Thursday, February 08, 2007

Growing Up?

I am still waiting for enlightenment, for the knowledge I sort of thought people just automatically acquired when they became grownups. I suppose I assumed wisdom would magically sprout inside my head once I attained a certain age--I was never sure exactly what age that was, but was certain it would happen, and that I would notice when it did--much like the other seemingly magical sproutings of hair and breasts and zits.

Didn't happen. Still hasn't happened. The esoteric realms I saw my parents effortlessly traverse--mortgages, income tax, car insurance--are damn near as mysterious now as they seemed when I was 13. Knowledge and understanding of these concrete, mundane areas was hard-won in my case, and I still sheepishly ask the girlfriend, "what's escrow, again?" at least a couple times a year and then promptly forget the answer.

Some things I can do. I can fix my kid's bike when the chain breaks, handle basic first aid, change out the headlights, cook. And yes, I can do my taxes on my own with only a modicum of profanity. The big stuff, though, the major thing of having my shit together enough to explain to the boy why people do what they do or give cure-all advice for his adolescent woes? The ability to channel the adult mentors and role models who advised me and eased my own path through high school? Heh. No. No, no, fuck no. Not even close.

I am older now by five years than my own mom was when I was my son's current age, if that makes sense. I look at the pictures old high school friends send of themselves with their kids and try to see the age and gravitas in their features that we must have seen in our own mothers when we skidded into their kitchens in a cloud of dust after school, hoping for cookies or a hamburger. I stand beside my son and look in the mirror and try to find my mother's steadiness behind my own eyes.

When my beloved mentor, my junior-year English teacher, died this past August, I dug my old class journals out of the closet and read them for the first time since graduation in 1985. The pages are filled with adolescent angst (school, grades, planning for college, uncertainty about a future away from home and my ability to make it in an unfamiliar world) interspersed with equally adolescent goofiness (constant ribbing about him still playing softball at his advanced age, bets offered and taken on Notre Dame football games, a cringingly drawn-out discussion on why he was taking bee pollen supplements and hadn't been to see the latest Dirty Harry movie yet). His responses were always thoughtful and direct, giving no quarter when I was being a stubborn dork, giving praise where it was warranted, and always, always filled with insightful observations designed to lead me to answer my own questions when I needed.

Naturally, I thought he was the wisest person I had ever encountered. Reading back through those entries written more than two decades ago, it is difficult not to wonder where he ever came up with the patience to wade through that stuff from maybe a dozen students a night every night of the week for thirty years. And to wonder where he came up with the wisdom and insights to write back an answer for every question or, more importantly, to point me in the direction of discerning the answers myself.

The person behind that steady hand was 39 years old at the time. The same age I am now. I don't know when his magic moment came that turned him into the adult we knew and respected (or feared). I don't know when mine is going to come.

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