We celebrated a friend’s 17th birthday last night. Since then, “At Seventeen,” Janis Ian’s 1975 hit song, has been stuck in my head.
“I learned the truth at 17, that love was meant for beauty queens…”
The truth about 17 is that it has always been a challenging age, a plateau of poignancy from which even the most self-assured climber might blink a little at the icy cliffs ahead.
For a long time, the year before conscription and after sweet, seventeen is both the cusp and the culmination.
Thirty-seven years ago, I awkwardly made my way through seventeen, a hyper-sensitive, tall drink of water who wore sensible shoes and a Catholic school uniform. I helped usher my four kids through seventeen, nursed broken hearts and wounded egos and clarified the critical difference between crisis and disappointment.
Seventeen is hard and, with honest respect to the back-in-my-day crowd, I have to say it’s harder today than it’s ever been.
Did you walk to school uphill and through snow every morning? Well, at least you didn’t have to worry that if you tripped on ice you’d accidentally wind up on someone’s trending Buzzfeed video.
Didn’t get asked to prom? That’s a bummer. But I bet you didn’t have to scroll though hundreds of photos of everyone else having the time of their life while you stayed home eating ice cream and feeling awful.
In years past, 17-year olds worried about getting into college, passing their chemistry test, making the basketball team, denting their parent’s car.
They did not worry about getting mowed down by a school shooter or cyber bullied by a bunch of anonymous social media trolls who may actually be your “friends” IRL.
Introverts found safe spaces in my day, behind books or music stands. They were not forced into public arenas, encouraged to post filtered photos and unfiltered observations and then judged by the speed and quantity of responding Instagram likes.
Of course the opportunities open to 17-year olds today also boggle the mind. Many of the jobs they’ll apply for don’t even exist yet. They’ll travel easier and farther than we ever dreamed. They have more information at their fingertips than the whole Dewey Decimal system could provide.
But, for right now, seventeen is hard and I’d like them to know we all have their backs.