Two weeks from today my daughter officially becomes a teenager. This morning I looked at our reflections in the bathroom mirror and was startled to see that Leah is only an inch or so away from my height. We joked how she’d soon be towering over me since she’s growing like a weed and I’ve started moving in the other direction. Leah has changed so much during the past year. She let her hair, which she’d been straightening for years, go completely natural, she’s developed her own unique style of dress, and she has shown so many signs that she’s maturing into a caring, evolved, socially conscious person. Leah started 7th grade this year at a new middle/high school and she is loving it. Sure, adolescence is a minefield but this very progressive school seems to be a great fit and she’s thriving there. There is a kindness at this school that I find very heartening. When I finished a school day at her age, I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there. I ran out the door as if I was escaping from prison and I never looked back. When I pick Leah up from school, I am always surprised to watch the long end-of-day ritual that includes tearful goodbyes and so much frantic hugging you’d swear these kids were about to leave the country for a dangerous war zone and thought they were never going to see each other again.
When Leah was little I swore I would never become one of those over-protective fathers who threatened the life of any boy who dared to date my daughter. Now that she is showing some interest in the opposite sex (and to give my poor child one tiny vestige of privacy I’ll refrain from supplying any details!), my resolve is being tested. I’ve met a few boys at her school that I liked so much I’d sign the matchmaker’s shidduch papers tomorrow. As I’ve mentioned before, sometimes I think arranged marriages are a great idea. God knows many of the relationships that people find on their own are total disasters, why not leave it up to the professionals? My great-grandparents’ marriage was arranged for them and it was probably one of the most successful relationships in my family. On the other hand, if I had allowed my family to arrange my marriage, I probably would have ended up with the girl my Aunt Mary tried to fix me up with at her own son’s wedding in Toronto when I was a teenager. She grabbed me during the party and tried to force me to sit at this girl’s table, whispering to me that “her parents are sitting on two million bucks.” I think she was even a distant relative. Eww. Okay, forget the arranged marriages, I guess Leah will have to find her own bashert.
As a freelance writer and book editor, I spend many of my days roaming the neighborhoods of Los Angeles, stopping at libraries, coffeehouses, and bookstores that have wireless Internet access. I often find myself in one of these places when school lets out and I frequently get the opportunity to overhear conversations between groups of teenage boys.
Yesterday I was sitting in front of a Starbucks in Brentwood, one of the wealthiest areas on the west side of Los Angeles. A group of five high school boys from the exclusive Brentwood School barreled into the courtyard at about 3:30, and I found their conversation and demeanor a little horrifying. I tried to think back to when I was a teenager and I suppose I would have been equally repulsed listening to my own conversations—teenagers will be teenagers, boys will be boys. Talking like that amongst themselves is all part of the experience of growing up and figuring out who they are, right? Still, there were plenty of behaviors exhibited by this group of privileged teens that made me want to interrupt their afterschool gathering and give them some much needed advice, especially if these guys represent the dating pool my daughter will be calling on. She doesn’t live or go to school anywhere near Brentwood, but I’m sure these guys were not that atypical. So, Brentwood Boys, here are just a few words of wisdom from your eavesdropping elder:
Pull your damn pants up! Look, I get that certain fashion statements come and go and that such fads are always judged as outrageous by the older generation. Hell, I used to wear a lime-green Nehru jacket to school in the early 1970s. My other “uniform” was an old t-shirt with a faded tuxedo drawn on the front, ripped jeans that were way too long, and a very beaten-up fringed leather jacket. I also acknowledge that as an adult I’m no fashion maven—my daily garb hasn’t changed very much from my high school jeans and t-shirts days. But in the history of modern civilization, has there ever been a fad as ridiculous as baggy pants worn completely under the butt? I heard that this style originated in prisons where men were not allowed to have belts. Okay, I get it. But you guys are cinching your expensive designer pants with even more expensive belts, making sure that your Abercrombie-clad rears are in full view of the public whether we like it or not. Get real, boys, your gangsta-posing is SO 2005.
Lay off the caffeine! Wow, you guys are already slaves to the evil Starbucks empire? This is not great news for your growth patterns or nervous systems. Believe me, from where I sit, you teens are jittery enough, what’s with the venti mochas, frappucinos, and lattes? And the two of you downing Red Bulls, what kind of high are you getting from that? You’re just asking for trouble. You can look forward to dehydration, restlessness, arrythmias, and major sleep deprivation in your future. Let’s not even talk about the empty calories you’re downing in those syrupy drinks. Sure, most of you have super-fast metabolisms NOW and are as thin as heroin addicts, but just wait. As for the one overweight kid in your group, I hope you’re getting plenty of exercise and not spending too much time on the Internet. Your “Fuck Me, I’m Fat” t-shirt tells me that you’re not completely self-conscious about your size, but then again, the t-shirt is so blindingly offensive, I’m too busy wondering about the dress code at Brentwood to worry about your health.
Put down your cell phones. Five guys hanging out together and yet in the thirty minutes I was at the table next to yours, there was never a moment when at least two of you weren’t jabbing on your cell phones. What is so important that you have to ignore your friends sitting there? You also seemed to enjoy giving each other the finger during several impromptu cell phone photo sessions. By now you must have endless galleries of such photos. I don’t know who you’re talking to on your cell phones but I hope it’s not your mom or girlfriend with that constant barrage of expletives. But, hey, I remember the phase where every other word out of my mouth was a four-letter one. And I certainly would never have talked that way to my teachers or parents. So go ahead and express yourselves any fuckin’ way you want when you’re together, but DON’T be calling any of your female friends bitches or hos.
STOP SMOKING! Really, guys, WTF? Out of the five of you, four were chain smoking the whole time you were there. Are you freaking nuts? I guess you're all 18 so your smoking isn’t illegal in California, just clinically INSANE! With everything that is known today about cigarettes and the effects of nicotine and tobacco on the body, why the hell would you ever start smoking in the first place? Do you really think it’s “cool?” Is it possible that you could be that stupid? Statistics would say that two or three of you have at least one grandparent who has died from some hideous smoking-related illness. My mom started smoking at your age and she was a three-pack-a-day addict for decades until she finally gave it up. We were all so proud of her for licking her addiction but eight years later she still died of small-cell lung cancer. Believe me, you don’t want to go through that. I know you all still think you’re immortal, but you’re not. This is the WORST thing you could be doing to your health, you are literally killing yourselves and you need to STOP it immediately. Honestly, for all my worries about becoming the clichéd overprotective father, I think I might lock Leah in her bedroom if that would keep her from developing a smoking habit. Luckily, she thinks smoking is just as disgusting and dangerous as I do. Expensive as hell, too. Do your parents know what you’re doing with the money they give you?
Okay, I’m done with my speech, Brentwood Boys. Maybe you’re really nice guys and just going through the normal phases of adolescence. But stop with the cigarettes and all the other stuff that is dangerous like drugs and booze and unprotected sex. And when you do drink or do drugs, for God sakes, stay away from your fancy cars. Don’t think you’re entitled to a free ride in life just because your parents are rich. Pay attention in school and do whatever you can to make the world a better place. Or just try to get through these years without making a total ass of yourself, you’ll thank me later. Remember to be kind, to look people in the eyes when you talk to them, and to treat everyone you meet with respect, even if you think they are total dipshits. Good luck, guys. Oh, and one more little thing….if you ever hurt my daughter, I may have to kill you.