What Were You Like as a Teenager?

(As a holiday gift in December 2022, Chloe, Ella & Alex provided me a gift subscription to something called Storyworth. Each week in 2023, I’m being provided a writing prompt designed to get me to reflect on some moment in my life. At the end of the year, my reflections will be printed in a bound book as a family keepsake. I have the option of editing or even selecting the prompts, as do Chloe, Ella & Alex. This is prompt #2.)

As a teacher, I often tell my students that if they could know everything about a topic they’d be seeing it with a 360 degree perspective. They could see inside and all around it, from every angle and with everything known.

On top of that, I say, we all know 100% of what we know. When you stop and think about it, that’s obvious, right? We know 100% of what we know. But we don’t stop to think about it and that’s a problem. Much of today’s divisiveness comes down to us thinking the 100% of what we know is a 360 degree perspective.

I make this point to try to help my students understand it’s important to be open to the perspectives of others.

Senior Year – I wish you could see the vest. It’s pink.

This all came to mind when I started thinking about the prompt, “What were you like as teenager?” I read it aloud to Melinda, my wife, who responded quickly with, “According to whom?”

Indeed, how many of the 360 degrees can I present in this essay about what I was like as a teenager? In other words, read the following with a grain of salt, knowing it was written by a near 60-year-old looking back.

Overall, I see my teen self as a loner. This isn’t to say I didn’t have friends. I did. And they were really good friends, too. I just look back and see myself standing away from my closest friends. Having to hustle away from school to get to my job as a bookstore clerk at Hunter’s Books was a regular part of my high school experience. In fact, my senior year I was working a 40 hour week and had configured my school schedule so I only had classes in the mornings.

But which came first, the wanting to be alone or accepting these shifts at the bookstore?

Outside Sammamish High School, 1980/81
Related, my most influential friend when I was a teen turned out to be someone in his mid-30’s, a man named Hank who came to work at Hunter’s during the summer of 1980, right before the beginning of my senior year. Hank and his wife Donna were in the process of walking from Alaska to Arizona as a way to bring attention to the Baha’i Faith, of which they were members. They ran out of money upon reaching the Seattle area and since Hank’s most recent job had been in a bookstore in Anchorage, he walked into Hunter’s and talked himself into a job.

There was something right away that drew Hank and me to each other. In Hank, I found a supporter for both my sensitive and rebellious sides. He read my sappy short stories and gave me feedback that resonated rather than insulted. He listened to my choice in records and pointed out deeper meanings in lyrics. My interest in thrift store clothes aligned with his and we often took his Thunderbird to Seattle’s seedier stores to tease out the best 75 cent shirts and jackets with half-used tubes of Preparation H in their pockets (true story). Looking back, I think Hank saw something in me that he could nurture, perhaps as a way to heal the nurturing he missed out on when he was a teen.

In December, Hank returned to Alaska to spend a month bussing tables for pipeline workers in the city of Barrow. Barrow, being at the northern-most point of Alaska, basically gets no sun for 30 days around the solstice, meaning it’s not a place many people choose to live in December. For working that month in a cafeteria, Hank made $10,000. And while the money made an impression on me, the independence and somewhat Bohemian lifestyle Hank demonstrated in going had a more significant impact. It stated that I didn’t have to follow my brothers, as I had to Hunter’s Books, to the University of Washington.

Hank and me in Alaska, 1982.

As a quick aside, I moved to Alaska, specifically the city of Seward, just over a year later to join Hank and Donna as a deejay at a tiny AM radio station where Hank had talked himself into another job, this time that of station manager. While I was a teen the entire time I was in Alaska, even celebrating my 19th birthday there during an airshift by blowing out candles on a birthday cake sent by mother inside a Tupperware container, I’ll leave that experience for another time.

Returning to my high school years and looking back on being a loner, I’m reminded how much I felt like myself when delivering The Seattle Times when I was 14, how my favorite hours at the bookstore were when I was working alone, and how I chose not to apply to college despite good grades and a high SAT score while all my school friends were signing up. Considering this now, I have this impression of not wanting to be unduly influenced by others. Keeping my distance, or whatever it is I did, may have been a way to retain my authenticity.

