Tag Archives: boarding school

The Adolescent Feeding Grounds

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I’m reading about the teen brain a lot lately, because much of the work I would like to is with teens.  I have worked a great deal with the preteen crowd, but working with the developing brain of a true teen, and all the excitement, passion, and reward seeking behaviors that go along with it, is so fascinating to me.

When I was a teen, I lived in another country than my parents, as did many of the kids at the boarding school I was fortunate enough to attend.  Right there, you might stop reading, or think – “oh, those first world problems, give me a break.”  But problems are problems, and a teen who is having trouble with her peers in an affluent community is just as much at risk of harmful behaviors as a teen in poverty.  Teens want friends, they are social beings.  As a kid, in one of those more affluent communities, the risks I took were (not surprisingly) with drugs, alcohol, and sex.  The drugs were higher priced than at some schools, I’m sure.  The standard clicks weren’t there, at least standard as I had seen in the movies; it wasn’t so much the jocks and the nerds, at least in my perspective (though I was kind of both), but the kids who did coke, the kids who smoked pot, and the kids who drank.

I’m sure there were some good kids who did none of these, but I never ran into them.

Behind all of these kids was an interesting segment of the population: parents who chose to have their children leave home at fourteen or fifteen years old, to have other people keep track of them.  My parents, I like to think, didn’t have much choice.  There were no English speaking high schools where we were in Saudi Arabia.  The oil company my dad worked for paid for most of my tuition and all of my plane fare.  Tough opportunity to pass up on.  And, I have to say, I do not resent them for it.  I think my life course changed significantly because of the amazing adults, who were not my parents, that I formed parentified relationships with.  And while I had caring adults all around me, ultimately, and maybe even more than for your average teen who has to report home each night, the decisions I made were mine alone.

Dan Siegel talks about this phase of life, a time when kids are pushing away from their parents, trying out what might look like independence, in his book Brainstorm (2013).  And while independence is truly a goal of this age, there is also an intense desire to create a sort of family of choice amongst one’s peers for support.  That’s exactly what I did.  I found my group, and I loved my group.  In fact, I still love them, and feel that they are something of a true family to me.  Fortunately, I had learned enough in my first fourteen years of life to find friends who loved me back, and who looked out for me.  It’s been over twenty years since I was that teenager, and yet I think so much is still the same.  I went to a party at a college when I was sixteen.

I told all the college boys I was eighteen.

Of course they fell for it.

Do you see sixteen year old girls?

Honestly, I have no idea if they are fourteen or twenty-two.  And I thought I was some kind of genius.  I started drinking great gobs of alcohol when I was fifteen.  So, after a year of such practice I felt pretty aware of how much I could consume without becoming unconscious.

Fifteen.

For one second, just pause there.  My daughter is five years away from that number.

Fifteen year olds are children.

I drank a lot that night, but when I look back on it now, I’m sure there was some kind of crazy drug in one of those drinks because I only have fragmented memories of the night that ensued.  I lived.  I don’t think I was sexually assaulted.  That’s good news.  And I have to thank the other two crazy sixteen year old girls who were with me for that.  They refused to let me leave, they refused to do anything until I was by their side.  I still managed to wake up with what looked like someone had punched me in both sides of my neck.

Hickies.

Imagine how much worse that could have been?

Friends are so important to your child’s survival.  Make sure they are choosing good friends (and not that they look like good friends, but that they are good people).  I went to another party the following year where the teens were drinking.  That was my crowd.  I tried pot, but alcohol was my drug of choice.  Coke was just too serious.  I’m not sure where I formed this opinion, but I’m happy I did.  Alcohol was not something my brain desired an addiction to, but it is for many kids.  If they have that switch, it can get turned right on.  I remember a girl friend pulling some guy off my body while I tried to sleep on the couch.  I remember another guy creeping his hand up my shirt while I slept on a pool table. (Why all this sleeping?  Well, I was drunk and couldn’t go home.)  And then he promptly ran about the party telling everyone he’d had sex with me.  Jeeze.

Imagine if Instagram had been around then.

Or Facebook.

Jeeze, even phone cameras!

And the party where I had to pull a boy off of one of my friends who had blacked out.  I mean, they are teens, they are driven to achieve rewards!  Sex is quite the reward.  But for me, sex wasn’t the goal.  Being free was the goal.  Being wild was the goal.  Challenging everyone’s perceptions of me as a good girl was the goal.  Little did I know, I didn’t have to put myself at such great risk to do that.  I could have done more of my underground writing.  I could have made feminist art.  I could have just been myself.  But, there was no one who could tell me who that was.  My parents were a once every two-week phone call away.  I saw them twice a year.  Obviously, they weren’t going to help me form this identity.  And so I formed it myself.  And fortunately for me, I discovered that I could be shy and a bit introspective, but still have power, if I wrote.

I could destroy friendships with my words (some of my not-best moments).

I could retaliate against a history teacher with discreetly planted letters in all the faculty mailboxes.

