Remember when you were young and the clock seemed to snail walk around the hours of a school day? How about the way time seemed to stretch and elongate when you were waiting for a birthday or Christmas morning to come around? Do you remember the explosive breath of freedom upon stepping out into the first rays of summer vacation? Those hot-house days were bottomless; ice cream trickles melting down an arm, a rainbow prism seen through the arc of a sprinkler on a sweltering August day. A bit of child magic.
Viewing childhood from the banks of adulthood is like traveling through a magical time warp, a rose-tinted wormhole. Because in and out of those breaths of freedom and ice cream sundaes, outside the nostalgic hopscotch box, there’s a whole lot of confusion and flailing and mistakes. There are the gut-wrenching hairpin turns of adolescence. There’s heartache and betrayal and feelings that get splintered and broken.
It ain’t easy growing up.
We fall all over ourselves to make sure our kids have only the good bits. The ice cream and the sprinklers. But the truth is, there’s a lot of bad and ugly that goes along with the good, no matter how much whipped cream we use to cover it up. Even if we put a cherry on the top.
I worry at times we are trying too hard to blunt the edges of childhood. I worry we are filing down the sharp corners of growing up in an effort to protect. I worry we are over thinking, over-analyzing and over-sanitizing childhood.
When I was ten, the boys in fourth grade called me Jello Buns one gym class. I was a stick insect at ten. No back, no booty, no bass. I can’t think there was much ass to quiver, but whatever there was apparently wiggled and jiggled enough that for weeks I was Jello Buns in gym.
When I was in high school, the highest status symbol of girlfriend-hood, of couple-dom, was wearing a boy’s class ring. I remember carefully wrapping yarn around the underside of JP’s* ring so it would fit my finger. Then I went and did something sophmoronic and in a fit of misguided honesty, broke his heart. I returned his ring and never wore another, though many around me did. From my goth-flower perch I watched notes get passed in class, conversations taking place behind locker doors, couples tucked under stairwells. I witnessed nervous boys asking girls to one formal dance or another, shy girls lighting up with delight at being asked to prom. No one ever asked me. I spent most of my high school years watching one boy after another trip into love with my best friend.
All of those things bruised. They cut deep and stung and made my heart ache. They also turned me into a writer. Nothing spurs creativity more than ostracization and heartbreak.
Everywhere I look these days I see extreme examples of trying to shield kids from growing up, from experiencing any sort of pain, any sort of awkwardness. We’re trying to spare their feelings. We’re trying to, as my husband so eloquently put it, democratize childhood.
As much as we try, we won’t succeed. Because kids are mean and childhood is vicious. Not all the time, but sometimes. There is a reason why Lord of the Flies resonates with young and old. More than it is vicious however, growing up is confusing. It’s awkward. It’s eighteen years of trying to figure out what the hell is going on. No matter what we do, no matter how fair or safe or cushy or blunt we try to make it, no amount of rules or policy is going to make everyone feel welcome or invited.
No amount of sanitizer we dump on childhood is going to make it any less messy. No amount of bubble wrap is going to protect my son’s heart the first time it gets broken. No policy of inclusion is going to guarantee getting asked to prom. No matter how many coats of rose-colored paint we slap on the idea of childhood, there are going to be black spots that seep through.
Acknowledging the black spots exist is as important as offering a soft landing place when they fall. Sometimes more so.
As fond as my memories of sherbet cannonballs and Red Rover are, there were lots of things that broke me too. But those heartaches and heartbreaks, the ribbing and the meanness, those things also pushed me out of the tiny confines of what I thought I was capable of. Would I have flown as high or free if I had gone to the prom? Who knows. Would I be able to tap into the pangs of those teenage affairs of the heart as easily as I do? Doubtful. All things being equal, I’ll take the person I am. All the teasing and the heart cracks, the banging into doorways and the befuddlement—all of those things are the capillaries which lead to the veins which lead to the very heart of me.
Life is full of experiences, good and bad. Childhood and adolescence are too. We can’t make it fair. We can’t make it all rosy and creamy and good. No matter how hard you try, your children’s memories of childhood are going to be just as mixed and matched as my own.
We need to be careful we don’t dump too many anti-bacterial confines on the whole mess of it. We all need a little dirt in our guts to build up resistance. To get stronger. To make us who we’re meant to be, even if it takes us a few decades longer to figure it out. Even if you don’t get asked to the prom.
*not his real name.
There’s a writing tag on this one because one of the main themes of the novel is the messiness of growing up, of trying to figure out how to get though it all without too many bruises and scars.