Deciphering teens takes more than mere translations

ALICE STEINBACH

July 09, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

Adolescence, I have often observed, is like a foreign country. They do things differently there.

In the Land of Adolescence, for instance, customs quite distinct from those of adults are routinely adhered to by teen-agers. Among the more common manifestations of this foreign culture would be:

* Never beginning one's nightly social life before 11 p.m. Or later.

* Always scheduling one's time in the bathroom shower at a time when the bathroom shower is already in use.

* The routine ingestion of large quantities of food -- usually some foodstuff along the lines of three bowls of Cocoa Puffs or half a chocolate cake -- just before dinner.

* An intense preoccupation with hair mousse products and acne preparations.

* A style of dress usually involving clothing that is ripped and/or has holes in it.

* A concept of housekeeping that equates cleaning one's room with the gathering together of all loose items, which are then thrown into a closet.

* The round-the-clock playing of loud music featuring persons emitting strange, unintelligible sounds.

Question: Who was it who said that cute teen-agers exist only on television and never in your own house?

Which bring us to that most compelling of adolescent customs -- the Morse Code used by teen-agers to communicate with one another. In the Land of Adolescence it is the solemn duty of each of its citizens to learn a new language: Teenspeak.

Here, for instance, is a conversation between two teen-age girls I recently overheard at the mall.

Girl No. 1: "He's, like, really cool. OK? I mean, not, like, gross like his friends. I mean, I go, 'Let's go shop at the mall,' and he, like, goes, 'Cool.' So, like, I say, 'OK.' And it's, like, we both go, 'Cool,' at the same time."

Girl No. 2: "Cool. That's really, like, cool."

Of course, Teenspeak changes from generation to generation. Which is to say, one generation's "Dig you later" is another's "Hang loose, man."

But it is an ongoing phenomenon. In fact, linguists are studying Teenspeak and have come up with some interesting theories.

One Swedish linguist, for instance, believes that Teenspeak -- and I am not making this up -- is the spoken equivalent of the stream-of-consciousness technique used by some of our greatest writers. I mean, like, writers, you know, like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

Which, like, if it's true is, like, totally awesome. OK?

Still, there's another side to adolescence, one we often overlook: the idealism that burns beneath the surface. Indeed, in the span of a person's life the teen years may represent the peak of idealism. It's an unlikely combination, this co-mingling in teens of self-obsession and altruism. But it exists.

I was reminded of it in a particularly vivid way recently on yet another trip to the mall.

After a spectacularly unsuccessful shopping trip -- one spent trying to locate a bathing suit I was willing to wear outside my bedroom -- I returned to find my car had a flat tire. I kicked myself for not taking the time to do what I was always promising I'd do: take the course in car maintenance offered at a local college.

So I'm standing there looking at my flat tire when this beat-up Toyota pulls up next to me. Out jumps this teen-age boy who, to be blunt about it, looked as though he might be on his way to or from a reformschool. If such a thing even exists anymore.

"Need some help?" he asked.

"You better believe it," I answered.

We talked as he changed my tire. A farmer's son from Georgia, he was up here visiting some relatives before taking off for California. He loved animals, he told me, and hoped to find some kind of job with the U.S. Park Service or maybe a zoo. I asked him if he ever thought about becoming a veterinarian. He said no, he wasn't smart enough. And besides, he didn't think he could ever bring himself to cut open an animal.

It's hard to describe the sweetness I felt coming out of this young man. Both in the way he helped me -- a stranger -- out of a jam and in the way he talked about the future. He was full of optimism and hope about life and what he could give and get back from that life.

"Now you take care," he said, as he sent me on my way. Through my rear view mirror I saw him waving until I turned the corner.

Driving home I thought about him, about the way he volunteered to help without being asked and about how he refused to take money for it. And I wondered why we don't tap into this altruistic part of teen-agers more often.

And it made me remember my teen years too. Of how I dreamed of being a doctor who would discover some miracle cure. Or, if not that, then a tap dancer with the Rockettes.

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