Other Writing / The New York Times Magazine

...The essay that sort of started my, uh, carreer.

Teen Angst? Nah!

The New York Times Magazine; May 17, 1998

So, you've turned 13, and suddenly you're in Death Valley. You come home from school and Oprah is on, talking about "America's Youth in Crisis;" your parents show up after dinner with anti-drug literature, asking what you've "experimented" with, and from every corner-school, home, church-you're being told "Be careful! These are four of the most important years of your life!"

Well stop. Relax. And remember: your teen years aren't that important at all. The important years come when you want them too. Ray Crock was a down-and-out, middle-aged, milkshake-machine salesman when he founded a little company called McDonald's. His most important years started right there.

Truthfully, being a teenager is just like being a kid, but you've got five extra, important concerns: sex, money, smoking, drinking, and getting into college. Each of these five is liable to give you problems, but I'll tackle them one by one, and maybe--if I'm lucky--demystify them for you. First things first: sex. At your age, you know all about sex--at least, the mechanics of it--so I'll spare the birds-and-bees stuff. The most important thing to remember about teenage sex is that television is not a study guide. Watching TV, you get the idea that every American over the age of 11 has a steady boy/girlfriend, and that sordid, love-triangle sex kicks in at age 15. It doesn't work that way. Don't compare your social life to what you see on TV; TV always wins.

The second thing to know is that your friends are not a study guide. Starting at 12, their bragging begins: "I did this with such-and-such," "I got with blah-blah-blah." As a general rule, take everything your friends tell you about sexual experience and cut it in half. Then you'll have an accurate picture of what's going on.

Further advice applies to each gender. Boys: join a band. Or a team. Or anything. What girls are really attracted to is affiliation. Practice being brooding and don't talk much. Do not underestimate the repellent power of dandruff. When you find out a girl has a crush on you, act fast--it'll last two weeks at most.

Girls: you will never be rejected if you ask out a guy. He'll be so dumbfounded or thrilled that he'll just shut up and nod. Quizzes in YM magazine are totally useless. Stop saying "y'know," "I dunno," and "I know, right?" Please. And glitter is very disorienting.

But this is just me being cynical; not everything is gloomy on the sexual front. No matter how dorky you are, you'll get your first kiss in the next four years, if you haven't already. Other people's mouths taste strange, but you'll get used to them; you'll go to the park; you'll fall in luuuv; you'll do all the cute stuff. Teen relationships, thankfully, are not confined to TV.

Next up: money. Let's see, as a teenager you're living rent-free, with free food, free clothes, a free phone line, and free subway trips. You won't have a similar situation until you check into a nursing home 70 years from now. In addition, you can earn real money, by tutoring children in math, tutoring adults in computer literacy, or working part-time in an office or store. So the next four years can be pretty profitable. Question is, how will you use your profits?

Well, you could waste them all on drugs and alcohol, which I'll get to in a minute. More likely you'll wake up Friday mornings thinking you've been robbed, but soon realize that you've spent the week's money on ridiculous scraps of teenage life: $8 movies, $15 haircuts, $30 school supplies, $75 computer games.

Remember: living-just living-in any major American city costs $1000 a month. So, as weak as it sounds, I say you save your money and invest it over the Internet. Online brokerages such as E*TRADE and Datek offer custodial accounts for minors, given in your parent's name using your money. Trust me, it's a thrill to come home, click the mouse, and find yourself with eighty more bucks. The $50 mini-backpacks can wait.

Now we hit the bad stuff: smoking. In the next four years you will meet up with cigarettes and marijuana. You already know what smoking a cigarette is like. Have you ever been in a cab while the cabbie was smoking? Or stuck with a smoker at a family funeral? Smoking a cigarette yourself is the same-it tastes nasty, burns your throat, makes you hack, gives you a headache.

But don't underestimate the power of nicotine. It's a strong drug; you smoke a couple of times one week and you'll find yourself hooked. That means paying 100s of dollars a year for packs, and we already talked about money, didn't we?

As for pot, it shares smoking's characteristics with one big add-on. It makes you feel ill. Have you ever gotten the flu, woken up late at night, and stumbled through your halls looking for the bathroom? That approximates marijuana's effects. The drawbacks--coming into school red-eyed and inattentive, never having any money for anything--far eclipse these "benefits," which can be simulated by getting a decent virus. So don't smoke pot. It's stupid.

Of course, you've been told that before. All teens have; they don't want to start smoking. They just happen to be at a party, and somebody offers them a joint, and they have nothing to say but "yes." Well, here's what you say: 1) "Nah, I tried that stuff once; it really messed me up." Proceed to tell a ridiculous anecdote about the time you "tried that stuff." Hopefully the story will be funny enough to get everybody laughing and get you out of the situation. 2) Don't say anything at all. Just shake your head, act uninterested, and get into a conversation with somebody else. The quick, silent rebuttal makes the person offering feel stupid.

Drinking is a similar issue. It's like smoking, with one big difference--TV advertising. From an early age, you've been shown that when you crack open a beer, football players show up with their girlfriends and the fun begins. Real teen drinking scenes are less glamorous: boys sitting on stoops at dusk with paper bags, not even talking to each other, girls at home crying about the ridiculous things they did the night before, immobile party-goers being dragged off couches. And of course there are the images fed to you by public service announcements--kids mangled in car crashes and hooked up on respirators. So why do kids drink? Parties, again. You get together with some members of the opposite sex and you need to loosen up, right? Well, there's an easy way to handle parties without getting drunk. Take a drink--anything, whatever they give you--and walk around pretending to sip it; then put it down on a table. No one will care. You'll have just as much fun. And it will be entertaining to watch the inebriation (real or feigned) of others.

Concerning drugs and alcohol, you're not going to listen to your teachers; you probably won't listen to your parents; you'd never listen to me. But watch your friends these next four years. Watch as they mess up their lives with substances; then draw your own conclusions. They're your guinea pigs.

Finally: getting into college. Now you know what school is like--you come in; you keep quiet; you don't break anything; you leave. High school is the same, except on the horizon, looming over you, are these monstrosities: college, the SATs, the Achievement Tests. A word of advice: don't worry about college. Plenty of extremely successful people--Thomas Edison, Bill Gates, and my grandfather--never went, or dropped out as soon as possible. Teachers push the idea that your college will determine your career, but they're just buttering you up, getting you worried enough to pay $20,000/year. When you apply for your first job, your employer might care about which college you went to. After that, they care more about your previous job experience.

The media has presented adolescence as hell on earth--chock full of evil cliques (the cliques in grade school are worse), domineering parents, and profound decisions that will decide the rest of your life for you. Nah. Adolescence is a time to sit back, make some friends, make some money, and discover what you're good at. Soon enough you'll be out of the house and legally able to do all the stupid stuff.

Ned Vizzini

 

2000-2005 Ned Vizzini