I was reading the New York Times yesterday and there was this piece in the Style section about the growing market of deodorants and body sprays for preteen boys. I groaned when I saw it. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been rather disgusted by the recent spate of ads for Axe body spray. I also spend my working days with the seventeen to twenty-two set, and while they aren’t quite as bad as the high schoolers that I’ve taught in the past, I will say that the sheer density of the Old Spice Red Zone is enough to make anybody wheeze. Actually, Old Spice Red Zone, along with Aqua di Gio, instantly evokes memories of making out in the back of my first serious boyfriend’s silver Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder. Let’s just say that it was a pretty rad car for my high school and that it had a remarkably small backseat. At any rate, the piece in the Times is actually pretty great in that it manages to encapsulate the bizarre combination of total brazenness and utter insecurity that teenagers possess. While I winced at the description of boys spraying on layers of musk in lieu of showering, I was really touched when I read the comment of young man explaining body spray to a teacher who had confiscated his can: “I have to have it, Ms. G., because I don’t have the money to dress the right way. This is all I can afford.” That killed me.
It got me to thinking about these summers I spent in the last few years teaching SAT prep for a private company in Orange County that largely serviced the Korean community. The whole operation was rather shady, run out of non-descript shopping centers with lots of under-the-table cash payments. But the money was good, the prep was minimal, and my student’s mothers often sent me jars of kimchi, so I did it to pay the rent. The kids were quite delightful – sharp and ambitious if vaguely resentful of the bummer of a summer that their parents had signed them up for. While they came from all different high schools, within a week they had already effectively cliqued and hierarchized themselves and it was evident even to the teachers who the cool kids were, who the weird kids were, who the overachievers were, etc. The shopping center in which I taught had a number of fast-food restaurants and coffee places where everyone would eat and hang out before class and during lunch. I enjoyed spying on my students from my table at Starbucks, watching crushes develop and dates get set, watching gossip and fights transpire, and above all watching them scheme about how to ditch class without getting caught. Oh, how opaque they thought they were being and how transparent they were.
The thing that really broke my heart, though, was the few kids that never quite fit in to the busy little social network that formed around summer SAT camp. I came to think of them as the “alone” kids, the ones who brought their lunch and ate alone, whose eyes grazed the classroom uncomfortably, looking for the most inconspicuous place to sit, the ones who waited for their parents to pick them up apart from the raucous groups, alone. I know how they must have felt. There is something about being alone when you are that age that is so devastating. It feels not only that you are alone, but that you are alone because the entire universe has rejected you. I wish that I could say that everybody who spends a lot of time alone growing up ends up surrounded by friends as they get older. I wish that I could have taken every single one of those kids aside and said, “Hey, listen, I know it sucks now, but college is going to be amazing! Your twenties are going to be amazing! Just hang in there, you just haven’t found your crowd yet!” But maybe that isn’t the case for everyone. Maybe some people just end up spending a lot of time alone in their lives, and while high school is especially painful as far as that goes, there isn’t necessarily some brilliant social metamorphosis just around the corner.
I do wish, though, that I could have told them the one thing that I am certain of, namely that the being alone part gets easier. I don’t know exactly when it happened for me, but I do know that one day I stopped feeling so excruciatingly visible when I was alone. It felt okay to be alone, comfortable even. At some point it even became a pleasure. The girl I once was, cowering in the most inconspicuous place possible, is now a person that relishes going to restaurants and movies by myself. I’ve gotten good at it, this being alone, and I think I can reasonably hope that the same will happen for those kids. I think I can also reasonably hope that they will eventually lay off the body spray.