A Teenager in the House

On my thirteenth birthday, I woke at my father’s house, hearing my stepmother exclaim to him, “Steve, there’s a teenager in the house!” She meant me, of course, but I was only half awake and easily confused and I thought someone had broken into the house. It seems like so many stark transitions happen in the space of just a year or two to kids that age: preteen to teen, middle school student to high school student, not to mention puberty. It can be hard to take in sometimes.

And so it was that Wednesday evening, three days before Noah turned thirteen, Beth and I attended an informational meeting about high school choice for parents of seventh-graders. The assignment process begins in the fall of eighth grade, so apparently it’s time to start thinking about this.

The meeting occurred on a day of torrential rain and a couple major roads were closed because of flooding. Our basement was also flooded and Metro was single tracking so Beth’s commute home took longer than she expected and I was downstairs bailing water when the babysitter arrived.  The drive was another a challenge. We had to change routes several times because traffic was backed up due to the road closures and even though Sligo Creek Parkway was open, the creek had overflowed its banks and there was standing water close enough to the road to give Beth pause about continuing that way.

Despite all these setbacks, we were only ten minutes late. I learned a few things at the meeting. The first is that there are even more specialized programs in our area high schools than I realized (they number in the dozens) and that the process for getting into them (a mix of lottery and application programs) is even more complicated than I realized, even though I was expecting a lot of programs and complication. Also, I knew this already, but you have to choose an academy within a high school. It’s a like a major. No one just goes to his or her default school. You have to choose, both the school and the academy within it.

We need to do more research and we are scheduling a meeting with his school counselor to discuss his options, but we know we are probably not interested in pursuing either the accelerated humanities or math and science magnets at our home high school. Noah’s been in academic magnets since fourth grade and up to this year it’s been a good experience for him, but this year had just proved too much. He is quickly burning out and we need to get him off the fast track so he has a reasonable chance at maintaining his love of learning and maybe even having enough free time to enjoy his teen years. Given his mix of giftedness and slow processing, the trick will be keeping him challenged without overwhelming him. Too easy work is as deadly for his motivation as too much work. I’d like to learn more about the performing arts magnet because more drumming and less homework sounds like a healthy change to me.

Noah’s birthday was low-key.  He didn’t want a party, didn’t even want to invite a friend or two to come to dinner with us as he did last year, despite my perhaps too frequent encouragement to do so. I got him a card that said, “Let us celebrate your existence with cake, and possibly ice cream,” and we did that. Beth made him a strawberry cake with strawberry frosting at his request and there was ice cream, too.

And there were presents, of course. He opened them in order of size, so the first box contained a lightning cable.  We are always searching for cords to recharge various devices and Beth has been saying Noah should have his own dedicated cable so he stops swiping hers, so now he has one.

There were several books, including one by the author of the Fablehaven series, which he enjoyed reading last summer and fall. (This was June’s present to him.)  He also got The Hunger Games trilogy because he and his classmates have been collaboratively writing a massive piece of online fan fiction based on the novels, with themselves as characters.  He’s been participating even though he has not read the novels so I thought he might get more out of the experience if he read the books. My mother was surprised I’d get him such violent books, as I have always been strict about media exposure. June’s only recently been allowed to watch most PG movies and I still say no to some of them.  But I reminded Mom that when I was Noah’s age I was reading Dracula and The Shining. I’m not suggesting we go on a slasher film binge together, but I think he’s old enough for any of the young adult dystopian fiction his peers are all reading.

The rest of his presents consisted of film equipment.  From us and from Beth’s mom, he got a new tripod, a lighting kit, a green screen and a frame and clamps to hold it. Noah has always enjoyed making movies. He takes a media class every year as part of the Humanities program. It’s his favorite class and he’s made a number of short films for school and for fun.  He’s working on a documentary about food processing right now (for school). The big project in eighth grade is a biographical documentary.  This involves a five-day field trip to New York and the resulting films are screened at The American Film Institute for family and friends. It’s the defining experience of the eighth grade year and we hope he enjoys it more than his ten-page research paper on product liability law that was his biggest seventh-grade project.

