CAMDEN In 1978 my English IV classes in Houston, Tx, studied parts of Samuel Butler’s, THE WAY OF ALL FLESH. I stressed one famous quote from the book–“To me it seems that youth is like spring, an overpraised season more remarkable for biting winds than genial breezes.” I asked they write a paragraph using the quote as their topic sentence. The paragraphs were quite good, so I decided to extend the lesson to a full essay. But for this assignment, I had them listen to a portion of the lyrics from Janis Ian’s 1975 hit, “At Seventeen.”
“I learned the truth at seventeen/that love was meant for beauty queens/and high school girls with clear skinned smiles/who married young and then retired/ the valentines I never knew/the Friday night charades of youth/Were spent on one more beautiful/At seventeen I learned the truth…Dreams were all they gave for free/To ugly duckling girls like me.”
Though this song was written by a young girl, I explained the same feelings Ms. Ian describes could be applied to males who feared they did not “measure up” to others’ expectations. Seventeen is a difficult age for“those whose names were never called when choosing sides for basketball.” Seventeen can be a frightening experience. Last November, I posed the same question to former students and a few faithful readers. I thought it would be interesting to hear their assessment of an age that they left decades ago. In today’s column and the one following, I will print some of the insightful thoughts I received.
– I was seventeen in 1968. It might be argued my overactive feelings of teenage angst and mild depression were at least partly due to my immaturity and being unable to deal with the world around me. It was as though I had crossed into a new dimension where all things became at once more muddled and more clear. It was in that summer I read “Catcher in the Rye” and two books by Lenny Bruce who make me think and re-examine everything I knew or thought I knew about sex, religion and racism. I listened, too, to the album by Janis Ian and the song she sang “At Seventeen.” I knew what she was talking about. At home and at school I knew what it was like to be a GHOST”–Bill Hall, Little Rock, former El Dorado student.
–Just a few months after turning seventeen, I lost my father. My score on exams did not go well even after my teachers were kind to let me retake them. I was wondering if any of my classmates felt bad like me. I graduated and was accepted at SAU but fell in love with a man that became my husband and father of our only child. Yet after 43 years of marriage the Lord took his pain away by his passing on. Then, later, my first love at seventeen came back into my life. We just picked up where we left off so very many years ago…at seventeen.— Ginnie Daniels, El Dorado News-Times reader.
–On December 27, 1957, I turned seventeen years old in the middle of my senior year of high school. Birthdays were no big deal because we didn’t have a lot of money in my family. My personal confidence stemmed from the fact that my mother was a strong woman and trusted me with chores and responsibilities in our home. I inherited a job from my older sister when she left for college. I began to take the responsibility of caring for an invalid woman after school each day and this woman built up my confidence. I would read to her each afternoon . She was a highly intelligent woman who improved my reading skills and my vocabulary. When I came to a difficult word I did not know, I would spell it, and she would pronounce it and tell me the meaning. I attribute my ability to read and speak publicly today to her training.—Brenda Tirrell, Village Voice reader.
–I thought I was invincible and in control of my life, that nothing bad would ever happen to me or someone I loved. Was I wrong! I never could understand why my parents worried so much or would get upset if we changed our plans and went somewhere different and didn’t let them know. I didn’t feel “pretty.” I wore glasses and got called “Four eyes” by my classmates. I felt like I was living the song, “The End of the World,” when my steady boyfriend and I broke up that year. I also felt sad when I became friendly with a girl who was a different color than me and I got called an ugly name. BUT…I felt happy to be starting a new chapter in my life and had it all planned out. I was in control–or so I thought. But you know they say that is how you make God laugh and I am sure I did at 17 and, perhaps, I still am.–Teressa Robinson, Russellville
– It was the best and worst of times…It was the joy of new relationships and the devastation of lost relationships. In your left hand you had the world by its hair and in your right hand, your world drops away into an abyss of what to do, where do I go, and WHO AM I?? What’s to become of me at seventeen? My first day of seventeen is filled with birthday presents and flowers; my last day of seventeen is filled with tears and loss of what was thought to be first love. College looming. Fear. Everyone says you must go through uncertain gates to obtain success, but what if I had chosen the wrong gate? The wrong city? What if I’d stepped into a trap that goes down the rabbit hole never to appear as myself again?–Melissa Miles Murphy, Houston, TX.
I will finish the rest of the quotes I received next time.
(Brenda Miles is an award winning columnist and author living in Hot Springs Village. She responds to all mail at email@example.com.)