School Not So Formal

It was the senior school formal last week and my Year 10 son donned the suit – navy blue with a touch of grey thread. The tie – pink, his choice.  The patent leather footwear – not his choice but his school shoes looked ‘lame’. The long hair slicked back in a gesture of rebellion because I prefer it the way he used to wear it.


He didn’t have a date and neither did most of his friends but still, he bemoaned his group- arrival-status.


I tried to take photos when he was all decked out but he resisted so vigorously I gave up. It’s also ‘lame’, apparently for a mother to take photos of her teenager unless ordered to do so.


Then off he went.


His school is vigilant re alcohol, drugs and horizontal dancing issues but I had little doubt the after-party would not be so restrained. I had visions of a Bacchanalian free-for-all and although he did, bless him, text me half way through the night with his ETA, I still lay in bed on red alert until I heard him come home.


‘Hi’, I called, affecting a dozy half-asleep voice.

‘Hi Mum.’

‘Good time?’


‘Bed now, okay? You have to work tomorrow so – ‘

‘Yes Mum. Good night.’ Bedroom door closes.


So he didn’t brush his teeth and probably went to bed with his clothes on? Was he okay? Did he drink or smoke dope or get with a girl? Who went to the after-party? Did he come home on the last train with other kids like arranged or by himself? Did he take off his exceptional pink tie and leave it at the party? What about if he lost that new silver ring I gave him? Did he spew in the toilet and collapse on the bathroom floor at someone’s house and then run around their back yard half naked to try and sober up? Like I did when I was his age. Except that before I ran around half naked in my friend’s back yard after drinking a bottle of Green Ginger Wine, I lay in an overflowing bath wearing my friend’s nightie (who’d put that on me?)  and nearly drowned because I kept on nodding off.


It’s a cliché of course. We lecture our teenagers about how to stay safe. To say no to drugs. Not to have underage sex. To be respectful and mindful and all the rest of it but lots of us were doing it all back then. I was. Although I hated marijuana as it made me paranoid and the smoke made me nauseas but I tried it anyway because my sixteen- year-boyfriend gave it to me and because, well, that’s obvious isn’t it?


My son told me in dribs and drabs the next day what kind of a night he’d had although I am pretty sure he kept some of the details to himself. That’s how it should be. If he told his mother everything it would be a bit weird and emotionally arrested. He does still tell me plenty of stuff unbidden so I am thankful for that. Although I can feel him pulling away more these days. Classic adolescent ambivalence: the desire to separate and differentiate and the impulse to stay connected to what’s known and safe.


I see this inner conflict it in my students too. They can turn on a sixpence. The girls all sweet and confessional one day and dismissive and judgey the next. The boys do it too. All chatty and funny one day and scoffy and defiant the next.


Teenagers seem more ironic than we were. Their sense of the absurd and the phoney more attuned. Although that word, ‘phoney’ is the one Holden Caulfield used in Catcher in the Rye to describe those he regarded as fake. So maybe things haven’t changed that much.


I remember what I wore to my senior school formal. I remember the feeling of that night. The exquisite mix of excitement and fear. In the photos I am wearing the cream Laura Ashley dress my mother wore at her wedding. It has lace sleeves and given the marriage didn’t last that long, would have been happy to bin it had it not suited me so well. I look so young and round faced.


Our formal was less American – junior high school than they are now. We were content with a single mirror ball and a paper plate piled with Twisties back then.


Did I tell my mother everything? No, not everything. She’s grateful for that, she tells me.


My son says I hover about him too much and should care less. That it must be because I’m Italian and a single mother and that he is a single child – something he never lets me forget by the way.


He is sixteen. I am fifty-something and whist he is navigating adolescence I am wrestling middle-age.


Next time he goes out I shall try not to worry so much. Better still, I’ll go out for a night on the tiles too. I wonder if I can still fit into that Laura Ashley?

AEU Nov. 18. Column