I am so grateful that I was a teenager way back when. Often lately I remember an incident that would probably turn out very badly today.
During my senior year in El Paso, I was chosen to become a member of a group that was like an elite sorority. That was gratifying on its own, but it also represented a square filled in my effort to match my older sister’s achievements. The problem came with the initiation. Where does this ritual come from anyway? Why must one suffer to belong?
In writing this blog, I called my sister Ann basically to ask, “What did they do to you?” She remembers nothing besides being rousted out of bed in the middle of the night, so the experience must have been pretty tame. Mine was different.
My mother had washed and ironed my cotton bathrobe for the occasion and left the front door unlocked. When my classmates entered, I was blindfolded and driven with a couple of other initiates to the Red Rooster Drive-In. We were ordered to go from car to car and do something stupid like ask for toilet paper. I don’t remember giggling or camaraderie, just being embarrassed.
From there we were driven to someone’s home for a ceremonial moment. We sat on the floor, and a liquid was passed, maybe tabasco sauce in water, kind of like a sacrament. Not in the least bit religious myself, I was nevertheless put off.
Next we were informed of the terms of the continuing ordeal. We were prohibited from wearing makeup to school, but we did have to wear an assigned headband. Mine was lime green, not my color. Our names disappeared. We would be addressed as “Scum” until we were inducted into the club.
I don’t remember telling my mother anything about the initiation the next morning. Maybe she didn’t ask as she hurried off to work. I got through the day in the one dress that matched the lime-green headband, but by the time I left school, I was done. It wasn’t the headband or the absence of eyeliner and lipstick that caused me to hit the wall; it was a moment of truth. “I haven’t worked my tail off all these years,” I thought, “to be called ‘Scum’ by anybody.”
So I went home and wrote a letter of resignation that I delivered the next day. I don’t know if I enumerated my grievances, but I do remember the closing sentence: “Under no circumstances would I be proud to be a member of this organization.”
Funny the quiet after that. When I told my recently widowed mother what I had done, she seemed a little apprehensive about the consequences but accepted my decision. Our family culture had long ago established the responsibility of all four children to take care of our own stuff. Although I don’t remember expectations ever being verbalized, they were very high. When I think back on it, I realize that we were trying to live up to something that is hard to name.
We just knew who we were in a way that may be rare today. I’m not saying that my family was important in the sense of standing in the community or wealth or fame. Instead, there was a sense of accountability to a construction of character that had occurred over years of storytelling by my parents. All of our relatives were in the South, and story by story, we learned about who our people were, what our values were, and the points of pride that should provide guidance.
The one thing that was not set up for us to monitor was a popularity meter. We all had friends, but maybe we thought they were fortunate in that matter. After all, we were special. We knew that from the stories. Nobody said that. We just knew it. I had my family; I did not need to be a member of any club.
One of my school counselors thought otherwise. His daughter was a member, and he called me into his office and tried to talk me out of my decision. I don’t know whether he was concerned about the damage I might do to the club’s reputation or about the consequences for me, but I had the sense that he was walking in error, as the saying goes. There should have been some adult guidance earlier.
I did not try to organize a revolt among other initiates, but a friend who was already a member called. Perhaps she had not been involved in planning the activities, and she said she would stay on and try to reform the group. There were no further repercussions, and I just forgot about the whole thing. I was looking forward to college.
It would be a different story today, I’m afraid. Club members might go into a frenzy of indignation on their smart phones: “She thinks she’s so . . .” And then wider backbiting would attack like scabies in a social media culture hostile to any student who is “different,” who doesn’t “fit in.”
Of course I’m in that “In my day. . .” mode, but the reality of young contemporaries looks very different and very scary in many respects. The challenges posed by progress, as we understand it, are huge. Maybe the kids are having fun with greater freedom, but the traditional safety zone of youth is being steadily invaded by illicit drugs, alcohol, depression, anxiety, bullying, and advanced and medically risky sex. I don’t think I would want to be a teenager now if you paid me–a lot.
In the memory I related, I acted with a strong sense of family values at my back and in the absence of technology that has, in many ways, brought out the worst in us. Would I have that much nerve today? I’m not at all sure. And if we can’t afford to cultivate and act on principles when we’re young, then . . .?