Teaching your teenager just about anything can result in family discord. I remember my mother trying to teach me how to drive, and after one “session” she threw up her hands and signed me up for driving school. Sometimes you just can’t “teach” your own kids. There’s history there, right? So an acquaintance of mine asked me if I would help her son with his summer reading and writing assignments. She asked because I was familiar with the material and, well, because he’s not my kid. Let’s call him James. James is about 14 and he goes to a well-respected Jesuit prep school. He’s a nice looking young man, and he will definitely be very handsome soon. Right now he’s all arms and legs and lanky-ness — he doesn’t look completely hatched. But he is adorable and funny. Every time I’ve seen him he’s wearing a Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon T-shirt. Is Pink Floyd enjoying a new audience? For poetic symmetry it would be more fitting if he was wearing a Pink Floyd The Wall T-shirt. The song “Another Brick in the Wall” comes to mind.
James also has just the right amount of teenage rage for me to find him delightful. Here’s the list of what he has to read over the summer and answer questions on: Maya Angelou’s “Graduation,” Chief Seattle’s “Reply to the U.S. Government” speech, Have A Little Faith by Mitch Albom, Mary Mebane’s “Back of the Bus,” and Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha.
Just a little light summer reading! So here’s James’s summer buzz kill AND straight to the heart of fun number one. He’s okay with meeting me because I think he secretly hopes that I’ll do most of the work or at least get it done and over. We meet at the library — neutral territory — which was agreed upon for less distractions and possible power struggles. We’re nearly done with the bulk of the work, and I’ve gotten to know James. He likes something to kick against — for instance: authority. In our case authority comes in the guise of the librarians and the library’s rather dictatorial set of rules. Okay they have rules and that’s fine and we are observing them. It’s the distrust that I and James find highly annoying. One particular librarian doesn’t believe that I’m just helping him with homework. She seems suspicious of why I am spending time with him. What is my relation to this young man, and what are we working on, and can I see what you printed out!?? Really? How about our blood type, do you need that too? What gets James is that we’re regarded with suspicion. Also, the library is totally empty. I mean EMPTY. It’s summer and we’ve hardly had a rainy day. The only other room that is being used for “quiet study” is occupied by about six not quiet old ladies who are playing cards — for money (?)(!)
I can’t remember now what set off another interrogation from this one library lady – really we couldn’t be more benign — but it ignited James. Straight to the heart of fun number two.I think he was ready to go off because I did notice the withering look he gave his mother before she left him in my charge. So he started venting and it was pretty entertaining. When he started to run down, I stupidly said, “What’s she think I’m doing to you in here?” It was a rhetorical question, but then I had a thought and image in my mind of an answer to that question, and then IT happened. IT is the newest virus affecting the country: the loss of the filter between the brain and the mouth.
To my shock and chagrin I caught it at that moment. I said, “Maybe she thinks I’m going to put you in front of some black insurgency flag, we’ll turn the GoPro on and I’ll make you read aloud Mary Mebane’s “Back of the Bus” streaming live on the Internet. People will see it and wonder, what the hell is going on?!” I immediately apologized and acknowledged how inappropriate what I said was, but James got a visual too. This sent James into fits of giggles and laughter (OK maybe you had to be there), but it took a few minutes to get back on track. It was a nice moment, not necessarily a Kodak one, but it kind of sealed the deal between me and James. We’re on the same team. There’s us and the straight to the heart of fun joy killers.