Stay Young

When I was young—no, I’m still young—rather, when I was a child, a bright-eyed youth, I would color on my math homework. I was a first grader at the local public school, and the work was easy. I would finish early and break out the Crayolas for some good ol’ coloring outside the lines. My assignments would be turned in with Peony Pink clouds, Majestic Violet sunrays and glob-shaped animals outlined in Robin’s Egg Blue. My teacher was less than pleased at my technicolored attempts at addition and subtraction. All the math was correct, my steps neatly laid out in No. 2 Ticonderoga, but it appeared, said Mrs. B, “that Jenny just wasn’t taking her work seriously enough.” I was six years old. How serious do we expect kids to be? When did preparation for the “real world” become more important than childhood? When did the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” shift to “why haven’t you grown up yet?” Flash forward 10 years. My legs crossed Indian-style beneath me, I sit on the squeaky leather couches at the back of the Andover Starbucks. My choice of drink: hardly serious, one of those shaken-tea-lemonade things that’s really just sugar with a hint of fruitiness. I’m reading Faulkner, sure, but my mind is wandering to the little girl silently eating a cookie, sitting still in the seat next to mine. Her body hardly fills the seat. Her right arm has to extend itself unnaturally to rest on the wooden coffee table between us. Something’s a little off, and I soon realize that this little girl is attempting to mimic the adults sitting across the way, their necks strained as they tap vengefully at their keyboards, elbows propped up on either side of their small, round tables. That’s sweet, I think to myself, the little girl’s trying to act like a grown businesswoman. The cuteness of the moment quickly fades as her mom, a typical “New England” woman with glasses and a bob, sits down across from her daughter. I smile tentatively, the semi-awkward nod of acknowledgement that I’ve perfected since arriving at Andover and realizing that my broad, Midwestern, corn-fed smile would be interpreted by most Easterners as either a sexual advance or just plain obnoxious. This time my Massachusetts pseudo-smile leads to a brief tête-à-tête. The woman attempts to be discreet as she sneaks a look at my copy of The Unvanquished and raises her eyebrows. Then comes the classic phrase, “So, you go to school up the hill!” I shift in my seat and make small talk, happy to take a break from the abyss of war literature. The woman continues to ask me polite questions about life as a “Phillips kid,” and I respond in the upbeat manner of a tour guide. After all, even though I’m in the midst of Upper winter, life is good. Then, the conversation takes a turn for the worse. This woman, formerly passive and sweet, begins to get the crazed, pushy parent look in her eyes. She informs me that her ex-husband’s brother has a huge house, “’cause he and his wife were educated at, you know, Harvard. And my little girl here, she asks me why we don’t live in a house like that and I tell her,” glasses-and-bob lady pauses here, giggling with malice, “if she wants to live in a house like that, she better go to Harvard too!” I laugh nervously and nod politely as I glance around Starbucks for an exit. I’ll take tales of the war-torn South over lessons in aggressive parenting any day. The little girl is still nibbling on her cookie, her eyes timidly wandering towards three pre-teen girls who have just entered the coffee shop, their eyes shining and mouths painted pink. Animated and off-putting, the little girl’s mother continues. She tells me about how her daughter’s been receiving mail from “The Academy” for years now, how her daughter’s never allowed to miss a day of school “even if she thinks she’s sick!” This mother seems well-meaning, a single mom trying to ensure her daughter gets a good education. But as she continues to tell me about how she sometimes has to remind her daughter to take her work “seriously, so she can go to Harvard,” I begin to feel conflicted. I can’t help but want to jump out of my seat and tell the little girl, who can’t be more than seven years old, that I didn’t even think about Andover or Harvard until I was in eigth grade, that I missed school for weeks at a time to go travelling with my parents, that I got splinters on my palms trying to climb the monkey bars in the dead of winter. I grew up with skinned knees and burnt cheeks and a gap-toothed smile that stayed constant through two sets of braces. I colored in my math homework and even in my copy of the Velveteen Rabbit. I took my education seriously, of course, since I aspired to be a veterinarian-slash-ballerina-slash-hot-dog-vendor. I always did my work, participated in class, served on student council—but I also spent 101 days in 101 cliché ways. I went to the zoo, I drew on the door of my mom’s minivan, I sold lemonade and saltine crackers, I used snow days to go sledding. I was a curious kid with curious habits and I just wanted to learn about international spies and chimpanzees. I had this crazy inquisitiveness matched with a precocious vocabulary which came from reading my dad’s old court briefings on “Take Your Daughter To Work Day.” I spent second through eighth grade at the Avery Coonley School, one of the most academically challenging schools in the Chicago suburbs, but the bulk of my education wasn’t graded, didn’t take place in a classroom. I learned from my mistakes and I poured my heart into various projects involving poster paint and ketchup and plastic dinosaurs and butterflies still in their cocoons. I did take a lot of intense classes, but my education came from just being a curious kid. The woman leaves with her daughter before I can say anything. I feel ashamed as they walk out of the Starbucks, ashamed that I hadn’t spoken up, hadn’t saved that little girl from throwing away her real education—her childhood—in hopes of getting into Phillips Academy. I should have tried to say something to that pushy mom, I should have told her to let her child have a childhood. But I guess I know it wasn’t my place to do so, it wasn’t appropriate for me to try and understand their situation. So I slump back into my chair and get back to my dear friend Faulkner, the stories of children growing up in wartime cutting a little bit deeper, further accentuating the scene that’s just transpired. I can’t go back in time—that’s the problem, none of us can. Childhood is the most precious thing in the world, the most important educational institution of all. Subconsciously I have started to let that jewel slip from my grasp, trading in my toothy smile for a more subdued, sophisticated smirk… the same restrained grin that little girl already donned. I should have said something. I should have smiled. On the way back to campus, my friend unexpectedly pushes me into a pile of snow. I let out an involuntary screech before I begin laughing uncontrollably; I feel like I’m six again, my cheeks bright red and my eyelashes cold with snowflakes. I can’t stop laughing. My jeans are frozen, my fingers are numb, but I can’t stop giggling as I half-heartedly try to get up. My fingers rise to my cheeks, swollen with dimples and laughter. I hope somewhere in the town of Andover there’s a little girl eating cookies too fast while skimming through a book about Jane Goodall, her hair in pigtails and her legs dangling absently off the edge of her seat. I hope she’s got a big, bold, corn-fed smile. I hope she’s dreaming of dinosaurs instead of mansions in Cambridge. And I hope the moment she starts to take herself too seriously, someone pushes her in the snow. Jenn Schaffer is a three-year Upper and Associate Commentary Editor from Bolingbrook, Illinois.