Since high school, I’ve been increasingly exposed to the idea that teenagers are over-venturesome and that they epitomize the classic devil-may-care attitude. Looking back, I kind of wish I’d at least have anticipated that I too would get caught up in the presumption and careless generalization of what most people perceive teenagers to be. There were times when I'd feel as though innocence had an expiration date that I wasn’t aware of, and it would crush me. But that was then because one day I finally discovered that the presumptions and generalizations that I’d once despised weren’t nearly as baseless as I’d initially thought, and I realized that I was the one who'd been wrong.
For the longest time, I assumed that the stereotypical teenager was a myth. Whenever people would say that “ALL teenagers bend the law and have an ongoing list of reckless extracurriculars,” I’d answer with a disbelieving scoff. I thought it was absurd and slightly amusing that kids as young as 12 or 13 could be suspected of such scandalous conduct. That only happens in the movies, I insisted, until I saw for myself how wrong I'd been. It was only then that I began to see the prejudice I so despised as weariness in disguise.
In 2016, at the age of 15, I unknowingly popped the bubble that was my sheltered life. Unsuspectingly, I’d stepped into a divergent reality in search of more than the only life I knew. Just to clarify, though, I didn’t join a street gang or interrupt a drug deal or anything. I went to Spain for a semester to study abroad, and the intent was entirely noble.
But I was mostly alone in that regard. Out of the 30 something students that showed up for the two-day orientation in Barcelona that year, I was likely the only one there for the reasons I said I was. What’s worse, in two days, I'd learned so many things that I wish I could unlearn. I mean, does it really matter that hash smells like chocolate, that shrooms go well with acid, that it’s possible to sneak an entire vaping kit past airport security, that private school is awesome ‘cause parents never know what goes on, or that some teenagers live to reinvent "reckless?" I don't know how much of this is true since I didn't take part in any of those activities or conversations, but... WOW.
I don’t know if everything I learned is supposed to be common knowledge, but I nearly crawled under my bed after learning it all for the first time. I thought for sure I was rooming with wild, reckless, intoxicated crackpots, and I wanted out. The girls, my temporary roommates, weren’t much older than I had been, but the things they claimed to have done seemed altogether too “mature” (inappropriate) for their age. Nothing that anyone could’ve said beforehand would’ve prepared me for their scandalous escapades. (My "scandalous" apparently = some people's "normal.") I was just glad they went to someone else’s room to do whatever it is that they did.
Although these encounters had all been brief, the orientation had permanently affected me. It caused me to develop a kind of self-consciousness that I’d never known to feel before. Suddenly I sensed the way our program supervisors practically begged for us to behave, and I suspected that they must’ve seen in me what they saw in everyone else. After that, I wondered if I’d have to have my intentions tattooed on my forehead for them not to be misunderstood. I began to suspect every teenager that I met. Is she pretending to be tame? Will he suddenly grow a second head after 10 PM and whip out a fake ID or a bottle of vodka? Are they just as wild as the teenagers I’d met at orientation? By that point, it was almost natural for me to wonder because I'd learned the hard way that kindness and small talk could be deceiving, and I had to be cautious.
Even though my two-day experience in Barcelona didn’t convince me that all teenagers were the same, it accurately foreshadowed the crazy encounters that I’d soon face. The only upside that came from mixing with so many different crowds and cultures under these unconventional circumstances (not always by choice) was that it helped me understand something: I'll never truly grasp a perspective that isn’t mine until I learn it and live it for myself. Obviously, I had a lot to learn.
My first revelation was that “stereotypical” teenagers aren’t all that stereotypical because there are too many of them to be considered that way. In fact, they’re more like “average” teenagers. Around the same time, I also realized that I was in the minority. Not everyone is like me, and a lot of people aren't what they seem.
By the time I returned home, I’d learned two more things:
People who don’t really know me either laugh out loud or inside their heads when I tell them that I’m not into risky teenage recreations, that I've never even tried them. Though I hate how they doubt me, I've come to realize that it is pretty hard to believe when you're not there to witness the truth firsthand because most people ARE their teenage reputation.
Stereotypical/average teenagers ≠ all bad or dangerous, and they aren’t all unfit for friendship. Many of them have enough reservations to know when enough is enough, although they’re still equally prone to bad decisions.
Sadly, though, most of the teenagers I knew didn't have a tamer side. They were certifiably wild and indefensible, and there wasn’t a time when I didn’t fear for my safety and sanity around them. Whenever the decision was mine, I chose to stay far away from them because it disappointed me to watch them desire the kind of thrills that they did without any regard for consequences. YOLO, right? We’re teenagers. We can do whatever we want. Screw the world. Kiss my butt. I dare you to arrest me.
It was as if they were stuck in some kind of trance and sick with tunnel vision, though it didn’t matter what drove them to do what they did or who was to blame because they’d already chosen to play and pay with their own lives. For that reason, we'll never see eye to eye. Teenage angst and freedom of self-discovery are not justification for thoughtless decision-making, and I think they know it too.
Struggle is different from self-inflicted struggle. Some people deserve pity; others are pitiable. Either way, recklessness is among us all. Even when we take no part in it, we can’t always avoid it, and it’s not likely that we can control it. Though a lot of reckless teenagers grow up to become wonderful, upstanding people, too many never get the chance to...
While some parents catch on to their children’s extracurriculars, others are more surprised than I am at discovering otherwise, and it causes me to question how many parents really know what goes on in their children’s lives. Then I wonder how many parents know what their children do but turn a blind eye anyway, so long as they don’t get a call from the hospital or the police. Either way, parents are rarely in the know, and I truly hope that that can change.
I get that adolescence can be a pain. That is hardly news. But that doesn’t make it okay for any of us to “figure out our lives” with careless bravado. Our brains might be underdeveloped, but don’t we all have at least a little bit of common sense?
The other day, as I was riding in the car with my brother, some of the worst song lyrics ever written sounded on the radio, and it reminded me of my purpose for writing this:
“So what we get drunk?
So what we smoke weed?
We’re just having fun
We don’t care who sees…”
I had to fight hard to keep myself from climbing out the window after hearing these lyrics. I almost thought it was a joke because I’d never heard them before, and I was shocked. While I can't deny that they're obnoxious, I'll admit that I totally lit up after hearing them. In a way, they happened to validate all that I'd been speaking to. If I'd known about this song earlier, I could've just pointed to the title of this article and then to these lyrics to prove my point.
As we listened, my brother jammed out to the music, and I just stared at him, mortified.
Eventually, though, and to my relief, he looked over at me and asked, “Wouldn’t this song be pretty good if the lyrics were different?”
Smiling to myself, I agreed. Heck yeah.