Those delicate flushes of youth!
When I was thirteen, an editor from the Virginian Pilot, our local newspaper, came to speak to my eighth grade English class. I
kind of felt like the other students were acting like yahoos (“Do you ever get to interview celebrities?” “Do journalists make a lot of money?”), and it made me angry — as it always does — to be lumped in with a bunch of other people based on any taxonomy as crude as age group or geography. A “peer group” is an infuriating thing; I view its existence as a starting bell in a fight to the death.
It’s pretty easy to find the phone number for a newspaper (it’s how news happens!), so I called and was put through to Lorraine Eaton. As I remember it, I told her I thought the newspaper should have more of a “junior high school perspective” (sadly, I now realize that that is the problem with so much of the news) and that I would like to write for her. I was making my little phone speech off some notes I’d made on an index card. Fortuitously, Lorraine had just started or was in the process of starting a teen section, and she asked me to send her an article. I did: on notebook paper, in the mail!
It worked out great: I wrote approximately 150 articles over four years (here’s one — I was a child, mind you!), sent xeroxed packets of them along with all my college applications, received at least forty pieces of hate mail (including one on a Jesus-themed Valentine’s Day card) as well as several lovely messages from older women who wished someone had given them such an opportunity way back when, and once arrived at my high school to discover that the reason everyone was staring at me was that the local morning radio shock jocks had spent the last twenty minutes calling me a “feminazi” and making fun of an article in which I interviewed teenage vegetarians. (See last week’s Bullish: In Praise of Anger).
Here was a case in which it was easy to use my age to my advantage, although I didn’t fully realize the implications at the time. I was regularly invited to lunches with other journalists (Lorraine would have to pick me up, because I couldn’t drive). I didn’t know enough to “network” or probably even to be polite — for instance, by asking the other journalists what kinds of stories they were working on. I was all punchy and sarcastic when I should have realized that adults fucking love when adorable young people want to do what they do! They. Love. It. (As long as it’s not the crazy, jealous, stealing- Winona-Ryder’s lipstick in Black Swan, “I want to be you” variety of adulation). It was even pointed out to me that some of those journalists had worked for a decade or more, hoping to someday be awarded a column — and I had one right off the bat, because I was a novelty. The least I could have been was a bit awe-struck.
There is a whole economy of admiration, gratitude, and nachus (a fantastic Yiddish word I just learned for taking pleasure in
others’ accomplishments). Sarte’s play No Exit involves three people in an eternal hell: the young woman wants the man’s love, the man wants respect and absolution of his sins from the smart older lesbian, and the smart older lesbian wants the young woman. None of the three will get what they want. That, though, is an economy! If people are motivated to act in order to receive what you have, you have currency. Looking up to people and validating their life’s work is a tremendous currency.
Finally, we live in a youth-obsessed culture. Just as youth is currency, you can “spend” that currency by endorsing something not currently thought cool among young people. Nearly everyone over 26 either secretly or openly worries about becoming old and irrelevant. Having a young person on the team — “youth specialist,” if you will — covers those people’s asses. If some fifteen year old whippersnapper got in touch with me and had a plan to bring my advice to high school students, I would be both flattered and interested — it would be easier, in fact, for a perspicacious teenager to get my attention than for a successful forty-year-old to do so. It would be possible that such a fifteen year old actually had no special insight or ability to lead her peers. But how would I ever know that? I would hardly have the ability to check.