Saturday, February 28, 2009

Are callowness and dumbness avoidable?

Interesting of the Twilight novels, which I have not read. I confess, though, my brain got stuck on the first sentence of the 4th paragraph -- "The problems with this book is that teenage girls are callow and dumb" -- and I started musing on a subject tangential to the point of the post at hand.

That is, while I might have been callow and dumb as a teenage girl, I wasn't in the usual ways. As Bob Dylan sang, ah, but I was so much older then: I'm younger than that now. I was far too cautious about avoiding boys altogether and too aggressive in trying to stamp out whatever incipient feelings I had for any of them. Speaking of authors who have a lot to answer for in terms of damage inflicted on adolescents, I name-check Mary Pipher. While Reviving Ophelia had some sensible enough insights regarding media criticism, feminism, and clinical psychology, it had the effect of making me think that the slightest deviations from the straight and narrow would force me to wander forever among the damned. One illicit kiss or sip of beer, and I would surely be inexorably on the road to teenage pregnancy, drug addiction, and having to drop out of high school. So I shut out the forces I was afraid of in high school -- which basically meant nearly all peer group socialization -- and focused on maximizing my GPA and standardized test scores.

The shutting out plan basically fell apart once I got to Anonymous Liberal Arts College, which billed itself as a golden ticket to the career or grad school of one's choice.* And so it seemed safe to let loose a bit and start trying to make friends and go to parties -- see what all the fuss was about, so to speak. So I got my first real kiss in just barely as still a teenager, a couple weeks shy of my 20th birthday. Interesting consequences ensued. That is, I felt those crushes with all the rawness and emotional intensity of a callow and dumb fourteen to sixteen year old. Yet I explained them to my patient friends, in three thousand word e-mails, drawing on the kind of outsized vocabulary and stock of literary and historical allusions more commonly possessed by thirty year old graduate students.

So, when I felt lost in those days, I felt really lost. Self-help books and cheesy advice columns do not cater to the needs of women whose intellectual maturity and actual experience are so far apart. No wonder newspaper columnists at Anonymous Liberal Arts College complained so frequently about how crazy all members of the opposite sex were. So many of us were experiencing the same Problem That Has No Name that I was.

No doubt my mother hoped, in giving me the Pipher book, that I could bypass that kind of teenage immaturity altogether. Instead, I only experienced it much later. No doubt there were benefits to that -- I fell in love with authors and ideas at that age whom I still love now, and the laurels I racked up in high school paid dividends for me academically and career-wise for years afterwards. But shutting off myself like that came with costs, some of which I'm still identifying now. Which brings me to my title question: is that kind of teenage vulnerability to intense emotion a stage that one has to go through at some point, just so it can be gotten over with? Or are there good ways to avoid or mitigate it?

*I'd be more cautiously optimistic about that now than I was then. But a) that's far removed from the subject of this post; b)there aren't many schools better at offering a passport to the career or grad school of one's choice; and c)parents and media sources still largely see that school in that rosy light.