My friend Milton sat in the back of our fifth grade class with a pack of Marlboros bulging out the chest pocket of his T-shirt. Carol had an abortion over the summer and is beginning her freshman year all smiles. Rob learned to hide vodka in his thermos at nine and Tammy's parents kicked her out last night after 13 years of hell. As for me, I only had to watch two people I care about destroy 12 years of Brady Bunch love and family values with one signature and a lawyer's bill for $5,000.
My parents got divorced when I was 12 and I thought my life had come to an end. My mom left my younger brother and sister and me with my father in a huge house and took her Home Interior with her. A selfish 12-year-old, I wondered how Christmas would be with only one income and who would bake cookies before I came home from school. But it was not long before I realized that my mom took more than her silk flowers and ceramic owls. She took our favorite tutor, our maid to clean up after us and our mother to give us our daily support and comforting. Suddenly, all of these roles were to be replaced by me. Of course I wanted to help my father ease into his new role as Mr. Mom, but I never wanted to become a very young mother of two.
The greatest challenge that faces me as a teenager, and continues to face children, is learning when to act like a child and when it's necessary to become an adult.
When a 14 year-old child becomes pregnant, does it mean that she automatically becomes an adult, able to make her own decisions?
When a child is kicked out of his home because of his incorrigible behavior, does it mean that he is expected to get a job, an apartment, and a checking account at the local bank?
When a child is confronted with drugs, does she follow her childish experimental instincts, or does she do the "mature, responsible" thing and say no?
When a divorce occurs and children are involved, is the oldest child expected to grow up and assume the responsibilities of the absent parent?
These are the questions children face every day. The answers are not as black or white as we would like. The problem isn't just drugs, teen pregnancy or abandoned youth, it's knowing when a child must "grow up."
For some of us, it is made clear that the choices we make as teenagers will have a monumental impact on the rest of our lives. For others, their only concern is to stabilize the rapid growth that occurs within the four years of high school. Kids don't grow up in stages anymore. Too often it occurs all at once before they even know what is happening. In that case, they spend the rest of their lives forgetting their childhood.
Luckily, I learned not to be afraid to ask for help, and although I have maintained my role as "woman of the house," it is now a position I've earned, and I am no longer the surrogate mother to my younger siblings. The struggle still continues, only in different aspects of my life. I am daily confronted with issues that I childishly have to disregard or deal with in a mature, adult manner. My issues now are as simple as when to do my homework and who to have for friends.
But for many others, the issues are much more critical, and becoming an "adult" as quickly as possible often seems to be the only choice. These kids usually decide to deal with their problems on their own, and, without knowing it, they become adults before their time. They are the paperboys of the month, the girls next door, the straight A students in your second grade class.
They all just grew up too fast and are now getting lost in a crowd called the future generation. -
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.