Old cars and teen angst

Old cars and teen angst

We have an old van.

We don’t live in it, and it’s not parked down by the river (RIP Chris Farley).

But it is not what you’d call a luxury-mobile.

People often hear us coming. There’s a muffler issue. It might even smell a bit exhausty.

The rust is starting to form an interesting abstract pattern on one side. We had a flat tire recently (in the middle of nowhere/Iowa) and the part the jack was supposed to lift had rusted through. Fortunately we found a substitute.

But it’s roomy, and it’s paid for. A new car is not in the cards right now.

We drive it a lot, ferrying our children to school and assorted cross-country meets, baseball practices and music lessons.

So far, they don’t seem to mind. No one slinks down below the windows, darting out before their friends can see us or insisting we drop them off a block away. I’m just waiting.

A friend told me when she was a teen, their car had rusted through so badly that her mom had to wear plastic bags over her shoes when it rained. And when she turned the car suddenly, the horn would honk — and stay on.

One day, on the way to school in the snow, my friend asked her mom to take the turn wide so the horn wouldn’t go off. She did, but the car slid into a snowbank near the school, and as her mom wrenched the wheel to avoid a collision ... you guessed it. Horn blaring, entire school watching.

“It was probably the most embarrassing moment of my childhood,” she said.

Which brings to mind one of my many car stories: I was driving to high school one morning with my friends and we spotted a boy we knew standing at a bus stop in the snow. We decided to give him a ride — except when I tried to stop, the brakes locked and we did a full 360, just missing all sorts of cars.

We slid to a stop right in front of him; the only casualties were the bus stop sign, bent at a weird angle over my hood, and a crumpled license plate. The boy stood there in shock until I yelled, “Get in the car!” When we got to school, it was clear everyone had witnessed the entire thing. “Good show!” one boy shouted.

I remember, with a cold sweat, those angst-filled days. I went through this incredibly self-conscious phase (for about four years) and have vivid memories of my dad trying to get me out of it. “C’mon, why don’t you go out and DANCE?” he’d boom in front of a crowd at a wedding reception, after I’d nervously declined. Teen nightmare.

That whole pressure to be cool — or not to be uncool — is so intense.

My friends and I weren’t the dorkiest people at our high school, but we were sort of on the periphery of cool. We lived in a city that was looked down on by the town where the school was, and we always felt like outsiders.

We were cool enough to know what to do on weekend nights — drive through the McDonald’s and find out about parties that would crop up spontaneously — but not cool enough to know anyone who could get alcohol. (Note: I am not endorsing this as a parent, just being honest. It was the ’80s.)

I’ll share another humiliating story: We showed up at one party and actually PICKED UP empty beer cans off the lawn to hold so we could blend in. (My husband said he might not have married me if he’d known that story beforehand. He had a much healthier high school experience — and does not have a self-conscious bone in his body.)

Looking back, I’m annoyed with my younger self for caring so much about what other people my own age thought, people who probably weren’t nearly as interesting as my own friends. One of my regrets is taking part, by my silence, in the ridicule of kids even less cool than we were. If I could apologize to them now, I would. They’re probably Silicon Valley millionaires.

My advice for my own kids: Don’t worry so much about what other people think. Too much energy wasted. Be your own person, make lots of different friends, hang with the people who want to be with you and don’t chase after the people who are chasing after somebody else. This will all be over soon, and college is much easier. Away from their insulating cliques, people are just nicer.

Lately, our car has been making a new sound — not a horn blast exactly, but a loud screech when it starts out. I’ll probably get it fixed; I want this tank to last long enough for my 14-year-old to drive it in a year or so. It may not be beautiful, but it’s safe.

Then again, a little humiliation is good for teens, just to keep ’em honest. Just ask my “HouseTalkN” friend who deliberately sang — loudly — the wrong words to a Foreigner song after her son sass-talked her in front of his friends.

Plus, if he’s ever tempted to skirt curfew, I’ll be able to hear him coming.


Julie Wurth writes and blogs about kids and families and covers the University of illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at (217) 351-5226, jwurth@news-gazette.com or Twitter.com/jawurth.

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