The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same
Despite billions of dollars worth of advertising and campaigns intended to guide teens along the straight and narrow, today’s kids still have to rely on the very same thing we did to get them through. Themselves.
During Christmas break I took the kids over to the Bloomsbury Center to run them, and the dog, in the fields behind the center. As I stood on the side of the field tossing sticks in an alternate fashion to the dog, then the kids, I started to reminisce with my youngest and oldest daughters about the old days, when the center still stood as Catonsville Junior High school.
As I began to call to mind my time in junior high, my younger daughter, a 9-year-old third-grader, put her stick down and listened attentively.
My oldest daughter, a freshman at Catonsville High School, adopted her usual position for our conversations--a fixed smile on her face and a polite but vacant expression in her eyes, nodding in a random manner she assumes coincides with salient points of my discourse.
Of course, she can’t be sure she’s nodding appropriately because she only hears the tone of my voice, not the words, much like my dog, or Charlie Brown.
As has happened with most of my memories, middle age effectively consolidated my junior high recollections into one day instead of the 540 days actually spent at the school. I rambled on for a few minutes until arriving at this point in my story:
“…oh yeah, it didn’t matter what the weather was doing, I walked. When I got to school, I usually went around to the front entrance, even though the bus entrance was closer. The bus entrance, see, was where the smokers stood, and I didn’t want my clothes to smell like smoke.”
My third-grader suddenly interjected.
“Did you say the bus entrance was where the smokers stood?” she asked. “Are you talking about the teachers smoking?”
“No, the students,” I replied, still lost in the memory.
“How old were they?!”
“Well, junior high was a little different back then, seventh through ninth grade, so I guess they would have been about…thirteen, fourteen or so?” I faltered, suddenly realizing where she was heading.
“Thirteen? Thirteen?!” she exclaimed. “And the teachers didn’t stop them?! Was this before the 1900s?”
I hadn’t given it any thought before, but my 9-year old was absolutely right. It is amazing to think that I attended a school where 13 and 14-year-olds could blatantly smoke in public with no one--not teachers, not parents--stopping them.
“This was in the late '70s,” I replied. “Nobody really enforced any kind of anti-smoking rules. There were actually bathrooms in the school that were known smoker’s bathrooms.”
“The Junior High was kind of a rough school- fights in the halls all the time, and a school store that was completely enclosed in a steel cage to prevent the inmates from stealing the change box.”
“Can’t imagine kids are smoking like that today,” I continued, “after all of the anti-smoking education you guys have gotten in school.”
“Hey,” said my youngest turning to her big sister. “Do people smoke at your school?”
Sensing someone was speaking to her, my older daughter’s gaze suddenly snapped from its spot somewhere above and to the right of the pompom on top of my ski hat to land squarely on my face. I blinked, not used to direct attention.
She said, “I don’t, but lots of kids do. Kids aren’t allowed to smoke on school grounds, so they meet at either the stream or a corner near the school. My friend and I walk past Smoker’s Corner every day.”
My 9-year old and I both looked at her in surprise.
“But these are mostly juniors and seniors, right?” I protested.
“No, lots of freshman and sophomores smoke too,” she cheerily replied.
Suddenly her phone buzzed. My daughter extracted it from her pocket and began to rapidly multitext replies to the 30 or so messages received during the moments of our talk. She managed to do this without dropping her gaze from me, but I knew from past experience that this was the end of our conversation. The lights were still on, but no one was home.
I was quiet on the walk back to the house, pensively thinking about my daughter’s casual disclosure. I’m not a prude. I know that each generation has to find their own fun and relearn the same lessons taught to past generations.
Beer gets you drunk. Pot gets you high. While unfortunate, it seems obvious to me why these vices are still prevalent among kids. But cigarette smoking? I think society has done a moderately effective job of stripping smoking of its glamorous image. For the most part, advertising and media do not promote smoking as they have in the past.
And it is impossible to believe that the very, very loud message of anti-smoking campaigns, funded by billions of our tax dollars, have not been heard by everyone. In kindergarten, long before my children acquired the dexterity necessary to hold a cigarette, they were handed anti-smoking literature. These days, a kid simply cannot make it through the public elementary school system without being repeatedly warned of the dangers of smoking.
Thus, the persistent prevalence of teen age cigarette smoking surprises me. I guess the social pressure is still there.
As a society, we’ve definitely made progress. My daughter and her friends do not plan on taking up the habit any time soon. As my daughter’s best friend said when asked if she would ever smoke:
“I would not endanger my oral hygiene on something as disgusting as smoking. Bleaugh. Ever since I got my braces off it’s been smooth sailing. You’d think I’d risk that?”
God, I love that girl.
So, when all is said and done, it seems that today’s kids have to rely on the same thing I relied on when navigating the crime-ridden halls of Catonsville Junior High, way back in the early 1900s.
Too bad you can’t smoke that.