The wind blew through my backyard this afternoon, desperate and impassioned and self-important like crazed old lover barging into a wedding ceremony. With it came gorgeous gray masses engorged with rain, the first few times I’d read Wuthering Heights as a daydreamy 12-year-old with her nose in a book, memories of sitting cooped up inside my mother’s house with my face pressed up to the window, with my eyes on summer storms just like this one but my mind in nineteenth-century Yorkshire. It had been wickedly hot and cloudless only the few days before; now outside looked fit for a Bronte novel itself.
If spring is like a newborn, all fresh and pretty and dainty; if autumn is like a bountiful matriarch; if winter is like an old crone–then summer is a teenage girl on the brink of womanhood, overripe and beautiful, but tempestuous and moody and given to torrential tears at any moment. I read Wuthering Heights for the first time at age 9. (I was very precocious.) I made up my mind at that very instant that I wanted to visit the wild moors of northern England one day. Something about it–or perhaps just the way it was portrayed in the book–appealed to me more than any tropical beach or heartthrob-inhabited European city. It was gloomy, it was isolated, and as a teen I too was more often than not gloomy and given to periods of isolation. Catherine Earnshaw, the book’s heroine and probably one of literature’s earliest examples of teen angst, was also given to the kind of emotional outbursts and rash, egocentric acts of impulse that only an adolescent can muster up, and that only an adolescent could possibly hope to get away with.
But Catherine had something I didn’t–besides a darkly handsome partner-in-crime for all her teenage self-indulgence, she also had a more fitting backdrop. Throwing temper tantrums in the servant quarters of your family’s ancestral abode, while the wind whistles around your home, is somehow much more poetic than throwing them in your linoleum-floored kitchen, while your dad listens to NewsRadio. One is Literature; the other is Emo. Furthermore, Catherine could always escape with her handsome gypsy partner-in-crime to the isolation of the moors whenever she tired of her family; I, meanwhile, had to remain cooped up in my room, with my nose pressed to the window. My fantasies could never match up to my realities and therefore I was always dissatisfied with what I had–perhaps a good thing, because it fueled my ambition to leave my boring town with its small-minded people clad in Abercrombie uniforms, with its endless Dave Matthews soundtrack on a loop. The claustrophobic nature of my suburban life could only serve as a pressure cooker for my teenage frustrations.
With a good decade between my adult self and my teenaged self, I’ve certainly had the time to look back and reflect on my adolescence, but I’ve never wanted to. I can even pinpoint the exact moment I left adolescence behind: the first week of college at the University of Illinois, sitting at my desk in my 11th floor aerie at Florida Avenue Residences, gazing out at the flat green expanse of the soccer fields and the flatter greener expanse of the South Farms beyond and then the clouds dotting blue sky like sheep grazing a pasture, a total Midwestern fantasy, and thinking, I’m happy. College was a never-ending social whirl resembling the lovechild of a cocktail party, summer camp, and 18th century salon, and I was loving every minute of it. I never forgot my favorite novel, however, and even took courses simply because I could write papers on it, but even then I never recalled my own adolescent miseries, instead choosing to focus on things like “light-dark symbolism” or “colonial tensions” or “gender roles.” My professors were not looking for reflection and ruminations; they were looking for hard, cold analysis.
These days I am sort of forced to reflect on my adolescence, for now I am a teacher of adolescents myself. For the past two years I taught history, and soon I will be teaching English. Unlike my college professors, in both those subjects I teach my students to make connections with their own life and what they are learning, and that our histories can inform our decisions about the future. Since they are still young, and they are still forming their own ideas of the world, it’s more important they practice that kind of thinking than present hard, cold analysis–because of course, to present hard, cold analysis, one must have pretty firm ideas of one’s own already. But because they are so young, much of the time they don’t truly grasp why history is important, mostly because they are still in the midst of accumulating their own.
As for me, however, my present is informing my ideas of my past, as I observe my students going through the same stormy adolescence from which I had fled only six years ago. It’s as if they had gotten a hold of the very memories I had tried so hard to bury and are now reenacting them like little medieval morality dramas in front of my very eyes: the cruelly fluid network of best friends; the trip-wire-laden social strata; the unfair expectations; the perfect boy whose indifference is more acutely painful than any insult. Don’t do that, I want to cry out, it won’t matter next week, or in ten years. But even if I did, it wouldn’t matter. Just as spring cannot skip to fall, little children can’t skip the trials of adolescence. If we were never denied what we wanted, then we would never know what’s truly important, for we would never know what it meant to work toward something we desired.
Lately I’ve been thinking about what my 14-year-old self would think of the 24-year-old self if we ever chanced to meet each other. Obviously, I would want her to think I was cool. I would want her to want the kind of life I lead now. I don’t hobnob with celebrities (but I did meet Margaret Cho and Pete Yorn in college, and this one time when I went to New York I saw Famke Janssen at the Soho Bloomingdales, Hank Azaria at the Time Warner Center, and Kieran Culkin at Bar None), I never went to an Ivy League college (I mean, unless a master’s degree from UPenn counts), and I don’t live with a gorgeous boyfriend in an amazingly decorated high-rise in the city (but I do share an awesome rowhouse in Philadelphia with three great friends–and as for the boyfriend, well I don’t have to have one). But I can say I’ve had as many amazing life experiences as other people my age, probably more.
So there I stood, age 24 and cooped up in my mother’s suburban home once again because my car was hundreds of miles away on Fernon Street in South Philadelphia, my face staring out the window of the sliding door, my eyes on the brewing summer storm outside but my mind on 14-year-old me, whose mind was never on the immediate world around her, but fixed in a Yorkshire reverie of windswept moors, craggy valleys, and lonely gray skies. What I can realize now, but probably did not realize then, was that those very moors of which I was so jealous were probably just as suffocating and isolating for Catherine Earnshaw as my mother’s home was for me. Adolescents, in their self-centered way of thinking, have a funny way of turning anything into a prison.
I guess I would say that the main difference between 14-year-old me and the 24-year-old me is while the former daydreamed about life halfway across the world, the latter wants to know what’s going on right outside the window, with its lonely gray skies and the wind howling outside the house. And with that, I opened the sliding door and stepped outside.