There are so many ways to travel the teenage path. You can thrill-seek, looking for your peers' approval by taking things one step further than they ever would. You can plan for the future, never letting a single moment pass without somehow increasing your chances of success. You can be a zombie, trailing your parents by several paces wherever you go, lest anyone figure out that you're related to them.
My old sister went the latter route. A good time was had by all.
I wasn't that kind of teen and I don't see my Jawa being that kind of teen. Even at his worst -- and believe me, we see plenty of his worst these days -- he still acknowledges and treasures his place in our love seat-sized family.
Traversing one's teens requires deciding early on what you are going to do to survive the daily drama that sends so many of your peers careening off the tracks. Relatedly is the question of how much power you're going to give everyone else over your decisions and self-esteem. You can take a step back and say, "Screw it; this is me. I'll live or die on that," or you can look into the roiling waters and say, "No way, man. Whatever it takes to avoid pain, that's what I'll do."
I famously chose the second option and regret it to this day.
But I worry about the Jawa, a steadfast believer in the "this is me" school. Actually, I don't even know if it involves believing or deciding. This is just how he is. He can't be anything else.
This has been by far his most difficult year, socially. Everyone else has zoomed into teenagehood -- and all that entails, both positive and negative. He's still waiting at the starting blocks, clutching a handful of Legos and a Disneyworld guide book.
Totally unschooled in the nuances of adolescent personality and unable to read teenage cues so obvious to everyone else, he's become a target. His clothes are wrong, his interests are wrong, his height is wrong. Even his computer, he told me yesterday, is wrong. Unwilling or unable to adapt, his school days have become hit-or-miss events.
It all comes back to that big decision: when you're facing a social crisis as a 12-year-old, you've got to decide: am I going to do what's needed to fit in, or am I going to stay myself and hope someday I find other misfits who will accept me?
Because make no mistake, they're all misfits. Except maybe Tim Tebow. I can't imagine he had an awkward period in Middle School.
So far, the Jawa's decision has been to stubbornly remain true to himself, an action lauded by every adult he comes across. Everyone loves to point out how teenage misfits all grow up and run the world. Whether or not that's true, deferred glory isn't much of a consolation when you're 12 and you're sitting in the hall after getting kicked out of English class for talking too much while everyone else is still inside, laughing at you.
We could tell him to hang on, that eventually he'll find his niche. Or we could school him on the fickle nature and desperation of early adolescence, tell him it's nothing personal, they're just trying to cover their own backs. Will that prevent him from dishing out some attitude to his Social Studies teacher because someone just embarassed him in front of the whole class by yelling at him to stop humming the theme to the second Pokemon movie?
Almost every adult you meet will profess to not care what anyone else thinks. To me, this is amazing, given that most adolescents wouldn't re-set their watches without checking to see what everyone else has done first. What great truth made all of these well-adjusted grown-ups jettison their teenage baggage? Is it that, or are they telling white lies?
If you ask me, I'll tell you: sure I care what other people think. I was the kid who, every time he wore shorts to school in Junior High, was convinced that this was the day the entire school got together and agreed to not wear shorts. I would be a laughingstock, as I had been in fifth grade when we first moved to California.
The weird thing about our Jawa is that, until he was confronted with the cost of it, he really didn't care what anyone else thought. He did his own thing, dressed his own way, got really enthused about things without caring if anyone else came along. Unfortunately, his reward is increasingly a party of one which, I've got to tell you, tears my heart out. I know my kid can be difficult to deal with, that he's impulsive and gets obsessed with stuff like Disneyworld, talking incessantly about it until you yell at him to stop. He's a challenge, but he's far from the only one. Everyone's got their stuff.
Yesterday, after a conflict that grew into the worst morning of my life, the Jawa and I were sitting on his bedroom floor. He was lying on his back, surrounded by discarded clothes that I was being very careful not to notice. He had his head in my lap, needing to be three years old for awhile.
"Have you ever thought of trying to pick up some of the stuff everyone else does?" I asked him.
"No," he said.
"Because you know, things might be easier if you did."
No response. I didn't deserve one. So I asked him, "Is it worth it?"
"Is what worth it?"
"Is it worth it to not change yourself just to fit in?"
"I mean, all of this could be avoided," I suggested.
"That wouldn't be worth it."
Here are ten of my child's good traits:
1) He is very loyal.
2) He stands up for things and people he believes in.
3) He never sulks. If he's upset about something, you're going to hear about it.
4) He will stand up to bullies either to defend himself or one of his friends.
5) He's pretty funny until he beats a joke into the ground.
6) He can sing and dance and play the saxophone.
7) Turns out he's really good around little kids. Good enough that one of our neighbors plans to hire him as a Mother's Helper this summer.
8) He's good to his mother.
9) He plans to meet with his Bar Mitzvah DJ to give him a "do not play" list of songs whose content, he feels, is inappropriate for his little kid guests.
10) He accepted the gift of a decade with my grandparents and always helped out before anyone had to ask.
I'm thinking of writing these on a note and pinning it to his shirt for school tomorrow. In fact, I think every parent should come up with a top ten list and pin it to their kid's shirt. That way, even during the most turbulent storm of teenage social angst, they can look down at themselves and be reminded of at least ten ways they bring the heat.