The Bridge of Time

April 8, 2011
By , Northborough, MA
Childhood. Sandboxes, trucks, dolls, swings, slides. Rosy-cheeks, bright eyes, missing teeth. Penmanship, simple arithmetic, simple sciences. Play dates after school. Nap time, teddy bears, footsie pajamas. Life is so simple when we are children. Knowing right from wrong is simply knowing to ask for a toy instead of just taking it. Fights with friends are over the last pretty pink crayon in the box. You have one teacher. Recess is a half-hour of pure freedom. Homework is just one sheet a night or a packet a week. Spelling tests are the most dreaded event of the week.

Block letters, backwards numbers, misshapen squiggles. Lunch is a peanut butter sandwich, an apple, and maybe, if we're lucky, a Chips Ahoy cookie. Perfectly matched socks, clean sneakers, messy hair. Fighting with your parents' means asking for an additional ten minutes before bedtime and not getting it. Flowered sheets, pink curtains, missing gloves. Earning a friend means going up to a girl during finger painting and asking her to be your friend. Losing a friend is the tragedy of her family relocating and leaving the school district. Sugared treats, swinging ponytails, shoes that light up. Climbing a tree is the scariest thing your parents will ever see you doing. Falling is our biggest fear. Elmer's glue sticks, construction paper, crayons. A scraped knee on the playground is means for bragging rights, especially if you don’t cry.

Art, P.E., Music. There are no Honors kids, no College Prep students. Not yet. Plastic scissors, markers, colored pencils. There is no looming pressure about grade-point averages. Colleges have not begun their hunt, not to us, not yet. Slap-on bracelets, cartoons after school, yo-yos. No letter grades, only numbers, and comments from your principal are always encouraging. Teachers spend a week on decimal places, and another on exponents. Jungle gyms, hopscotch, wall ball. Reading is optional, to be enjoyed on our own time, which, let's be honest, is infinite. Or so it seemed.

Childhood was simple; it was easy. We did not have a care in the world. We lived in our happy little bubbles, dreaming of the day when we would be older. Nothing would change of course; we would just be older and more trusted. We would not have to be in bed by eight, but home by midnight. We could go out with friends by ourselves (maybe the park, perhaps?). Our heroes were sports players or actresses who we liked best based on name or appearance and all their misdoings went unheard. We understood so little, but thought we knew so much (Sally lost four teeth last week, John already goes to sleep-away camp!). Gym was dodge ball, skipping, and basketball. Art was cutting and pasting, maybe a little bit of painting and drawing. English was spelling and tidbits of grammar, the rare essay only one or two paragraphs, maybe a whole hand-written page if the teacher was especially unforgiving. Friends were gained and lost every year as we switched classes. Old friends were still seen on the playground and we still talked, just didn't pass notes during Science or didn’t sit together at lunch. (Seating, after all, was by classroom.)

We could stand on a bridge overlooking a lake and be bored. We did not care for beauty, or nature, or enjoying a moment. We lived for recess, for Popsicles on a summer day, for a tree to climb and an Easy Reader book or maybe the comic section of the newspaper. Walking on a sidewalk offered limitless opportunities. Trash was treasure. A discarded baseball card, a lonely Lego figure, or sometimes, if we're really lucky, a forgotten dollar or a couple of dropped quarters are taken as a day's treasures. A+ papers were frequent and prized on the fridge, or saved in a box. Dioramas littered our classrooms and the occasional book report was held sacred on a small faux-wooden table.

It's fairly easy to see things change. The transition from child to teenager is a blur of braces, tacky clothes, awkward glasses, bad haircuts, and the rapid growth spurts. Dollhouses and action figures are tossed away without remorse. Children's books, ones we cherished, are carelessly donated (but with care for those receiving them). Textbooks get thicker. Homework begins to increase. Classes become one more challenging, one year at a time. Letter grades are introduced and recess is taken away. Framed pictures of racecars or old scribbles are replaced with posters of our favorite musicians. Our rooms are practically unrecognizable as things are taken and things are added.

