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Mama Says Mercy

Notes to my 13-year-old self


A few weeks ago, my friend produced a play called “13.” It was about a 13-year-old boy moving out of New York into this small town in Indiana, where he tried desperately to fit in.

While I had no qualms about the production, the foreignness of teen Americana alienated my 13-year-old self, who tried to figure things out in a completely different setting.  It got me thinking about what I should have learned at that age.

I never had the upbringing of American suburbia, or the bohemian ideal of growing up with Jung and burlap. Instead, I grew up sheltered, in a conservative Catholic high school in Greenhills, where, as in the military imposing a regulation haircut on recruits, the authorties measured our promiscuity by the amount of fingers on our shoulders, and how they compared to the straps of our tops. The days we weren’t all dressed the same in skirts down to our ankles, we called our “civilian” days.

In my bookshelf sits this old book called “Growing Up Gracefully.” I figured I would eventually get around to it, or to why it was there to begin with. There was also required reading: A school alumna had written an etiquette book we all had to buy, wrap in plastic, and read. I was taught to cross my ankles. I was taught how to eat. But what I wish I learned instead was why I wasn’t graceful, and what the merits of crassness could sometimes be.

I hate to put it this way, but where was Patti Smith in my youth?

Sometimes I wonder if the only reason I write is to pretend that I can force hindsight to fix the little I knew then. Although there’s still a lot to learn, a lot of us belittle our younger selves, inviting them to the table during small talk just so we can laugh about the things we didn’t know before.

The fault of a conservative upbringing is the inability to fully self-censor in matters of discrimination beyond typified cartoon characters or WWJD. Things people know today about race and gender weren’t exactly photocopied posters hanging behind bathroom cubicles and hallways to round up a protest of biblical proportions. I didn’t know any better.

So here is the aftermath of my submissive, conservative upbringing: Musings on what I wish I had learned sooner, and what I can only wish kids in the same upbringing would too. (This is a lifestyle column, so I’m not aiming for any deep cuts here.)

The first is that I wish I had learned early on not to listen too intently to homilies. Louie 1:11—I mean, Louie C.K.’s television show, season one, episode 11. A young Louie runs to church late at night trying to remove the nails off Jesus Christ’s statue after being made to believe that he was responsible for it. This is how many of us are brought up, and this isn’t a problem for those who are aware of it.

Anxiety attack

I was brought up with so much guilt I nearly had an anxiety attack when I thought that one time after recess I felt the calling to be a nun, a concept introduced to me only by my religion teacher.

It’s important to respect other people respecting their own religion, but the human authority within the Church that expects to be given the same privileges as God can sometimes be a little less accommodating. We can be told what we can believe, and not what we should believe. It doesn’t necessarily make you less of a believer, but it sure helps make you a thinker.

Second, the Top 40 is great for when you are drunk in your 20s and feel nostalgia when some songs were the (un)intentional soundtrack to relatively important events in your teens. Savage Garden’s “The Animal Song” is still important to me, and I don’t exactly know why.

But getting a head start at discovering a diverse range of other music—The Velvet Underground, Yano, The Boredoms, to name a few—could have helped make me a more well-rounded person than the times my guidance counselor would take over our homeroom class.

Then there’s literature. Pessoa said in the “Book of Disquiet,” “Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life.” What better to dispel the marching of teen angst with than fiction? Teen angst brings on the awareness of “too much life and nobody understands.”

There are books to help us figure out our youths. Too bad that at the time, I was too busy waiting back for what was potentially just an intern-generated email from Paulo Coelho. I would have been better off with pulp fiction.

Whoever thought that marriage was one of the main conditions for happiness may as well sell infomercials. When I was a kid, my seatmate asked me, “You know what I really, really want to be in life?” I turned around. “A singer?” (She had mentioned this before). “No, a housewife.” At the time of this writing, I don’t think she’s married yet.

It might be good to get married, and it’s fine if you want to be a housewife, but it’s okay if you don’t. Even at school I was never comfortable with the way people handled the word “spinster”; perhaps our teachers should have taught us better, about breaking the glass ceiling, and other more empowering means of being independent women. This is why I secretly enjoy films like “Whip It,” “Sister Act,” and “Miss Congeniality.”

Respect the queer community

And I ought to have learned to respect when people know when things are not fine, or if they wished they were. There are ways to win against Manny Pacquiao and Miriam Quiambao. Remington from the film “Zombadings” is the perfect comedic satire for how little we start out knowing about how to respect the queer community. People shouldn’t face the wall for being gay. People who still use the word “faggot” should, though thank God we’re seeing less of that.

And the issue of race is also particularly contentious. Morgan Freeman explained why Black History Month is “ridiculous,” saying racism can end if we stopped acknowledging it. “I am going to stop calling you a white man and I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a black man.” There are a lot of things to learn about the dynamics of our times; to follow our outdated history books describing Aeta hair as “kinky” and Chinese eyes as “chinky” is a horrible, horrible thing to quiz a child with.

Another thing I should have learned is “you are okay.” The patronizing, obsessive self-talk of 13-year-olds is something we tend to forget as adults. There is a certain degree of self-love that is important to acquire in our early teens—and this isn’t just about indulging ourselves in a full season of “30 Rock” and writing on your blog about how happy this makes you feel on top of ice cream.

This is the thrill of standing up to yourself, being okay with not being wanted, and being less harsh to yourself when you make mistakes. As Liz Lemon says, “Who hasn’t made mistakes? I once French-kissed a dog at a party to try to impress what turned out to be a very tall 12-year-old.”

Perhaps my final addition would be that the most important thing I should have learned is not to be scared to learn. We’re taught fear, we’re taught to keep quiet and be submissive. And this is why I wrote this article, because my younger self had been too naïve and scared to learn things—and not only did it take this long to realize the smallness of this fear, but also that my older self can’t do anything to undo what I didn’t learn.

So 13-year-old self, don’t believe me if you don’t want to. This is the Saturday paper. You’re in high school. Have fun. And besides, you must think that I’m a terrible person and there’s no reason for you to believe me. And that’s good.

Now I turn the tables to whoever is reading this. What would you have wanted your younger self to know?

Follow the author on Twitter @maracoson.

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Tags: stage play , Theater , “13”

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