Dark and menacing

As we struggle to decode the mysteries of adolescence, it's helpful to look closely at even their strangest-seeming choices and see what we can appreciate about them, and learn about ourselves.

My fourteen year old had been invited to a friend’s school dance. I was a little surprised that he was interested since he doesn’t dance in public these days (though when you can get him going with family he is wild, creative and very funny). But he put some effort into making the arrangements, so I had to assume that there was something in it for him.

When I picked him up, I asked how it had gone. “Pretty boring,” he said--a standard response these day. “Did you dance?” I asked. “Of course not,” he replied. “The music was terrible.” After a moment, he added, “Actually, I had a pretty good time.” There was a mischievous twinkle in his voice. “Everybody was so bouncy and happy that it was disgusting. So I sat in a corner looking dark and menacing, and whenever anybody come over and talked with me I answered in a very low voice till they went away. I’m going to ask my friend the next time I see her what people thought.”

“But you’re actually a pretty happy guy”, I offered, not quite liking this picture of my beloved little boy. “But I like people who are dark and menacing,” he replied promptly. “Your friends aren’t really dark and menacing” I persisted. “But they know how to act that way” he responded, cheerfully and serenely confident in his point of view.

The evening had clearly been a success from his point of view. I was left to ponder the mysteries of adolescence. Remembering back to those years myself, I could easily imagine spending a school dance sitting in a corner. But I couldn’t remotely conceive of acting “dark and menacing” to scare people away. Actually, as I think about it, believing that I had the power to do anything in such a situation other than endure, would have been an improvement. It makes me smile to imagine taking a page out of my son’s book and actively looking forward to a high school dance as an opportunity to have an impact—any kind of impact—on other people. You certainly can’t be a victim with that point of view.

Now I doubt that my son’s choice that evening made the dance go better for anybody else. He clearly wasn’t thinking about the good of the whole. And I certainly wouldn’t recommend “dark and menacing” as a long-term strategy for social success. But, given the incredible need to rebel and experiment with danger that seems to come with the adolescent years, this seems like a relatively innocent—even creative—expression of independence and power.