The twelve graduating seniors of Valier High School were featured on the Valierian and as usual I get all absorbed in looking at them. Seven boys, five girls. Moody, innocent, athletic, sultry, thoughtful. I recognize most of the family names. This is the second Jason Calf Robe I’ve seen go by. The Mary Mittens I knew must have been three generations back in Thomasine Mittens’ genealogy. These kids don’t look THAT different from the kids who have been graduating from around here for the last fifty years. But I know they are different in ways you can’t see.
I wonder what music they listen to. An article in the New York Times by David Hajou was talking about cohorts in music, taking off from Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday. His premise was that a cohort forms from the music they hear when they are fourteen, so he lines up John Lennon, Joan Baez, Paul Simon, George Clinton, Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin, Carole King, Brian Wilson, Lou Reed, Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia. The idea is that in 1955-56 rock ‘n roll erupted and changed those youngsters forever. You sure couldn’t prove it by me. I barely noticed Elvis Presley. I don’t know half these people on this list even though I’m about their age.
But I certainly remember 1955-56. I was a junior in high school, deep into dramatics, wound so tight emotionally that I ended up in storms of desperate weeping without any cause. It was the year Hungary tried to break free and the US said, “Do it! We’ll back you!” and then we didn’t. I woke up at 4AM to do my homework, because I was gone to rehearsals all evening. I had the radio on low to monitor Hungary. We had a two-bedroom house -- I slept in one and my two brothers shared the other. My father traveled but when he was home, he and my mother slept on a fold-out couch downstairs. She was going back to college and woke to study then. My brother had a paper route and left the house. On weekends we all slept until noon.
Fourteen is when one’s key mammal brain starts to be overgrown by the human layer of brain, the part that has empathy and demands justice. It’s an age when one can envision non-existence and want it and know how to make it happen. It’s the front edge of falling in love -- may you never fall out -- but you do. Still, hormones rule -- you can smell the result. People change, esp. boys so that they barely look the same and their long bones grow inches in months. I downloaded these checklists from the Internet.
Emotional and social
Concern about looks and clothes
Focus on self, going back and forth between high expectation and lack of confidence
Make more of their own choices about friends, sports and studying with their own personality and interests
Interest in and influence by peer group
Moodiness, may become short-tempered sometimes
May have anxiety from challenging school work
Some teens sometimes feel depressed
Easy to have eating problems
Express feeling through talking better
A stronger sense of right and wrong
Increasing ability for complex thought
If a girl, completes growth spurt
If a boy, reaches peak and then completes growth spurt
If a boy, voice deepens
If a boy, adds muscle while body fat declines
May have had sexual intercourse
If a boy, motor performance increases dramatically
Is likely to show formal operational reasoning on familiar tasks
Displays relativistic reasoning in familiar situations
Masters the components of formal operational reasoning in sequential order on different types of tasks
Becomes less self-conscious and self-focused
Becomes better at everyday planning and decision making
Evaluates vocational options in terms of interests, abilities, and values
Social and emotional development
Combines features of the self into an organized self-concept
Self-esteem differentiates further
Self-esteem tends to rise
Is likely to be searching for an identity
Is likely to engage in societal perspective taking
Is likely to have a conventional moral orientation
Gender stereotyping may decline
Has probably started dating
Conformity to peer pressure may decline
Can read and interpret adult literary works
What strikes me about these lists is that they are so “nice.” Where’s the stuff about defiance of authority, craving sex, getting interested in forbidden behavior and substances, forming gangs and pairs? Where’s the stuff about personality changes like temporary insanity, obsession, refusal to take basic hygiene measures like cutting nails or washing hair or else a refusal to ever come out of the shower where there is an array of scented personal products.
What easy marks for the advertising industry. They are daytime burglars, drunks, carjackers. Whores. Dead bodies. If you can survive fourteen, you’re probably going to be okay the rest of your life, but fourteen can also mark you for life. In Europe fourteen is the beginning of legal adulthood.
It used to be that you could tell where the “fourteens” were by the seismic level of noise. Now you don’t hear their music -- instead you see a strange hypnotized look on their faces and little wires from their earbuds. The comic strip called “Zits” captures this phenomenon, usually combined with a capacity for mis-hearing and non-integration that’s close to what in a young child is called autism.
We used to keep baby animals of one kind or another and since their life-trajectory is shorter -- born in the spring, they had to be near-mature by fall -- we became sharply aware of the transformation that in humans is called adolescent or puberty. Short of castration, there was no hope of persuading a little fox or bobcat that it should stay a baby. Suddenly sexual, craving movement and freedom, hot-tempered and stinky, yesterday’s cuddler was suddenly declaring equality and maybe even dominance. But there was always variation between animals. One might take it mild and the next -- even a sibling -- become ferocious.
Humans are animals. The same basic biology happens. Culture has to deal with it. Some do well and some either abandon the fourteens or so confine them that it becomes a kind of castration. The worst thing to do, it seems to me, is to pretend and euphemize and lock out. In the best of all worlds, high school carries a fourteen safely to eighteen, a young adult.
I feel fourteen myself. The world feels fourteen. Is the Middle East the new Hungary? But this time we did help. Some. Our eighteens will have to finish the job. And the fourteens. And theirs.