Friday, August 23, 2013

Being A Teenager Isn’t Cute. It’s Terrifying.


I went on a mission to find some young adult anthologies, which turned out to be more difficult than I expected.  Most of the ones that I found looked . . . cute.  I have nothing against light-hearted stories.  In fact, I think that there needs to be more light-hearted stories in the world.  But, being a teenager (in my experience) wasn’t cute.  It was awkward, lonely, and terrifying.  I wanted to find anthologies that captured that experience.
I found Sixteen: Stories About That Sweet and Bitter Birthday, edited by Megan McCafferty and On the Fringe, edited by Donald R. Gallo.

The woman who sold me Sixteen said, “Oh, I love this book.  It’s so cute.”

*Head desk*

Luckily, I liked both anthologies.

My favorite story in Sixteen was “Rutford Becomes a Man” by Ned Vizzini.  In this historical fiction story, Rutford’s father takes him to a brothel for his sixteenth birthday, but he has no idea what to do in a brothel.  The results of his confusion and superciliousness are unique, hilarious, and don’t have much to do with sex.

On the Fringe wasn’t as good as Sixteen.  I found several typos, and most of the stories were too moral-heavy for my liking.  The theme was also much narrower than the theme of Sixteen, so the stories started to feel repetitive.  The theme of Sixteen was “Being sixteen,” which is a wide theme.  The character just has to be sixteen or nearly sixteen.  The theme of On the Fringe was “Being bullied in school.”  There are only so many ways to get bullied in school.

The story that stood out was “Muzak for Prozac” by Jack Gantos because it didn’t fit the theme in the same way as the other stories.  There were no geeks being tortured by jocks.  It was about a boy who feels bad for telling the whole school that a girl in his class is a lesbian, so he goes to the grocery store where she works to apologize.  While he tries to find the courage to apologize, he empties bags of potato chips in the aisles, builds igloos out of ice cream containers, and looks closely at lettuce.  The narrator is so quirky that I wanted to keep reading to find out what he does next.  Some other stand-out stories were “Mrs. Noonan,” about a boy who spies on his chemistry teacher’s wife and “WWJD,” which is about a girl who’s trying to live like Jesus in modern-day Wisconsin.      
Both of these anthologies make readers realize how important social lives are to teenagers.   There’s a quote in Sixteen that says:

“One of the reasons I hate Hollywood so much is that they portray the travails of teen life as so innocuous and fun-loving.  People forget how much it all hurts back then.  Someone pinches you and you feel it in your bones.  They don’t want to face what a bunch of sadists teenagers are, wounded narcissists, killers.  All those folks who acted all shocked and outraged about Columbine—where the hell did they go to high school?”  - “The Day I Turned Chickenhearted,” Steve Almond, Page 175.

I have a vivid memory of when the Columbine shootings happened because I lived fairly close to that school.  I was 12 years-old, and I remember my teacher telling us what happened and saying that if we had siblings or friends who went to Columbine, we had to go to the office and call our parents.  I also remember being baffled by the adults who kept saying, “How could this happen?”  Even as 12 year-olds, we were sadists.  I don’t think I went a day without hearing someone called a “Fucktard” (Fucking + Retard = Fucktard).  I saw boys throwing rocks at a girl because she was ugly.  I saw a boy break another boy’s nose in a fight.  I didn’t have any trouble seeing how someone could kill someone else.

Now that I’m an adult, I can see how adults would be baffled by school shootings.  I recently had to do research about the psychology of toddlers, and I learned that toddlers believe that the world exists to serve them.  That’s why they have tantrums when their parents won’t buy them ice cream.  The world is failing to serve them, and this doesn’t match their worldview.   I don’t know much about psychology, but it seems as if it takes children a long time to outgrow this mindset.
When I was 12 and the boys called me a Fucktard, it was devastating.  I started to believe that I was retarded.  Why would the world lie to me?  Why would the boys keep saying it if it wasn’t true?

If someone called me a Fucktard as an adult, I’d probably laugh and wonder if the person was having a bad day.  I understand that the world doesn’t exist to serve me.  Every person in the world is fighting their own battle.  Some people are jerks.  The world sometimes lies.  At some point in my life, I had a perspective shift.
Sixteen and On the Fringe were written for teenagers, but I think that they’re helpful for adults because they remind us that we may not have always had the ability to ignore petty slights.  At one point in our lives, we took everything personally.  Everything hurt.  Every move we made was awkward and embarrassing.  The opinions of our peers were hugely important.

Maybe adults were baffled by the Columbine shootings because they don’t completely remember their lives before the perspective shift that came with growing up.
Or, maybe I’m wrong about all of this.  Feel free to correct me (nicely) in the comments.

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