Parents are scared straight

My sister forwards me the YouTube video with the comment, “WTF?”

Clicking play, I watch as her teenaged son and my teenaged son and 20 other people’s teenaged sons and daughters with the munchies spear a half-loaf of sourdough bread with a decorative Samurai sword, turn the gas stove’s burner on high, attempt to toast the bread they are too lazy to slice and pop in the toaster, catch the bread on fire, drop the flaming loaf of charred bread onto the floor, stomp the loaf into small mostly burnt crumbles, rescue a less-crisp remain from among the dog-hair tumble weed on the floor, pick off the most egregious strands of fur, divide the piece several ways, and pop it in their mouths.

And laugh. Throughout. A lot.

The video goes on. They open a cupboard, fight semi-viciously over the dregs of Rice Krispies in a box and then film the interior of a refrigerator crammed with at least two cases of Natty Boh. Close-up: A slew of disembodied hands pick their way around the Bohs to pull out tortilla shells, grated cheese, a carton of eggs, ketchup, pickles, and gleefully, very gleefully, a package of bacon. As the refrigerator door swings shut, the videographer lingers for a second on a grocery list magneted to the door—and the handwriting, indeed the list itself, seems familiar.

The videographer pulls back for a wide-angle shot to capture one kid—and I am naming no names here—rolling a joint on the counter.

Correction. My counter. My kitchen. My house.

Correction. Did I say 20 kids? The videographer leaves the kitchen and swings into the living room, the dining room, the upstairs bedrooms, to film the 50 high school students who’ve crammed into the house to party after a victory against a historic rival high school football team that takes place in the Ravens stadium each year—naming no names here—that none of them really care about but why not celebrate since the parents are out of town?

My sister and I watch the video, which is long, a wandering cinéma vérité of teenage debauchery alternating between amusement and horror. Amusement because, as we both recall, we threw a similar party every time my mom was out of town—and she was out of town a lot during our adolescence. And horror because, among other things, there is that shot of my son dragging a couple, deep in the throes of passions, from my bed and the thought of returning from my road trip to crawl into what I think is my cozy bed of crisp clean sheets when a slew of sweaty, drunk or high teens have been having sex in there, well…eew. (As teens, on the heels of just such a party, my mom once found a condom wrapper under her bed and my sisters and I couldn’t understand why she was so upset. She was grounding us forever, she yelled, unless we identified the condom owner and she would not be cajoled from her stance even when my sister joked that we’d put a classified ad in the “Lost and Found” section of the school newspaper in an effort to flush out the culprits or when I suggested—because I loved “Pollyanna” and the challenge of finding something to be glad about in every situation—that she should be glad the couple was at least using contraceptives.) And my son shuts the door to my bedroom and shouts to no one or everyone that they’re not supposed to go in there—and I’m a little relieved—and then the video goes on.

And on. And on.

And then, here’s what gets me, the videographer posts his video on YouTube and invites all his friends to view it who invite all their friends to view it who spread it around school until a counselor learns of it a day later and watches it and shares it with the principal and just about an hour after I see the video, I get a call from the principal—me and about 20 other parents whose kids had a starring role.

 

My sister, who lives a block away, says she’s coming right over and we sit down to strategize for A Talk. We begin by doing this thing that parents always involuntarily do, which is holding up our kid’s behavior next to our own at the same age (or anyway, as we’ve chosen to reconstruct our personal narrative) to see if it falls within the realm of ordinary stupidity such as we ourselves exhibited or whether they have gone off the deep end—and it’s a valid question; they could have burnt the house down or gotten into a car to drive after drinking or smoking. These are useful conversations, rarely had because it’s hard to get beyond ourselves and the defensive embarrassment of bad parenting—“Do you know where your children are?” We did not, always. Clearly.

We wonder what we should do, say. Somehow all those parenting books and magazines and columns stop around the age of three (and in any case skew toward mandates rather than reflection, vast lists of shoulds and shouldn’ts that only make parents feel inadequate as they tick off the lapses, magazines full of sidebar techniques for controlling behavior rather than cultivating minds).  Three is when the parenting advice columns abruptly stop as moms and dads adjust to the low-level dread and the how-freaked-out-should-we-be internal monologue/external dialogue that forms the backdrop of parenting and realize, with some sorrow, that their anxiety will not be assuaged by the tips in these glossy pages. (Not to be a cynic, but three also coincides with a drop in product accoutrements for anxious new parents—the ads that support these magazines—as breast pumps, and bottles, and Baby Bjorns are gleefully shed by parent consumers.)

All of this is a roundabout way of saying I wasn’t totally dreading the school’s invitation to come in for a discussion—or was it a mandate?—to talk about our kids. Maybe this could be a useful conversation? There were plenty of parents I knew—and indeed, several I had partied with myself—asked to come to the school that day (Baltimore is really a small town) who were similarly struggling to navigate this terrain between never-never edicts and the notion of moderation, to tease out the difference between experimentation and risk, between self-discovery, exploration, and addiction. We could have a good conversation. There really was a lot to talk about here.

So we gather in a classroom with our teens, squeezing our robust adult forms into wooden desks, and from the outset sense the set-up is all wrong. The chairs aren’t grouped in a circle for conversation but set in rows for a lecture. The school counselor stands at the front of the room and speaks first. She gets teary-eyed at her “disappointment” and scolds the teens (and their parents) for tarnishing the reputation of their fine school with such behavior. To make the stakes clear, she says, she had invited a guest speaker.

In walks an elderly gentleman from some just-say-no organization whose proper name I can’t recall. He fumbles with a projector and shows a set of circa-1970 slides about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. As our kids snicker, he slides into the scared-straight tactics. He begins with weed and how many kids he knows who “OD’d on marijuana” and I try to follow his argument while simultaneously thinking how sleepy weed makes me and how could a person possibly OD and wouldn’t they just fall asleep before they got that far?

After weed, he goes to drinking. He piles it on and all liquid is implicated as he free-associates, putting the dangers of binge drinking into the context of water, even, telling us he read about a kid recently who drank too much water all at once and died.

Huh.

Then he warns us about two new dangerous trends. He tells us that “kids nowadays” are putting alcohol into their eyes for the high of rapid absorption. He does not elaborate on the methodology. He rambles and my thoughts ramble, trying to visualize how and why this might occur. A Visine bottle repurposed with rum? A dropper dipped in Dos Equis? A kid at a rowdy party who tosses back a shot…into his eyes?

But he is only winding up.

Here is the real horror. Girls, he says, are dipping their tampons into alcohol and putting them you-know-where.

This throws me for a loop. I try to pay attention but imagining the logistics trips me up. I glance around the room at the girls in their prim school uniforms wondering if they’re wondering what I’m wondering which is, if you soak a tampon in liquid, any liquid (consider the oddly blue fluid used in all sanitary protection commercials), it expands, a lot, which is the whole point and if you immerse say, that aerodynamic product like o.b. in vodka, wouldn’t it expand to vast, chafing proportions that render it brutally uncomfortable, no actually, impossible to insert? It’s an anatomic puzzler and lost in my thoughts—parsing the minutiae and trying to be a good parent by quelling the skeptical journalist in me (no mean feat)—I suddenly notice that the lecture has ended. Parents are beginning to file out.

We are, none of us, sure what to say, shrugging into our coats and slinking down the hall out the grand doors of this institution filled with its black-and-white rules onto the grey streets of Baltimore. We spill onto the sidewalks and walk toward our cars armed with new information—overdoses and eye-drops and o.b.’s, oh my!—but no more enlightened than when we entered.

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