Words, these things that had always tripped me up in speaking, were flowing out of me in writing.  And let me tell you, I had some amazing English teachers.  I can never stop thanking them for teaching me to love a good story.

But, I totally digress.  Teenagers are in a phase of life that is more challenging to survive than any other.  They make weird decisions all the time.  They have a constant dialogue that sounds very self-focused.  And they are full, and I mean, brimming, overflowing, exploding with good ideas, desires and passion!  For those of you who keep your teenagers close, by choice or because we can’t all afford to send our teens to boarding school, try to remember your own teenage years.  It’s confusing to push away, while still needing some advice.  You’ve heard the idea of picking your battles.  This is the time!  Who cares if they want blue hair?  Is it going to kill them?  Or are you just embarrassed of how others will judge you as the parent of the blue-haired kid?  Nose piercings?  Maybe not your favorite.  And it’s so much better than having sex with that older guy they met at the coffee shop.  I’m not saying nose rings will prevent teen pregnancy, but I do believe that allowing some freedom might just save the day.  And while that freedom is being dished out, remind them of how awesome they are.  Celebrate their achievements!

I was never EVER told that my body was sacred.

I was never told that I was funny and smart without alcohol.

I didn’t know that I could be a writer or an artist, or both.

I was never told that falling in love could be so completely mind-blowing.  I didn’t realize that when it was taken away a broken heart could hurt in a way that made my insides turn to ice and my ears crave heavy metal music, and I would never want to get out of my pathetic dorm bed again.

Being a teenager is hard work, and the best work.  If given the chance, this is when the brain develops into the adult they will one day become.

Feed it, nourish it, and remember it.

And, forgive it as it makes mistakes over and over and over again.  If you don’t love them and their developing teen brain, there’s a bunch of on-line predators who will.

(oooh, that was a little dark there at the end, but you get my drift)

Mouth Party in the Pantry

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My Gramma (the one I liked, I mean… the other was my “Grandmother” – said with an Oliver Twist sort of accent) made the most amazing gooey awesome mouth-party brownies on the face of the earth. These were not boxed brownies. They were not pot brownies. They were not even the bizarre yet delicious zucchini brownies I made this summer. They were Switzerland and the beaches of Kauai all in one.
I liked these brownies so damn much that I ate them whenever the opportunity presented itself. We would stay with my Grandparents for a few weeks each summer, so my time was limited. Otherwise, you’d be watching me on live television as the jaws of life cut my 400 pound self out of my house.

At dinner, someone would say “please pass the rolls.”

I’d helpfully pipe up, “I’ll get the jam!” and sprint from the table.

The golden love nuggets were kept in the pantry, next to the jam. I sat in the pantry for a few minutes and ate one. mmmmmmmmmm.

“I have to pee.”

The bathroom was right across the hall from the pantry. Two more brownies. And dinner was only half way through.
“Oh, I forgot to wash my hands!”

Back into the pantry. Really. That’s where I spent most of the vacation.

By the time my Gramma brought those delicious suckers out for us to eat dessert, I was full (almost). It was an addiction like no other. I dreamed about the brownies. They invaded my mind like a lost lover. Of course, being twelve, my lost lover was some boy who made eye contact with me one time. If I had just been more brave. Maybe he was my soul mate. We’ll never know. Because, I didn’t bite into him like I did those brownies!

In high school (I was in a boarding school) my Gramma sent me a care package for my 16th birthday. I was so excited, but I heroically saved the box for the actual day. I’m not sure if that was an exhibition of self-control, or just a desire to wait because we all know that birthday calories don’t count and I was gonna eat that whole damn box.
It was here.

My birthday.

I was gonna eat the shit out of those brownies. My two best friends were in a fight with me. My boyfriend was a sex-brained arsehole. My parents completely forgot it was my birthday. Those brownies were going to drastically improve my day. I tore the packing tape off in anticipation. Oh the smell. They looked perfect.

I lifted one to my mouth.

What?

Did the brownie just move?

What the hell?

I felt like I was in that scene in The Lost Boys where the rice becomes maggots and the noodles become worms. I dropped my beloved to the floor and watched in horror as a hundred ants bounced off of it. Did I tell you I was in Jersey? It’s not the garden state. It’s the ant state. The ants had penetrated the care package, not to mention my soul. I believe at that point I had a toddler sized meltdown, but I don’t remember. I suffered some sort of brief brownie craving psychotic break. When I came to I found myself trying to salvage crumbs from the dearest love of my life, who had been ripped from my teenage world like the victim of a drive-by shooting.

Yeah.

I’m not proud.

I ate at least 50 ants that night, and cried as I threw the rest of the golden box of love into the trash.

In a perfect world, I would now post the aforementioned recipe in this blog, and you would all understand the levels I would sink to in order to consume such perfection. But, alas, my Gramma has been dead for over fifteen years. Some part of me just always thought she would be there. Making me brownies. Laughing at my jokes.

