Nearly all teenagers reject the wisdom of their parents at one point or another so the most scrupulous care and feeding can still result in the creation of an abrasive little puke. Prisons and cemeteries are full of angsty teenagers
who lacked a strong adult role model at the point that they started ignoring advice from mom and dad. Every young person will cling to someone during this period, be it a conscientious teacher or the hopelessly delinquent
kid down the street.
A parent's warnings become as predictable as the changing colors of a semaphore and anything fun or interesting seems to get the automatic red light. Puberty made many of us want to gun the engine at the first sight of that yellow caution rather than waiting out a long red and it's a miracle that more of us weren't broadsided in the process.
The young killers at Columbine clung to hateful notions or to nothing at all as they passed through the pivotal vacuum of adolescence. It was so easy for the press to wag a finger at the luckless parents and almost impossible for them to muster a defense. How could their parents not have known that they were stockpiling explosives? Surely if they had taken a more active role in rifling through their children's belongings the weapons cache would have been uncovered and the tragedy averted. The reality was that the parents were among the hardest hit victims and society at large was the co-conspirator. We engaged in mass denial as a community when we pointed the spotlight of blame on bad parenting.
Call me a wacky idealist but I believe that their path could have been altered by a single caring adult outside of the family. One grown-up who wasn't too busy making money to spend time with them could have swayed one of the boys and he could have swayed the other. A compassionate mentor with no parental axe to grind might have shown them a palatable lifestyle and stopped the bleeding.
It's a near certainty that every parent will be shrugged off at some point and a tragic reality that very few grown-ups are willing to jump in and guide a child who is not their own flesh and blood. As long as our child has the best school clothes and a healthy breakfast, what do we care about the kid who sits next to him on the school bus? Well, we care about that other kid because he will likely be Junior's greatest influence during the most dangerous epoch of his life. Even people without children should care about that other kid because if you don't, he might eventually do you damage.
I'm surprised that more young people aren't dangerously adrift.
The professor at the end of the dock
kept pretty much to himself at first. He spent the summers on a tiny houseboat
called the "JJ," tapping out his novel one letter at a time. You could hear him halfway down the dock, hunting and pecking
on the clunky old Underwood
, occasionally cannonball
ing into the river to invigorate his muse
Ben was a man of some girth and the tiny houseboat moved as he did. When he stood on the edge of the poop deck to jump in the water, the little JJ listed precariously under his weight. After the sound of a splash the boat bounced around like a bobber in a heavy chop and you could hear dishes and silverware and sometimes the typewriter itself flying about in the cabin. He'd struggle back onto the bobbing little vessel and the "rat-a-tat-tat" continued until sunset.
We first met Ben on one of the days that his typewriter crashed to the deck and required repair. He came over to our boat to borrow tools to fix the typewriter and introduced himself to my mother who was hanging laundry on the front deck.
"Hello, I live over there on the JJ and I wondered if you could loan me a wrench."
"Wrench? Oh, of course we have wrenches, at first I thought you said 'wench' and I was startled."
"Well, I suppose I'll take whatever you can spare."
My mother blushed with embarrassment and I think Ben was smitten. He singled her out as a favorite that day and began to favor me by association.
Ben wasn't anything like the other grown-ups that I knew, for one thing he was much smarter. He was an English professor with a fistful of advanced degrees but beyond that he was streetwise, having come up the hard way in depression era Hoboken. My delinquent tendencies weren't shocking to him most likely because they reminded him of his own misspent youth. I was a little cigarette chomping wise guy but Ben never busted my chops about it or tried to mold my behavior.
It was grand to watch the interaction of the English professor with the regular stiffs on the dock because they were never really sure when he was making fun of them. Ben wasn't mean spirited but he could always be counted on to deflate a pufferfish who had it coming. His wit could slice an idiot into croutons before the victim even detected the sting of his blade, then his charm and humor would bandage the wounds as though nothing had ever happened.
The main thing that separated the professor from the rest of the grown-ups was that he never talked down to me.
