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Take Three / Three Views of the Southland |

Future Shock in a Phone Call

January 16, 1998|SHAWN HUBLER

The Class of 2000 is getting ready for winter formal at the high school down the block. We have a teenager in that class, which means you need smoke signals to reach us; every phone in the house has been tied up for weeks.

"Is that a tumor on your head, or are you just glad to see me?" I ask as she shuffles into the kitchen with the receiver hermetically sealed against one ear. In a feat of dexterity, she fills about eight bowls with food while simultaneously carrying on a conference call and painting her nails.

Used to be you were no one till somebody loved you, but in the lean, mean '90s, even teen angst has been downsized. "You're no one till somebody takes you to formal," she sighs, retreating to the terra incognita of her room.

"You think she'll get a date?" my husband privately worries. "She'll get a date, right? I mean, look at her, she's beautiful."

And from her sweet, clear face to her long, strong legs, she is. But then again, we see her through the eyes of parenthood. And the more we look, the more it comes back--the thrill of anticipation, the fear of rejection, the crapshoot that comes with opening your teenage heart for that first, scary time.


You wouldn't think a little thing like a dress-up school party would throw a family off-kilter, but somehow it manages to. In her popcorn-strewn wake, everything in the household has become charged and magical and new.

She does her best to demystify matters, but it all sounds like some summit among tribes: the communiques, the consensus, the nuances of wording, the lines between jocks and stoners and brains.

Rubes that we are, we ask whether the dating will cross racial lines. "We're third-generation California," she explains with a look that says, Omygod, they're even more clueless than I thought. "It's not so much like, there's blacks and whites and Latinos and Asians. It's more like, there are kids whose parents are black or white or Latino or Asian. Our dividing lines are different. You know?"

Back in the boondocks where I grew up, our idea of diversity was a slumber party with both Catholics and Methodists. The girls in my class made their own prom dresses and got picked up in pickup trucks. My date for my formal was my studly second cousin, and he wore a homemade white polyester dinner jacket and spent the entire night with a chew of Copenhagen snuff in his lower lip.

So I'm no frame of reference. But my husband grew up in the very neighborhood where we now live. I ask him about his winter formal, Class of '69. He says so much has changed, he might as well have gone to high school on Mars. No one arrived in chauffeured limos; the big kick was to borrow someone's dad's luxury car. You'd take your date to dinner in, say, Hollywood, which, if you were a suburban Angeleno, was the height of elegance.

Things were so much calmer and lighter. At worst, he said, a few losers might get drunk and be reeling and puking by the time they got to the dance.

"You think there'll be drinking?" he worries now. "There won't be drinking at this thing, right?"


When you think of milestones, you think of graduations and weddings, of college and driver's license exams. You don't think of things like the first time your teenage daughter puts on a long dress. But time sneaks up on you, brings on your next big thing when you least expect it, and before you can say "abracadabra," some new self has left the old self behind.

One day, she comes home from school and even her little sisters guess that she has a secret. "Mommy, how come she's smiling that way?" they want to know.

She dances into the kitchen with them dancing after. She knows teenagers aren't supposed to get parents too excited, but she has to tell someone, and her friends already have heard it all twice.

She's going to winter formal. She has asked someone. Just went right up to him in World Civ. Just tapped him on the shoulder before she could lose her nerve. And he's all, "Whassup?" And she's all, "So, you going to formal?" And he's all, "I'm not sure," and she's all, "Wanna go with me?"

That night, he calls. And we know parents aren't supposed to get themselves too excited, but as she locks herself in her room with the telephone, we whisper, "Yessss!" and slap a suddenly wistful high five. And when she comes out, she can't stop grinning. "He's sooo cool!" she says very quietly.

And what goes through our minds is this: Abracadabra. In the space of a phone call, life's next big thing has descended and she hasn't even bought the long dress yet. You wouldn't think a little thing like a phone call would throw a family off-kilter, but somehow it manages to.

In her walking-on-air wake, everything acquires yet another aura, of something charged and magical and new. We think: You're nobody till somebody makes you remember this feeling, till somebody opens your child's heart for this first, scary time.

Shawn Hubler's e-mail address is

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