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