By WALLACE BAINE
Let’s just call it a coincidence. That I want to address the subject of teen misery has nothing to do with the fact that I have two teenage daughters at home, one of whom just blew out 16 candles on her birthday cake last week.
I learned long ago that when a writer uses his own children as material, it dumps a considerable payload of embarrassment and self-consciousness on those kids’ backs and, well, I gotta sleep at night too, y’know.
So, what I have to say about teen misery has nothing to do with my own daughters, OK? In fact, I rarely even see my kids, often get their names mixed up and can only guess at what schools they’re attending these days – if they’re still attending school. They do grow up so fast.
The subject of teen misery was a prominent one this year due to a spate of heartbreaking and enraging suicides by gay teenagers across the country, most of them linked to harrassment and bullying from other teens. This led to a public information campaign called “It Gets Better” in which famous and semi-famous adults – many of them gay – sought to reach out to LGBT teens with a simple, strong, hopeful message. Many of the testimonials showed celebrities setting aside their public personas to speak from the heart and, as a result, some were really quite moving. Nothing is more valuable to someone in pain than someone else with credibility saying “I’ve been there.”
Of course, gay teens face a gauntlet every day that other kids can scarcely imagine. They are the ones who have to deal with the blunt end of a form of bigotry that, though gradually weakening, is still sanctioned by many politicians and religious leaders and nurtured within families in parts of American culture. The frustrating thing for gay kids is that they have to cope with homophobia on top of the already considerable general awfulness of being a teen, misery wrapped in torment and slathered in agony. LGBT teens deserve to be singled out for a helping hand because they are on the front lines.
But the “It Gets Better” message works for all teens, gay or otherwise, who feel different or isolated or alone. Life for fat kids, for example, isn’t exactly a Hawaiian vacation either. Kids from minority ethnicities, kids from different socio-economic backgrounds, kids from fractured families, kids with medical or psychological issues – a lot of them have tasted the anguish of teenage loneliness. Kids with unusual names, with eccentric interests, with funny shoes, with prominent Adam’s apples, with hair that doesn’t behave in the mornings – the markers that separate kids from each other are just about infinite, and bullies, gossipers and social climbers aren’t in the habit of making distinctions between the big differences and the trivial ones.
Ironically, kids from nice, affluent liberal homes often get blindsided by the viciousness and isolation of the teen years. These kind of parents generally work hard to create a kind of idealized world basedon fairness, kindness and appreciation of difference for their child in his/her early years. The contrast in middle school and high school – an environment in which often those kinds of values are abandoned in favor of a Darwinian, only-the-strong-survive ethic – is discombobulating, to say the least.
So, if you’re like me and have dau… – uh, “friends” who are surfing the big waves of teendom right now (and getting more wipeouts than usual), find a way to customize the “It Gets Better” message and let them know that, even though it feels like it, they are not alone. One day, they’ll realize that, of course – sitting around a dorm room or a coffeehouse with their adult friends, sharing stories of teenage woe and then they’ll have more than a few well-earned laughs.
When I was a high-school sophomore, I had a terrible stuttering problem, an affliction that, at the time, felt like leprosy. If I had to choose between speaking up in class and being trapped in a phone booth with 500 angry hornets, I would have chosen the hornets every time. Unfortunately, I never got that choice. What’s more, I wore eyeglasses, with one eye much more near-sighted than the other. In those days, when glasses were made of glass and not plastic, one lens was much heavier than the other. So – can you picture it? – I had to face the cruel mocking world each day with permanently crooked glasses.
Most of the time, I was invisible. But occasionally, I found myself in the crosshairs of bullies and, at least once, I was worked over pretty good by a bunch of them behind the school because … well, there was no “because.”
The point is, I know what it’s like to have feelings of self-loathing dive-bombing my psyche like deranged crows. And, if you ask around, you’ll find that lots and lots of pretty well-adjusted productive adults have a similar story.
So, to my teen friends, it does get better. But more than that, these torments today will probably turn you into a more decent and empathetic person tomorrow. People who were geeks and freaks in high school often find their stride later and turn out to be talented and distinctive personalities worth knowing and loving. They are, a lot of times, the best of us.
Pick your favorite cliché – lights at the end of tunnels, darkness before dawn, blessings in disguise, cocoons into butterflies, the deep snow before the glorious spring. They wouldn’t be cliches if they weren’t true.
The misery you feel today won’t last, but the confidence and self-respect you’ll get by surviving it, that becomes a permanent part of you.