They were both so much more than their choices.
Flashback to three lifetimes ago, 1985. Tom Cruise was still normal. Denim was stone washed. Coke tasted like Pepsi. A few kids from my youth group hadn’t died yet. I lived in Chicago and volunteered with inner-city teens on Friday nights.
A fight broke out between a tall girl gangly arms and a boy who’d eventually take a bullet.
I didn’t know much about the girl other than her zip code wasn’t a winning combination of numbers that had a decent school. Tall, disrespectful, a good left hook. I looked at her thinking, you are so much better than your chances.
I hauled her inside the iHOP next to the church, her eyes bugging, her adrenaline simmering. A homeless guy was slumped over in the booth near the register, his smell competing with the bacon.
I threw her a menu. “Order anything you want.”
She scanned the laminated pages sticky with syrup. “I’ll take the shrimp basket.”
The shrimp basket at iHOP? Of all the rooty-tooty choices that’s was she gets? There was only one reason why. The shrimp basket was the most expensive item on the menu. I still remember the price. Thirteen dollars.
The girl chased the shrimp around the waxy paper, not eating them. She just occasionally glanced at me, her eyes saying, “Who’s this crazy white lady buying me a meal?” I tried not to get pissed. It was only thirteen dollars. Instead, I sipped my Coke then pushed it away, forgetting how the formula changed.
Finally, she says something. “Why you be nice to me?”
I used my spoon to fish out an ice cube. “Girls aren’t supposed to fight guys and guys aren’t supposed to hit girls.”
She looked at me as if she never heard that before, her elbows on the table, her long fingers flicking the shrimp. She gave me a head roll but never a thank you.
I hadn’t thought about her or those overpriced shrimp until yesterday. I was in China, not Chicago, and in a school, not at a pancake house. I was waiting for a parent-teen conference to begin.
The smell of money wafted from the mother as her heels clicked into my classroom. Her face was shiny with an expensive cream that makes skin look dewy wet. Her shoes matched her bag matched her cell phone.
I shook her hand, or tried, her delicate fingers slipping away. “Where’s your daughter?” I ask.
“Her driver picked her up from school,” the interpreter said. “She didn’t want to come.”
The mother gave me a helpless smile.
I took a breath, feeling steam pour from nostrils. I smile at our interpreter. “Can you tell the mom to call her daughter? She needs to be here.”
It was an awkward thirty-minute wait.
When the teen finally stomped into my classroom, she slumped down into the seat, crossed her arms and let out a loud breath. Every gesture screamed, “Everybody, I’m an entitled Chinese teenage and I’m not happy!” If looks could kill, you’d be reading my obituary.
I looked at this girl thinking, you are so much better than your choices.
Two teens. Both feral, hissing, their claws out, ready to pounce. For one, money would solve problems, for the other, money was the culprit. One with few choices, one making the wrong ones. As one shoved around her shrimp, and the othered glowered at her helpless mother, I wondered in both instances: how do you help the child who has never been disciplined?
“And remember to check your email for assignments.” I say.
“Oh, I don’t do email.”
“OK,” I bite my tongue again. “Then have your mother check them.”
I don’t know what happened to Miss Shrimp Basket. If she’s anything like the girls I still keep in contact from that program, she’s grand-mom by now, working a degrading job with a uniform and no overtime pay. Did she grow up to be knocked around? Did she realize her worth? She probably doesn’t even remember that day or the shrimps or the smell of that homeless guy.
My thoughts drift back to the entitled Chinese teen from yesterday. Her pouts. Her eyerolls and flagrant disrespect. Would a shrimp basket at iHOP would make her happy or would she have to buy the entire iHOP? Then I thought about my days as a teen. Flooding the chemistry lab. Countless visits with Mr. Bannon, our principal. Being kicked out of so many classes my senior, I was an honorary member of the 6th grade band.
Guess I was feral, too.
So what do you give the teen who has everything –but discipline?
The same thing others gave me.