to it. No pictures. No backseat driving or chaperoning. A port in the storm. A break in the tension.
And then the dance.
As I drove her date-not-date home, I asked them how it was. They both said it was frustrating. Everyone was grinding, and they didn’t really want to grind, so they felt like fish out of water. But was it fun? It was OK I guess, they both agreed.
After I dropped him off, I asked her again whether she had a good time. Not nearly as much of a good time as she thought she was going to have, she said.
What did she expect that didn’t happen? I asked. She didn’t know exactly. Couldn't put it into words, but she didn’t think she would feel so separate from everyone, she said.
I think she thought it was going to be some Unforgettable Moment in her life, where she suddenly felt like she was a part of this large high school collective or something. Some Disney Princess Meets John Hughes moment. Instead, there was a bunch of dancing that was too personal for her, by kids who were in many ways too old for her. She was a freshman at a dance never intended for freshmen.
But she told me something that gave me hope for my child.
“About 20 minutes into it, I realized it was all a let-down, and it wasn’t just magically going to get any better,” she told me. “So I kind of had a moment where I said to myself, ‘You’re stuck here until this thing is over, so you might as well try to squeeze as much fun as you can out of it. And I have to say, after that, the dance went from, like, a 3 out of 10 to more like a 5 or 6. It still wasn’t anything like I was hoping, but it would have been so much worse if I hadn’t made up my mind to try and enjoy it a little.”
Maybe I shouldn’t have responded to her the way I did. But this is what I said:
“Sweetie, if you can bottle up that one lesson you taught yourself, your entire life will be the happier for it.”
Not that all of life is a collection of events that you thought would be a 9 that ended up a 3. Not all of the 3's we encounter can be improved upon by sheer force of will and manufactured enthusiasm. A handful of experiences and milestones really do live up to the hype we give them in anticipation. But boy howdy, far more of life follows that course -- expecting a 9, getting a 3 -- than most of us ever dare tell our kids.
I can't tell you how many nights in those early years of parenting I felt like I'd been ripped off. Some nights of marriage can feel like that, too. Or the endless tales of woe about the professional lives of people who thought they were "doing what they loved," not to mention those who never even had that luxury. And don't even get me started on golf.
Work. Family. Hobbies. Any of it, all of it, can be so much worse if we can't make up our minds to try and make the best of things when it lets us down.