In Noah’s birthday card, I wrote the url for the Eastern Shore Writers’ Association blog, because I’d submitted an excerpt of my blog post about our trip to the beach last month, edited to focus on him and it had been accepted. You can read it here if you like (http://eswa-blog.blogspot.com). It’s the kind of present not every teenager would appreciate, but he seem pleased when he read it. I’d also emailed him a link to Dar Williams’ song “Teenagers Kick Our Butts,” after he went to bed the night before.  It’s worth a listen if you’re not familiar with it: http://grooveshark.com/#!/s/Teenagers+Kick+Our+Butts/2J28Vl?src=5 Then, to emphasize the point, I sent a separate message titled “the important part” with these lines:

Find your voice, do what it takes
Make sure you make lots of mistakes
And find the future that redeems
Give us hell, give us dreams
And grow and grow and grow

I didn’t send this to him, but my other favorite line from the song is in the chorus, “Tell us what the future will bring.”  That’s the question always on your mind if you have kids, or teach kids, or love someone else’s kids.  Sometimes you get glimpses. For instance, at a local third to fifth grade elementary school (not one either of my kids have attended but within walking distance of our house), there’s a club called the Young Activist Club.  They have been trying to convince the schools to stop using Styrofoam trays in the cafeteria since Noah was in kindergarten. One of the founding members was the older sister of one of his nursery school classmates, a girl who is now in high school.  Because I knew some of the kids in the club and I sympathized with their cause, over the years I followed them on Facebook and cheered when I saw them at Fourth of July parades carrying trays with environmental messages written on them in marker. To a casual observer, though, it never looked like their campaign was getting any traction. Then I recently heard the whole school system is changing over to compostable trays, staring next year. The last publicity photo I saw was of a girl speaking on stage. She also went to my kids’ preschool, and is only a year older than June.  (She was the one playing guitar at June’s music school recital.) It took eight years, almost three cycles of students through that three-grade school, and it’s still not clear the compostable trays will actually be composted, but I know those kids will keep organizing if they aren’t, and that makes me feel hopeful about what my kids and all their peers can accomplish.

Noah asked if he could have a day without homework for his birthday and I really wanted to say yes, but when Beth and I looked at his assignments for the weekend, it just didn’t seem possible. He did do less than he would usually do on a Saturday. He did some algebra in the morning and then we took a break while Beth and June were at kung fu to finish And Then There Were None. When the murderer was revealed Noah said, “I thought it was him and then I didn’t,” which is usually how it goes when you read a mystery.

When Beth and June returned, we left for lunch because Noah had also asked if he could have lunch and dinner out and this time we said yes. We went to Noodles & Company, a favorite of Noah’s. I got Pad Thai because that’s what I had for dinner the night before I went into labor with him and for a long time we had a tradition of going out for Thai the day before his birthday, though we don’t do it any more.  In search of dessert afterward, we spotted a crepe cart at the Fenton Street market, and we got Noah a banana-pecan crepe, because after noodles, crepes are one of his favorite foods. (He’s all about the carbs.)

We ran into traffic on the way home because Commencement had just ended at the college around the corner from our house.  Watching the young people walking down the sidewalks in their caps and gowns I was thinking about middle school graduation a year from now, high school in five years, and college perhaps, in nine (unless he takes a gap year or graduates on the five-year plan). Either way, it suddenly seemed nearer than it had the day before.

Back home, Noah went back to factoring quadratic equations, with some help from Beth, who was in between the steps of making his cake. He and I took another study break to read the first two chapters of The Hunger Games on the porch because he asked if we could, and how could I say no on his birthday?

Later that afternoon Noah read Act II, scene I from A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream while I had coffee with a friend from college and his partner, who were visiting from out of town.  When I came back, we left for dinner at Vicino’s, an Italian restaurant in Silver Spring. The food was good but I’d forgotten how slow the service is there, so when we got home we had cake and ice cream and put June straight to bed, a half hour late and without her bath. Noah had to practice on his practice pad instead of his real drums, so she could sleep. He was up past his bedtime, too, finishing his percussion practice. So he and Beth and I all went to bed at the same time, ten, on the first night we had a teenager in the house.

  • Nicole MacPherson

    Happy birthday to him! A teenager – wow! That will be me in three short years – I will look to you for advice!