If you ever want to get a rise out of the adults in your life, tell them that you plan to quit high school
and become a professional gambler. My secret ambition was to be a hobo and ride the rails but I thought that professional gambler sounded jazzier and more ambitious. The fact was that I didn't much care what I had to do for bread, I just wanted out of that creepy high school
I was three weeks into the eleventh grade and was banned from all but two of my classes for insubordination or being argumentative. All I had left on my schedule was a math class that I was failing badly and a speech class called "discussion and debate," in which I excelled. The remainder of my day was spent under house arrest in the counselor's office.
Things were beginning to get out of hand in my math class and I had to face the reality that I wasn't long for that world. The teacher's name was Al Fink, which by itself would have been enough ammunition for most subversive smart-asses. He was the only teacher who encouraged students to call him by his first name and he must have thought that we thought it was because he was cool. Guess again Mr. Fink.
I found out that Al was short for Aloicious and discovered that he liked that even less.
"Listen, Aloicious, if the set of numbers between 2 and 3 are finite, go ahead and write me a list."
"Go to the principal's office NOW, Mr. Shute!"
This cat was obviously clinging to Ptolemy and couldn't grasp curved space. Fink told the principal that I was no longer welcome in his class or anywhere in the mathematics wing for that matter. It wasn't even October of my Junior year and I was persona non grata in more than ninety percent of the building.
I decided to do everybody a favor and quit. Counselors and parents did their thing and told me what an idiot I was and pretty much every grown-up in my life wrote me off as a lost cause.
All except for one.
would be very different if Ben had not intervened. I remember my hoodlum
buddies and wonder how things might have changed for them with a Ben of their own. He wasn't related to me in any way and had no obligation to see to my well being, yet he was willing to spend thousands of hours on my behalf.
Ben was the only grown-up who didn't tell me I was an imbecile for wanting to quit high school and actually intimated the opposite may be the case. He said that he had heard of students being admitted to his University before they graduated high school and convinced me to give college a try.
Two months into my second semester of college, the University discovered that I was admitted in error, with a horrific high school transcript and no diploma or GED. I showed Ben the letter of eviction from the dormitory and he drove more than three hundred miles to my high school that very day. He pounded his fist on the principal's desk and said that he wasn't leaving until somebody wrote me a completely fictitious, glowing letter of recommendation.
Even with perfectly good parents and all of the comforts of middle-class suburbia, I would have been in deep tapioca without the kindness of a stranger. When I look around today I see parents zealously protecting their children from outside influence and it saddens me. Not only do mother and father not know best, there's a pretty good chance that they're entirely clueless. When my parents spoke it sounded just like the muffled gibberish of the adults in the Charlie Brown cartoons. Parents are the last people on Earth that a troubled teenager will trust so I'm sure that many go completely untethered.
Without Ben's example, my distaste for the human condition would have been total and I would likely have come to a bad end.
The day that the police pulled us over I knew that I wanted to be just like Ben when I grew up and that I had found my mentor.
My old man knew me too well to let me practice driving with his brand new Monte Carlo but Ben feared less for the rusty little Pinto. He bragged that the car could do a two minute mile on a proper downgrade but comforted my parents with the assurance that it topped out at around forty.
"Do you know why I stopped you?"
"No I don't, officer … sir."
Every hooligan knows that you don't get lippy with the cops no matter what. It's "yes sir" and "no sir" and "thank you sir, may I have another." I was driving on a learner's permit and justifiably terrified of cops so my heart fell to my stomach when Ben tossed in his two cents from the passenger seat.
"Tell him that the Pinto runs on a rubber band and isn't capable of surpassing the speed limit. He needs new batteries for his radar gun."
The policeman heard Ben's wisecrack and his expression turned stony and mean. My insurance rates were already going to be obscene with the built in surcharge for being a teenager. The last thing I needed was a moving violation and for the first time in my life I was wishing that Ben would just shut the Hell up.
"I stopped you because you blew through the latter part of a yellow light at the intersection back there."
The smart-ass English professor chortled loud enough for the cop to hear and in that moment proved to me that it was possible to be grown-up and cool at the same time.
"The latter part of a yellow? What color is that?"