Now our teenage years have begun.

School, work, sports. Make-up, trends, perfect teeth. The introduction to Honors and College Prep has been made and we accept it how it is, hanging with our collaboration of new friends who share similar mindsets, despite differences in schedule. Calendars, planning, late nights. Bedtime is now something we crave. Sleeping never sounded so good at 11:30 as we wade through our next paper on an especially bad night. Insomnia, early mornings, first period classes. Seven different teachers every day, doubles every day but Mondays. In some ways, it's fantastic, but in others, the days just never seem to end, or just seem to repeat. Varsity, JV, cuts. Who knew we'd actually be tested and judged on ability? We knew it would come, but we still don’t believe it, even when we line up to hear our fate.

Being a teenager is not what we expected. Choices are no longer the same. Cartoons after school have been ditched years ago. A dollar is still sacred, but not squandered on a candy bar, but saved for a parking permit, a registration fee, or new shoes, perhaps? Friends still come and go, but for different reasons.

Classes are more demanding. There are rarely nights of one worksheet. Labs, essays, responses, projects, tests on the same days; it's a never-ending cycle of work. Read, memorize, analyze, respond, and repeat. We are not taught to retain the information but spit it back, then forget as we move on to the next topic.

Fights with our parents are more intense. The questions they ask are more detailed and cryptic. We have responsibilities (job, chores, SAT test prep). Learning to drive is now the most dreaded item on a parent's menu. Falling is still a fear, but failing, being unloved, disappearing, and losing friends are far more consuming (and realistic). Being judged is not just in sports, but in the halls, the cafeteria, the classroom, everywhere we go. Adults we do not know judge us (oh just another rowdy teenager I wonder where their parents are what on earth are they wearing). Teachers judge us as well (another slacker another suck up the excuses are never ending do they think we're stupid). And our peers judge us the most (another geek, another tramp, oh look she can't cover up, he's gay did you know that, what on earth is she wearing!). We aim to please, but usually fail in the process.

Now we constantly brood and wonder what other people think of us. Are we skinny enough? Are we trendy enough? Are we funny enough? Do people actually judge us because of our sexuality? We take maybe a moment to marvel in the exquisite color of the lake, of the trees or flowers, and maybe we'll snap a picture and treasure the scene and look back at it once or twice. But then it's back to thinking. To wondering. To succumbing to our own curiosities, our worst enemies. We wish we could return to being a child. It's amazing, isn't it? When we're younger, all we want is to grow up, but now that we've experienced being a teenager, we miss naptime and one-a-day worksheets.

We view the world differently as a teenager. The world no longer holds that fascinating quality. The world is no longer just our town, or just our school district. The world is infinite and scary, and soon, much sooner than we would hope, we will be a part of that world. As a child, we thought after college we would be set. Immediately get a job, find the perfect man or woman, have a kid, and live the happy suburban life. But do we want that life? We now know that the job market is not like that. We also know we might not get into the famed colleges our parents have planted into our minds. Is getting into Princeton as realistic as it was when we were, say, seven?

Growing up as a child was a dream just out of reach, but one day it would be ours. Growing up meant freedom and choices and a bedtime past eight. We could drive and see our friends whenever we wanted. The division of Honors and College Prep kids did not exist. Colleges were reachable and dreams were saved for tomorrow. Cartoons were just a click away.

But now we realize growing up means more responsibilities, more fear about tomorrow. Our choices mean more and a bedtime at eight would be a blessed relief. We can drive and see our friends, but there are restrictions and gas and insurance to pay first. The division of students has begun and although we might break the barrier and befriend them, our parents are either rolling their eyes or judging us for that choice alone. Colleges are looming and scary and still dreams, but we now know the limitations and practicality of our dreams. We are not handed our dreams anymore, not told we will definitely have them by tomorrow, but told we must work and work diligently for them and even then, we might not snag them. Growing up never seemed more intimidating than now. How we long for our long lost days of naivety.

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