Loser. As an advocate for the underdog, and an insufferable do-gooder, I recoil at the word. After the academic award ceremonies for her middle school, my daughter referred to the high school valedictorian as the L word. She called him a loser.
My mother? She never swallowed teenage bait. We’d cast all sorts of rotten crab legs her way and she’d pass us by, too cool for anything we could come up with. How come, knowing full well that teenagers are designed to taunt their parents, do I forget and swallow the hook?
The high school valedictorian had been invited to encourage middle schoolers. Middle schoolers who, over the course of the academic year had participated in extracurricular activities, endured firestorms of acne, survived social hell AND done their homework. Honor students.
In middle school I had not been an honor student. I had been a good citizen. To mark the honor of being elected the good citizen, which was really code for having mastered co-dependence by the age of 12, I got a silver plated bowl. My mother used the bowl as an ashtray. I was proud of that bowl, the way it was functional and shiny.
The valedictorian’s–a.k.a. the loser–speech followed the salutatorian’s. The salutatorian was a tan, shaggy-headed surfer in flip-flops. He’d spoken to the virtue of just chillin’. He highlighted rest and sunshine. His message had been well received: work, only after you’ve fully played.
As the salutarian loped off the stage, the valedictorian replaced him at the podium. The crowd shifted in their seats and giggled, adjusting to his sight. His triangular cap was askew and large black framed glasses shelved a narrow face. He cleared his throat without consequence and launched into a speech about determination. To illustrate determination, he spoke about his time as an Eagle Scout. As an Eagle Scout, with grit and determination, he had made a dugout. Next, he spoke about his love of computers and the wonder inside programing.
He had no chance of sounding anything but glariningly eccentric once the surfer spoke. He did not need to admit he didn’t know how to tell time. But he admitted this. He had arrived for his 7 p.m. address to the student body at 7 a.m. I had no idea why he offered that tidbit. But he chuckled after he admitted to confusing his seven’s. He laughed alone. Middle school children have no time for such idiocy.
After the word “loser” tumbled from my girl’s mouth, I had a parenting choice: calmly remind her that name-calling sucks or react with self-righteous rage. While I decided my tact, I pointed toward the stairs and told her to go to her room. She opened her eyes wide and told me to calm down, she was going. She walked slowly up the stairs and over her shoulder said she had homework yet to do. And here, any chance I had of cooling off and reclaiming my teenage parenting crown, was lost.
The argument went from loser to scuffle over homework. She said I shouldn’t have let her go out because she’d had homework to do. It was my fault that at 10 p.m. on a Wednesday night she had an hour worth of homework left? Ah, she was masterful. A teenager on a cool-headed rampage. She’d started with name calling (something she knew I do not abide) and topped it all off with her responsibility being mine (another of my pet peeves; victims in training). But instead of calling her bluff, I took the bait like the overtired wreck I was.
I bounded up the stairs and told her to consider herself warned .
“Or what?” Her eyes opened wider than before. She was calm and poised and I was wild. Or what? I thought hard. Or what, had me stumped. Then I remembered her birthday party. The party had morphed into too many kids and too little time to buy enough hotdogs. I used it.
“Or your birthday party will be cancelled.”
She blinked. “Why?”
I inhaled. “Due to rudeness and lack of respect for another human.”
“Huh?” She looked genuinely confused.
“Loser. You called that boy a loser when he’d taken the time to write words of encouragement for you and your friends.”
“Oh, well, that doesn’t mean he isn’t a loser. He is. It’s okay, Mom. Lot’s of people are. I know he’s done cool stuff. But, a dugout? Really?” She waited for me to catch up and accept that she understood the whole respect other people thing, but she had an opinion. End of story.
I looked at the stairs I’d flown up, my trajectory from the bottom to the top, and saw that I’d nailed a perfectly horrible parenting moment. A perfect 10. I’d engaged my daughter in the type of adolescent provocation that delights a teenager. I looked insane, she looked calm and thus any and all points I had to make were null and void. After all, who would listen to a crazy woman? Only a loser. L on the forehead and hip to the side.
I should have treated the moment lightly. I should have told her I knew she understood what she had said was unkind and left it at the that. I should have shrugged when she brought up her homework and told her I was sure she’d get it all done. But I’d gone down the deranged garden path instead.
Yeah, I remembered, but too late — it’s her job as a teenager to shock and push and differentiate. I wondered which of my children would be the first to become Republican. I inhaled again, with yogic intention and watched my daughter’s back. She had sat down at her computer and slipped into the deep end of Facebook. That’s when Hayley suggested a do-over.