Let’s Talk About Teenage Angst

Sometimes I think I’m a normal 25-year-old adult, but then my teenage angst kicks in. 

I know that kind of thing should be out of my system by now, but you have to understand that it came to me pretty late in the game. I remember exactly where I was sitting when it hit me like a ton of bricks. It was December of my sophomore year of college, a week or so before my twentieth birthday. I was in my music theory class, and somehow amid the discussions of Italian, German, and French augmented sixth chords, I got to thinking that I would only be a teenager for one more week. 

Empowered. Mature. Prepared. Relieved. Excited.

These are all emotions one could reasonably associate with this realization. Ever the analyst, however, I entered one of the more existential periods of my life. 

You see, I sort of skipped the “crazy teenager” chapter in my coming of age story. I’ve seen enough teen movies and shows to know that much of being a teenager is having all the fun, making all the dumb decisions, and having all the adults constantly on your back about stepping out of line. People can’t even hold a teen’s dumb behavior against them for long because everyone sort of accepts that teenagers’ brains aren’t fully developed and that acting crazy, reckless, and wild just comes with the territory. 

I know I missed this step because I never acted like that in the slightest. If my teenage years were a movie, I can say with 100% certainty that I would have been a supporting character whose few scenes get skipped by audience members so they can get to the action. While the protagonist would be living his best teenage life skipping school and dancing in the city parade or attending parties that sooner or later get shut down by the cops, I would be…studying, I guess? At band practice? Going to bed at 9:00pm? 

To say I was a goody two-shoes is a huge understatement. It’s also an insult to interesting shoes everywhere. 

I never got busted for driving recklessly. I never ventured to places I wasn’t supposed to go. I can’t think of a single time I missed my curfew (I’m not even sure my parents felt the need to give me one). Instead, I was busy being the most vanilla, white bread, boring poster child of good behavior you’ve ever seen. I showed up to school thirty minutes before the tardy bell rang. I spent every Friday night of each fall semester in a marching band uniform. I sang in the school musicals, captained the Battle of the Books team, and dammit dang it, if there had been a speech and debate team, I’d have done that too. The only time a teacher ever admonished me was when I had my hands in my pockets while I was singing in choir. After telling me to take them out, my teacher turned to the whole class, a wide, disbelieving grin on her face, and said proudly, “I got to yell at Sully!” Shout out to you, Mrs. B!

I was such a goody-goody that on a church youth retreat, the minister literally kicked off unstructured free time by saying to the group, “And remember, WWSD: What would Sully do?”

When trying to think of the most rebellious thing I did between the ages of twelve and twenty, I keep coming back to a time in high school when I forged my dad’s signature on a report card. When a report card is full of teachers’ notes gushing about what a pleasure you are to teach, however, it really isn’t that exciting or rebellious never to show it to your parents before returning it to the school.

I remember when a friend once told me he couldn’t hang out on the weekend because he was grounded. My respect for him immediately skyrocketed. He’d done something cool enough to get in trouble? I honestly considered asking one of my parents if they’d do that to me just for the street cred. 

Anyway, fast-forward to my sophomore music theory class in undergrad and the moment I realized my teenage years were all but spent. I knew in that instant that I had one week to make up for all the teenage antics I’d never experienced. I needed to sneak out one night and go to a party. I needed to get a speeding ticket. I needed to go swimming in the fountains around campus and run before campus police could apprehend me (or maybe even let them catch me for the story). 

The only problem was that when you’re already in college, you sort of make your own rules anyway. There’s no curfew to miss. There’s no need to sneak out your dorm room window to go to a party because there’s no one stopping you from simply walking out the front door. Besides, the week before my birthday coincided with exams. Everyone was studying, and there were no parties to be found. 

I could walk from one end of my college campus to the other in ten minutes, so reckless driving for the sake of notoriety seemed like a waste of gas. 

But there were still the fountains. 

In the dead of night on the eve of my twentieth birthday, I crept through the dark to the large fountain in the middle of the traffic circle at the center of campus. Even though I could see my breath and was only halfway certain I wouldn’t catch hypothermia, I was fully prepared to jump in the fountain and at least splash around for a bit. Swimming in the fountains was strictly prohibited and was rumored to result in a $400 fine. In other words, it was an activity that had teenage rebellion written all over it.

I handed my phone to a friend who was there to get a good picture of my misdeed – proof that I really had experienced a rebellious phase – and approached the fountain with a sense of grandeur and deference rarely seen outside a throne room, cathedral, or cult. I wanted to test the water temperature, so I lowered my sneakered foot down past the fountain’s stone edge until…it hit solid ice. 

In South Carolina of all places, the weather had gotten cold enough for the fountain to freeze. I could no sooner have waded in this fountain than walked through a stone wall. 

As the school’s distant bell tower rang out twelve chimes for midnight, I realized my plan had failed. I was no longer a teenager and my opportunity to live it up with the likes of Ferris Bueller, Peter Parker, Danny Zuko, and the Breakfast Club had vanished. 

In almost every English class I’ve ever taken, the theme of loss of innocence has come up. It usually appears in some coming of age novel and marks the beginning of the protagonist’s journey toward adulthood. What was I to do, therefore, when here I was flinging my innocence away from me with all my might and it just kept coming back? It was like a ghost who can’t leave the house in which it died or a piece of tape you can’t throw away because it keeps sticking to your fingers. 

Since I was too busy being an angel, I never rebelled or exhausted any of my teenage angst. It’s all still there, and it threatens to pour out of me at any moment. When I get a work email asking me to complete a task that is totally within my job description, I must resist the urge to say something like, “None of the other bosses make their employees do this!” or “This is so unfair!” because if I were a normal adult, I would have gotten that attitude out of my system a decade ago. When my roommates mention a dirty dish in the sink, I have to squash my instinct to complain, “Why are you making such a big deal about this!?” or “I’ll get it later, I’m texting.”

Being an angsty teen trapped in a goody two-shoes’ body makes for an interesting headspace. I feel like I’m straddling two different personas, and I do a lot of looking back and wondering if I really missed out on the legit teenage experience or if I’m just insecure that my path didn’t match the paths of the cool kids in the movies. 

I’ve sometimes wished I could have just a taste of the teenage life I didn’t lead. 

The moral of this story is that you really should be careful what you wish for, because after I wished this, a pandemic came along and grounded me for seven months.

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