Restocking her pantry when I wasn’t looking.

Something’s fishy

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I wonder if my parents ever danced?  I think not.  The gene pool of engineers, artists, and fishermen did not benefit us in the rhythm department.   I did ballet for a couple of years when I was little.  I LOVED the blue eye shadow my mom put on me before class.   That was pretty much all that I loved.  Oh.  And the mouse ears!  I was good enough to be one of at least 100 mice in the Christmas production of the Nutcracker.  I had the job of waking up Claire.  Until the night that I became preoccupied with my floppy ears during the performance and forgot to wake up that snobby bitch.  I’m sorry, that may sound mean.  She WAS the dance instructor’s daughter.  I was demoted to just a mouse. A mouse who did not have the feet for dancing.

Besides my feet being genetically uncooperative, I have the build of a logger.  I have the grace of an elephant.  And I tend to break a toe at least once a year, by tripping over rocks or walking into walls.  I started crying at night because my feet were sore (and the jealousy over my sister’s toe shoes got to be too much) and I was allowed to quit.  That was at the ripe old age of 8.  After that, I didn’t even want to dance until junior high, unless you count the occasional moon walk.

In junior high I discovered tap.  All the cool girls did it.  They had snazzy outfits, and shiny shoes, and crimped hair.  For some reason, the tap teacher never returned my calls.  I thought she didn’t like me.  In reality, I think my mom never paid the sign up fee.   I watched the junior high girls perform in the talent show, tapping through Corey Hart’s I Wear My Sunglasses at Night.   They were so cool.  Their moves were flawless.  It was like watching Cirque Du Soleil. Can you tell that I have not yet actually seen Cirque Du Soleil?  I mean, junior high tap dancers?  Not quite the same level of talent.  Those girls were probably just as uncomfortable as I was in my early teen body, except that they were on stage in front of the whole school.  They probably tripped, and slipped and totally messed up the timing, but to me the performance was epic.

I went to a couple of painful school dances in junior high.  And the first high school dance that I attended?   A senior asked me to dance.  To Stairway to Heaven.  He was not a sexy senior.  He was shorter than me.  He was kind of greasy.  I felt undeniable claustrophobic in his too tight embrace after about nine minutes of that song.  God that song is painfully long.

Fortunately for me, in high school I discovered the dead fish.  This became my signature dance move for the rest of my dancing days (and apparently kept many creepy boys away… probably the not-so-creepy ones, too).  It involves a shoulder shrug, limp arms, straight legs – that flex only a bit as you bounce up and down.  Picture a mosh-pit, for one.  That is my dance style.  Sometimes I break out of my comfort zone and move my arms like on I Dream of Jeannie. It’s quite a sight, I’m sure.

When I was a senior I used my dead fish dance moves to survive the winter blues of a New Jersey boarding school.  At the end of study hall, I would race up a flight of stairs to my friend Heather’s room.  She was actually one of the famed tap dancers from junior high.  It didn’t take her long to forget her once choreographed moves.  I can do that.  Make people forget how cool they once were. While the other teenagers would go hang out after studying, putting the moves on their love-interests, we would put on some Madonna, and do the dead fish.  We danced and danced, emerging from our winter funk… stopping only when the laughter overtook us and we thought we might pee.

Bathed in cheap lamp light, tears of laughter running down our cheeks, beads of sweat forming on our brows, arms limp at our sides, bouncing up and down to Madonna.  If anyone saw us from outside her dorm room window, I’ll bet we looked as cool and talented as those junior high tap dancers.  Or people thought we were stoned (probably more likely).

Since it was working so well for me, I carried on this particular dance style through my college years.  I would go to the clubs, and before there was even time to get properly intoxicated, I would be out there, sporting my combat boots, flannel shirt and a beaming smile, doing the dead fish.  I attracted some odd dance partners, usually ones that seemed to be on heavy drugs.  They looked at me like quizzically.  Probably wondering what kind of drugs I was taking.

Just high on dead fish, baby!

Once everyone else was drunk and dancing, I usually bailed.  A dead fish needs her space.  I wish my dead fish partner lived a bit closer. We are both mommies and massage therapists, now separated by the borders of our countries.  If she were in my neighborhood, I’d walk over to her house right this minute, some freshly downloaded Madonna on my iPod, and we’d demonstrate for our daughters how to effectively dance away the winter blues (and most boys, besides the druggies).

When winter comes, and family is taxing your resources, and you’ve had a cold on and off for two months, and your toes refuse to warm… just do like I do. Call your sister and vent.

Then!  Break out the dead fish.  Drop those arms, put on some excessively cheese ball music, and dance with only slightly restricted abandon.  My bubble is always ready for a mosh-pit of one, or two (good bouncy walls to crash into, without injury).  Be warned though.  It might make you smile.  Or accidentally blow your nose just a little upon landing.  It’s probably best I never made that tap dance team.  I don’t know if they could have handled such awesome moves.