As a novelist, one of the things you have to do is to walk in the shoes of someone else. In my case, I've spent the last nineteen months in the mind of an 18-year-old. (And a 46 year old woman, but I digress) You do remember, don't you guys, what it was like to be eighteen? This little journey might jog your memory...
What Is It Like to be Eighteen?
Well, my life is a strange sea of unsurety and absoluteness. Everything I learn seems to scatter what I've already learned to the wind, but what I do know is that it will get better. That I'm young still, and my whole life is in front of me. That's one thing my teachers and coaches never forget to tell me. You're young, don't worry. Everything gets better, and if you don't like what's happening in your life, all you have to do it is change it and try something new.
I believe them. And thank goodness, too. It gives me a lot of confidence to face a world that seems to shift every few months. The other thing that helps me get by is seeing how easily adults live. They do whatever they feel like, watch whatever they want, stay out all night if they're in the mood, and no one ever says anything to them. They're accountable to no one. I have to tell you, I'm looking forward to growing up. It's going to be great!
The one thing I don't understand though, is why they keep telling me to enjoy "these years", and joke about their life in high school like it was the best time of their life. It's not that they don't remember it exactly, or that they're lying, but I don't think they remember how so much of it simply sucks. They forget what it's like to show up at a party or a friend's house and not be wearing the right jeans. Or how nervous you feel when the hot girl comes over to talk to you. The adults reminisce about those times as if that stress was somehow fun. And if I try to explain how difficult those moments are, they forget that just because I'm laughing doesn't mean I think it's funny.
That's my biggest problem with adults. They look at me with those wide eyes that tell you they wish they could be my age, but then dismiss my struggles and patronize me with their stupid cliches that are supposed to make me feel better. I'm eighteen, I'm not a moron. And why do adults have to be so damn patronizing? They tell us that there's a generation gap, that we all need to understand each other a little bit more. Right. They tell us this, of course, while they're judging me about my clothes or hairstyle, which are different than what they wore when they were my age. They reminisce about these things with each other while my friends and I are there, as if we don't speak the same language.
And teachers, please don't get me started about teachers. If there is a dumber lot to understanding us than teachers, I don't know who it would be. Every year we get the same five teachers. One will be amazing, and their class will be a mix of fun and learning. These teachers are usually easygoing and coach one of the school teams. They'll look you in the eyes when they talk to you and actually listen before they speak. They're the best. Another teacher will be really nice and completely unable to control the class. We'll all like them, and want to behave, but that's hard to do when someone is texting you jokes from last night's episode of Glee. The third teacher will be an enforcer. They'll be super strict, rarely smile, and give you tons of work. The good news is that you end up learning. (If you don't drop the course.) The bad news is that no one will like the teacher though, because you're never fully convinced they're human, or think you're human. The fourth teacher will be old and boring and not care that they're boring. They'll do the lesson plans, keep the class under control by simply kicking people out, and never learn your name unless you're a troublemaker. The fifth teacher is the most common. Usually they've been teaching for a while (You can always tell by their voice, which is permanently set to baby tones) and they'll play more movies in their class than the local cineplex. They always make it sound like its OUR idea, too. "I'd prep a lesson, but it's Friday, and you guys probably want to watch a movie, don't you?" Why do you think us teenagers talk so much when we go to the movies? It's like class time. Movies are a great excuse for the teacher to turn the lights off and let us talk. These teachers always seem nice, and they grade easy, but they never coach, never get involved. Sometimes I'm not sure that they know we're even there.
Hmm. I don't think I should include that section on teachers, but I guess I'll leave it in because we're supposed to have a lot of words in this essay.
In conclusion, I'd say the best thing about being eighteen is that you have your whole life in front of you. The worst thing about being eighteen is waiting for that life to happen. The good news is that in a few years I'll be an adult and I won't have to wait for my life to start, I can simply do what I want, and if necessary, change things up. Right now, I'm limited, but once I graduate from university, all bets are off, and I'll finally be free!
Spending time in the mind of an 18-year-old, even as a writer, can be mildly uncomfortable. Not because the mind set is so different, but the way in which it challenges my expectations as an adult. We worship the young in western culture, but that worship is often destructive as we seek to make ourselves younger both physically and mentally, instead of remembering what the young see in us, and why they are so hopeful.
Not a day goes by where I don't meet someone my age (38) or even younger who has given up, who has traded in the dreams of their youth and reflected on the few wrinkles in the mirror by writing themselves out of their own story. Sometimes we do this through religion. We accept the "roles" placed on us like bindings because the priests of these cults assure us that it is only through these "roles" where we will find freedom. But for those of us who manage to avoid these traps, it still isn't easy.
For me, often the biggest difficulty is waking up in the morning and realizing that I'm 38, that my "whole life" is no longer in front of me and that I've actually used up more than half of it. Then I think about what I've accomplished over the past twenty years and feel the need to work much, much harder. What I never think about however, is the freedom the 18-year-old sees as a possibility in my life. Too often I have my head down just trying to finish stuff and forget that tomorrow I can do whatever I want. I can drive somewhere, go on vacation, start a new project, take up dance lessons, help an orphanage, start an orphanage, listen to music, watch a movie, sing and pray, pray naked, visit people in the hospital, throw a penny in the fountain, or steal pennies from the fountain... it's all right there in front of me.
That is my life. This is my life.
This week, unless you're a teenager (in which case, YOU ARE SO LUCKY), take a trip back in time to when you were eighteen. Think about what you remember the most from those days and what you loved and didn't love. If you were to have a conversation with your old self, what would you say? And what would they say to you? If you listen closely, you'll hear more than you ever imagined, and just maybe, they'll help you get back to the life you once dreamed about, the one where freedom is a common currency and youth is never wasted on the young.