That thing around the corner

Yesterday I became Facebook friends with an old student of mine—a girl I’d taught in Philadelphia when she was in 8th grade.  She’s about 19 now and as I looked through her photo album it seemed that she’d been having a lot of fun as a teenager: pictures of her with her friends, dancing and laughing at one party after another.

Then, there she was in a maternity dress, pregnant and smiling at her own baby shower beneath a big pink banner that read, “It’s a girl.”  The juxtaposition in the photo album was stunning.  Fun, fun, fun, fun, baby. It was like someone had turned the lights on in the middle of the party.

Later that day I left the house with Jay and Wally to pick Caroline up at campus.  As we walked out the door Jay yelled, “Buckle Wally in first,” which he says every time we get in the car.  I did as instructed, and while I was busy with Wally Jay climbed into the driver’s seat and closed the door.

After I’d finished with Wally I went to get Jay, but just as I was about to open the driver’s side door, Jay locked it.  He looked up at me through the car window with an impish little grin on his face and for a moment I didn’t know what to do.  Then I remembered the car key in my pocket.   “Better luck next time,” I thought, as I unlocked the door and carried his disbelieving little body off to the carseat.

Our route to school is the same everyday: left on Independence, right on Packard.  It’s a short trip, only about 3 miles.  The first mile passes by bland commercial storefronts—a tutoring center, a pizza place, a liquor store—but the scene changes as we get closer to campus.  Uncared for student houses line the streets. The sidewalks thicken with undergraduates.

I always feel a little conspicuous driving through campus.  No one notices we’re there of course, but still I feel self-consciously old amidst all the students, on my way to pick my wife up from work with two boys in the backseat.  As we sat at a red light I looked out the window and saw a fresh-faced kid carrying a case of Rolling Rock, and two pony-tailed girls jogging, and what looked like part of the men’s soccer team on its way home from practice.

Part of me wanted to yell out the window, “This isn’t really me!  I’m not as different from you as you think!” Then the light changed and we moved on.

As we drove the final blocks to Caroline’s office I thought about my student who’s now a mom, and I thought about the Michigan undergraduates who’d just crossed in front of my car.  In one sense their lives are very different: She’s a teenager waking up each day and probably all night to the responsibility of taking care of a child; they’re students at one of the best colleges in the country, and for now at least they don’t owe allegiance to much more than their own whims.

At the same time, it struck me that wherever you are at 19, adulthood comes sooner than you expect.  The bigger surprise for that kid carrying the case of Rolling Rock is probably not that I used to be like him, but rather how soon he’ll be like me.

Related Posts from Growing Sideways

Life in the trees

Does having kids mean giving up on your dreams? (One dad thinks it does)

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7 thoughts on “That thing around the corner

  1. As someone who is at the age of the kids you described, this post was very interesting for me. The last line seems to sum up how I feel when I read your blog: I’m aware that we’re at different stages in our lives, but I see my own future in your posts. It’s something that I’ve had to think about more now that I’ve started college because there’s more of a domino effect. (I need to take these classes because I want this degree, and I need to do well in them because I want to go to graduate school, and with graduate school comes the idea of starting a family.) Your blog makes the idea of being a married-adult-with-children seem less distant and scary.

    • I meant to say, Anya, to your earlier comment about parental ‘myth making’ that 30 is the new 18: which means that it takes awhile these days to stop being in awe of your parent’s parking skills 🙂 (Google ‘transition to adulthood’ which is the term sociologists use to study the years that kids transition into adults…the big theme is that the transition is taking place later today than it ever used to for reasons like, as you mentioned, the need to go to graduate school.)

      And thanks saying that this blog makes adulthood and kids seem less scary. Writing it has that same effect for me.

  2. I’m so intrigued that we live in a world where the first comment to your post is from a nineteen year old. I was very far away from thinking about the domino effect or being married with children at nineteen. And now I’m twenty-eight and I wish I’d been better counseled about the real world. I am a former teacher as well (in urban schools), and it’s always heartbreaking in some ways to have students illustrate the statistics. A friend’s former student had twins in eighth grade. So many low-income kids never truly get to have a “childhood.” I enjoy your voice and your blog.

    • Thanks for the note, Marnie. In the next few days I’m going to write a post about the sociologist Kathy Edin whose book “Promises I Can Keep” is a pretty penetrating ethnography that tries to explain why low-income girls become teenage mothers even though having a kid at that age would seem to be entirely against their self-interest. (Her answer, in a nutshell, is that motherhood is one thing they can do well at a time in their lives when they’re being told they’re bad at everything else.)

      And on a personal note, I feel the same way you do, which I’ve tried to write about in some of my posts: that basically nothing about my formal or informal education gave me any clue about what it’s like to be an adult.

      It’s great to have you reading the blog. Thanks!

      • Kevin,

        I feel like we have a lot of random connections (I’m a Penn grad, and a former teacher and growing up my dad worked out of the house and back then I called him a “house dad.”) I enjoy your perspective and will keep reading!

  3. And, to add a voice form thirty years n the future, nothing prepared me for this either. It’s fun to watch you wander through the minefields I’ve already picked my way through and reliving that period of life again by watching your trials. But every period of life has had the same wonder of exploration. Not enough fires to gather around and listen to the elders any more.

    • I do wonder: Was the transition to adulthood this beguiling back when we spent more time sitting around fires? I bet it was, even back thing. There’s just nothing that will prepare you for the experience of seeing creases form on your own hands. I’m glad we’ve got this ‘virtual fire’ to gather ’round.

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