• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


The Girl at 16

Blending incisive social critique with excellent manners.

July 13, 2020

The Girl turned 16 this weekend.

Her version of 16 is wildly different than mine was. Admittedly, my 16th happened in 1984, which, for younger readers, was shortly after the discovery of fire. As far as I was concerned, the point of turning 16 was driving. That was it. The rest was incidental. For context, I grew up in the suburbs, where if you didn’t drive, you were homebound. Driving represented escape.

She has grown up with technology I couldn’t have imagined. She has a vague interest in driving, but she doesn’t need it to escape. And in lockdown, "escape" is a much trickier concept anyway. Escape to where, exactly?

At 16, I was relatively political by the standards of my high school. Too young to vote, I volunteered to make calls for the Mondale/Ferraro campaign. (For my money, Homer Simpson had the last word on Mondale: “No wonder he won Minnesota.”) Instead of birthday gifts, The Girl has asked her friends to make donations in her name to the Third Wave Fund, which, according to its website, is “the only activist fund led by and for women of color, intersex, queer, and trans folks under 35 years old in the U.S.,” and it targets “patriarchy, transphobia, homophobia, and misogyny.”

That’s a bit more ambitious than “vote for Mondale.”

She’s far more sophisticated than I was at her age, or even years later. She inherited the “deadline writer” gene, writing a weekly book review column for her school paper last year. When we streamed Hamilton last weekend, she offered a piercing critique of its politics, even as she admitted the songs were “bops.” (A few years ago, when we saw it live, she was too busy bouncing off the ceiling to offer a critique.) She lives in fear that her celebrity crush will be revealed as “problematic,” a word I’m pretty sure I heard for the first time in grad school.

She and The Boy never really did the sibling rivalry thing in any serious way, probably because they each clearly had their own lane. He’s the family extrovert. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, does what needs to be done and has a social confidence all his own. He builds things and writes plot-driven stories. She’s more complicated. She’s more introverted, with a loyal group of friends with social dynamics she can analyze at impressive length. She values autonomy over duty, has many emotions at once and writes character-driven stories. His stories are likely to include the word “spaceship.” Hers are more likely to include the word “gazed.”

We like to say that she’s the brains of the family, because she is.

Her friend group is remarkable. It’s a pretty even blend of genders and sexual orientations, mostly very smart and -- to my mind, this is where the generation gap is the most striking -- courteous. She hosted a fire pit (with face masks) in our backyard on Saturday; on Sunday morning, when I opened the curtain to survey the damage, the yard was spotless. When we took them to the beach, whatever snark they aimed at certain public figures was absolutely not aimed at parents; we even got a few unsolicited thank-yous. I don’t remember being anywhere near that mannerly at 16, nor was anyone I knew. The combination of freer critique of public figures with more courtesy in personal life strikes me as entirely to the good. They seem to want a kinder society generally to match the kinder society they’ve built for themselves. I couldn’t agree more.

Fall of the junior year is the traditional start of the college search; I have no clue how that’s going to play out. (Stay tuned!) COVID has thrown the usual college tour online, and as long as the duration and impact of the pandemic remain unknowable, it’s hard to say how to respond. I’m hopeful that a year from now it will be much less severe than it is now, but we can’t know that yet. She has already let us know that she intends to be an English major, so there shouldn’t be a shortage of schools from which to pick. I’ll admit parental bias here, but any college would be lucky to have her.

One of the best parts of parenthood is having a front-row seat to watch kids grow into themselves. TG is quietly and steadily emerging as a formidable young woman. I couldn’t be prouder.


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