The night before my son’s freshman orientation for high school, I was flipping through channels and came across Sixteen Candles, one of the movies that defined my generation. I still remember the first time I saw it. I was a freshman in high school, and it was the day of my school’s senior prom. My best friend and I weren’t invited to the dance, so we consoled ourselves with a day at the movies. To say I love the movie is an understatement. To this day, I remain hopelessly devoted to Jake Ryan.
Thirty years later, that 14-year-old girl is the parent of a 14-year-old boy who’s now a ninth-grader. The movie that had made me so happy and hopeful now conjured up another emotion: fear. Would my son sneak out, attend parties, get drunk and lose his virginity in the backseat of a “borrowed” automobile? Well, not if I have anything to say about it!
The next day, as I walked the halls of his high school, an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia filled me. I remember visiting my high school for the first time and being scared by its size and how far apart my classes were. Would I make it to class on time? Would I remember my locker combination? What if I bumped into an upperclassman? Where would I sit at lunch?
My son’s high school is about three times the size of the school I attended. His freshman class, at last count, was approaching 800 students. I graduated in a class of 344 students. I did not have a computer—at home or at school. I had at least six textbooks each year; my son has none. I’m not even sure why he needs a locker. The library, which didn’t appear to have nearly as many books as mine did, looked bare and uninviting. During lunch, we got two choices. The cafeteria today looks like a food court.
It’s all so different now. And yet, it’s still the same.
As I observed the other students, all of whom were freshmen that day, I recognized the eagerness and fear on their faces. They walked close to their parents but made sure not to touch them. We parents were wanted for reassurance and needed to write checks, but everyone was careful not to let their peers see them clinging to us. Or maybe it was the other way around: Our children didn’t want us clinging to them. It was in high school that I started to pull away from my parents. I was certain that I didn’t need them, that I knew best, that they didn’t have a clue what it was like to be me. How wrong I was.
I could easily pick out the cliques from the way the kids were dressed. There were the boys in khaki shorts and polos who smiled at all the girls; the boys in gym shorts and T-shirts who greeted everyone with high fives; the students in board shorts and tank tops who appeared to be blasé about their new surroundings; and the few in jeans and button-downs who appeared eager when they looked up from their phones or the floor. The “couples” (because I saw more than one!) walked down the hall holding hands. The girls, well, they’ve changed a bit. They seem much more confident than my high school female peers.
There were posters on the wall reminding students to sign up for senior pictures. The student council was actively recruiting, and the cheerleaders were selling spirit wear. I closed my eyes and was once again in the mid-1980s. I could hear the greetings and laughter that surrounded me blending with voices of the past. I smelled the odor that haunts every school, and the soundtrack of The Breakfast Club played in my head. A montage ran through my mind of a time when all I worried about was if my nail polish matched my earrings, if I’d get home in time to watch the end of General Hospital and how I could support my two-cans-a-week AquaNet habit. I could pretend that I was 14 again and not the mother of a 14-year-old.
And so his new chapter begins. He’s nervous and excited and already feeling the pressure of expectations that are so much higher for ninth-graders today than those of yesteryear. It all counts now. My son’s also now a high school athlete, a runner, which is fitting as he begins his marathon of high school life—the early morning practices, the late night study sessions, traveling with the team for meets, going to football games, dating girls, Homecoming, and yes, probably going to parties. Each mile he travels, he’ll gain experience and confidence and need me less. He’s training for the day when he crosses the finish line and leaves me. Hopefully he’ll work hard, enjoy himself and make memories he can reflect back on when he takes his son or daughter to high school orientation one day. Although I want him to cross that finish line, it hurts.
I have to stop myself from singing to him, “Don’t you forget about me…”