One Friday in April, the month when all the pent-up energy of a Wisconsin winter gets released, Shorewood’s finest busted a party of twenty-five high school sophomores, which included our sweet six-foot tall baby, Malachi. According to the police report, they found a case of beer, bottles of vodka and rum, fourteen baggies of marijuana, and eight pipes on the premises. Do the math — more than half the kids present brought their own weed. Nearly a third had pipes.
We’ve long stopped seeing our kids through rose-colored glasses. When I hear parents say things like, “Well, I know my child never drinks or smokes,” I silently respond, “hmm, you think you know.” We know now that Malachi’s older sisters, 20 and 18, dabbled in high school. I got away with hell myself as a teen, and even Malachi’s well-behaved father had occasion to “party” in high school. But somehow I naively imagined that Malachi might sail through high school without any experimentation with substances. As a team captain for several sports, I thought he might be invested in athletics enough to avoid temptations of drugs and alcohol. I underestimated the allure of the culture. After all, our town’s nickname is “Shoreweed.”
Kids make mistakes, our principal noted in Katja’s high school commencement, and the more mistakes they make, the faster they learn. We need to give them space to make mistakes, and let them experience the consequences. I didn’t even have to scold Malachi; the kid was mortified and could hardly sleep. He even came to church with me, slipping a bill into the offering basket. On Monday morning, he had face-to-face talks with the high school athletic director, and his basketball, baseball, and football coaches, who were all suitably understanding but stern.
Actually, I’m secretly relieved they’ve all gotten some experience with substances. At a recent yoga conference, my teacher Geeta Iyengar of Pune, India (daughter of BKS Iyengar), made a joke about eating chocolate. She pointed out that if you’re torn between eating a piece of chocolate or not, preoccupied with the choice, and distracted by the temptation, then you may as well eat the chocolate, for your mind has already devoured it, and your organs are already digesting it. You’re being hypocritical by rejecting that which you have already taken in.
Similarly, a teen who is consumed by curiosity and driven to distraction about substances is better off satisfying her curiosity so she can eventually make the conscious decision to leave it behind. As the televangelist scandals over the years have demonstrated, we often attract what we resist. Better to make our mistakes when we’re young, before we become lopsided, obsessive, sneaky mid-lifers. My partying days ended around age 20, but the path led through experimentation, periods of excess, and a few minor scares. I had to arrive here of my own volition, and I have to trust my children to do the same.
Years ago when our children were toddlers, my friend Toni made a casual comment that has stuck with me. Her daughter had popped a penny in her mouth, and her grandfather was worried that she’d choke on it. Toni was relaxed about it, trusting that the child would spit it out sooner rather than later, as she announced confidently, “She’s not going to choke on it — it’s not her destiny.” Not her destiny. Sure enough, her daughter spit out the silly penny without being forced to, and has grown to be a fine young woman.
As his mother, I feel deep down that substance addiction is not Malachi’s destiny. True, we know a few kids who’ve required treatment, and who struggle with addiction and compulsive behavior, but most kids will sail through without residual effect if we provide boundaries and outlets without stigmatizing and labeling.
After Malachi’s run-in with the law, he joined the high school track team. He’s like a border collie that needs to be exercised and worked hard each and every day. He needs large motor activity that tires him out, teammates who keep each other accountable, and goals and challenges to inspire him.
After this party, we begin to wonder: what about the incidents we never get wind of? The partying that falls below the radar, the gatherings that don’t get busted?
“When you’re older,” I propose to the kids, “will you tell me all the things you got away with in high school? Then I’ll tell you more about what I did,” I add, trying to up the ante.
The kids laugh nervously and don’t answer right away.
“It might be a long time,” Meiko says.