On the topic of authenticity, the whole concept of alcohol and drugs is probably worth mentioning. My first experience with alcohol was drinking vodka, I think, poured into half-consumed cans of Cragmont soda on a family outing to the coast. My brother Steve had smuggled in the booze in his suitcase. What I remember most about that night is laying in bed watching the overhead light spin. When I closed my eyes, I did the spinning. I was 15.

Over the next year, poker games that had taken place on Friday nights after my bookstore shift at my parents’ house moved to Pat Stull’s house a couple blocks away. His parents basically ignored us and he had a basement that was perfect for mixing poker, Canadian Mist whiskey, and occasionally some marijuana. While I indulged in the whiskey, I steadfastly avoided pot out of respect for my grandmother. When she quit smoking, cold turkey no less, after decades of cigarettes, I promised her I’d never take it up. Not deterred by my continued refusals, my best friend from 7th grade, Mike Simon, insisted he was going to get me high before we graduated. As it happened, one night at Pat’s, after drinking way too much Canadian Mist, I took 12 hits on Mike’s bong. I woke up at around 4am at the bottom of the basement stairs in a pool of my own vomit and with a bruise on my chin. Thank goodness I landed face down.

Smallman Family 1980

That morning, I had to open the bookstore at 9:30am. I managed to do that although I was white as a ghost, probably still a bit inebriated, and more than a little sick. Later that day, I took a longer-than-usual break to join the rest of my family at a photographer’s studio. We were having our family photo taken for my parents’ church directory, a photo I digitized and am including here. I was 16 when this happened, probably March of 1980.

That night, I called up my buddy Kevin Seal who was also at that party and who had a similar experience to mine. We went for a walk and I told him I was done with the drinking and high school partying. From that night, other than being paid several hundred dollars to down a shot glass of beer inside a trailer in Chillicothe, Ohio in 1983 (that’s another story), I didn’t touch alcohol again until I was a 22-year-old undergraduate at The Evergreen State College in 1985. That was well over five years.

Being a senior in high school in 1980-81 who didn’t drink both reduced and expanded my social opportunities. It reduced them because I think I sometimes didn’t get invited to get-togethers. More often, though, I didn’t want to go. It expanded them because people began to realize my value as a designated driver. Having had some stupid/scary experiences in cars in which the driver had been drinking, I was pleased to help my friends stay safe although I will say I didn’t see it as my responsibility.

Hmmm, what else… Ah, one more story comes to mind.

A stereotypical experience for an American high schooler involves football and my experience certainly echoes this. What stands out was how rabid we were encouraged to be as high schoolers when our football team, Sammamish, was facing our nearest neighbor, Interlake’s team. Classes would be cut short for the pep assembly the day of the game. The assembly involved the coach introducing the players who jogged out onto the gym floor in their letterman jackets through the pom-pom waving cheerleaders and our expected thunderous applause. I remember thinking how messed up these priorities were, what a mixed message the school was teaching us. Football and rooting for our side was more important than our classes (which, believe me, I didn’t think much of, either). These football players, these boys, were presented as more important than the rest of us.

Christmas 1980, the jumpsuit I wore to my high school graduation.
What also stood out was the divisiveness being encouraged by these assemblies and games. I understand now and even understood on some level then that it was supposed to be in good fun and designed to have us identify as part of our school. But in many ways we were taught to believe that we were better than the students at Interlake, that those students were our enemy. Is it any wonder that Interlake students defaced our mural while students from Sammamish stole Interlake’s sign? How does this play out with Conservatives hating Liberals and vice versa, with countries hating countries?

Where does peace on Earth actually begin?

My senior year, I didn’t attend any football games, I tried to graduate at the end of the first semester, I didn’t attend senior prom, and I reluctantly attended our graduation ceremony (in a camouflage jumpsuit, red shoes, and red bow tie)…

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