I learned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
And high school girls with clear skinned smiles
Who married young and then retired
The valentines I never knew
The Friday night charades of youth
Were spent on one more beautiful
At seventeen I learned the truth
Recently, Don brought up Janis Ian. He had been listening to her music and following her page on Facebook. I was immediately plunged back into the time when At Seventeen came out. Suddenly, all the lyrics came back to me, and I could hear the sound of her voice singing the words that most every teenager can identify with to some degree.
Besides the fact that it was a very well-crafted song with a soft and insistent bossa-nova rhythm, At Seventeen touched the hearts of all of us who felt different as teenagers. Ian was twenty-two when she wrote it. Written from the perspective of an adult, Ian’s lyrics cut right to the bone. Being a teenager is hard, especially when your world is the relatively narrow one that revolves around high school and all the groups that make up that small community. In my day, it was the cheerleaders, the ‘In’ crowd, the loners, the shop and electronic geeks, the music students, the drama students, the athletes, the brainy kids….you get the picture.
What happens if you don’t fit in? What happens if you have acne? What happens if, try as you might, you can’t get a foothold into some sort of group that helps define you? What happens if you’re overweight? What happens if you’re just plain different?
As adults, we are more willing to welcome and celebrate individuality, eccentricity, and those who march to a different drummer. As kids…not so much.
And those of us with ravaged faces
Lacking in the social graces
Desperately remained at home
Inventing lovers on the phone
In a media-driven world that celebrates air-brushed perfection, what happens to those who are not perfect, who don’t have model-type bodies, who have skin that breaks out, who can’t afford the latest styles, who feel unattractive, who never get asked out on a date?
We live in a world where bullying seems to be rampant. A world where it is easy to pick on the underdog, to exploit someone’s tender vulnerabilities, to hurt them by making them feel inferior. It breaks my heart.
To those of us who knew the pain
Of valentines that never came
And those whose names were never called
When choosing sides for basketball.
I was a late bloomer. When I was in high school, I was active in music and drama. I was one of the brainy kids. But I was very tall, very skinny and I had acne. I was taller than a lot of the boys. Thank goodness I found a niche where I could thrive. But I was never part of the In Crowd, never part of the really cool kids. I was embarrassed by my acne. I felt ugly. I longed for flawless skin. I wasn’t asked out on many dates. I wasn’t athletic and I was one of the last names called when ‘choosing sides for basketball.’ High School was a mixed blessing. But I want to be clear, I had a great time in high school – it just happened to be a time where I wasn’t at all secure in who I was.
It isn’t until you reach adulthood that you gain some perspective on all of that. Your world opens up. Hopefully, you get to experience communities that are different and more expansive than the one you grew up in. Hopefully, you begin to realize that being different can be a good thing. Hopefully, you meet others who celebrate your individuality.
For me, it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I accepted myself and felt fully ‘Me.’ I stopped comparing myself to others (though that still creeps in for all of us, doesn’t it?) I felt less awkward physically. I grew into my facial features. I celebrated my strengths. My deep voice, which had been awkward as a kid, was now considered ‘sexy.’ My strong features and tall body, which contributed to being cast as the older characters in high school plays, were now considered attractive.
Who knew? That’s the point, isn’t it? When you’re a teenager, you don’t know. All you can see is the world you live in right now. You can’t imagine a future that might celebrate your quirkiness. You can’t see it.
And no matter what, you still carry all of that with you. Those insecurities from your teenage years can pop into your consciousness without a moment’s notice.
I bought that Janis Ian album when it first came out and played that song over and over. It resonated so strongly with me. It still does. It was the anthem for those who couldn’t see a different possibility, who didn’t fit in, who were bullied, who were struggling to find their way. There was a comfort in hearing those lyrics, a realization that it wasn’t just you who felt that way.
I’ve always made it my business to reach out to young people who are having trouble accepting who they are. In my work as a teacher, especially when I was teaching undergraduates, I was often the faculty member that students came to when they needed to pour their hearts out, to talk to someone who just might understand.
I did. I do.
How I wish the world was a kinder place, less consumed with perfection.
On the other hand, getting through those years and coming out on the other side stronger than ever is freeing. We are all survivors.
I’d love to hear your thoughts, as always.