The following micro-stories are true recollections of garden-variety helicopter parenting in the 2000s on the US East Coast. Today, the teenaged protagonists would be receiving invitations to their ten-year high-school reunions. Names and some identifying details have been changed.
In no particular order
In Rhetoric class, the teacher — a white-bearded gentleman and proud Virginia Military Institute alumnus in his early sixties with a southern-Virginia accent and a firm belief in forming boys into good gentlemen and good lovers — used to share humorous personal anecdotes and copious Dickens references to illustrate the material when we were studying Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Poetics. Alongside teaching us to express solid arguments, he shared advice on how to conduct oneself with maturity and dignity: which dress shoes to wear (Florsheim’s); smart everyday attire (a blazer, patterned, and a collared shirt at all times); the most important personal values (honor and duty); the right type of compliment to pay a woman (while gazing straight into her eyes, “You! Are the most beautiful woman I’ve seen here today”); and the type of legacy to leave behind (something permanent in the community, e.g. the bookshelf in the school library that was named after him by way of a small engraved bronze plaque).
“That, students, is real life,” he’d say, exhaling sharply and making a fist pump that gave us a good look at his VMI class ring.
Then we’d get right back to Aristotle.
Perhaps because they caused so much enthusiasm among us students, Ted’s mother got wind of our teacher’s anecdotes. She complained that the anecdotes were a waste of class time that might be putting her son at an academic disadvantage and requested that she be allowed to sit in on our class, to verify that we were not suffering one iota of loss of Aristotelian absorption. Apparently not entirely dissatisfied with, but still suspicious of, our teacher’s instruction methods, she subsequently obtained permission to make an audio recording of our Rhetoric class for the duration of the academic year.
Thereafter, Ted came to Rhetoric class equipped with a mini disk recorder and an equally diminutive tabletop microphone which he set up dutifully on his desk to record the lecture so his mother could listen to it afterwards.
As for the teacher, he didn’t seem to mind at all the new arrangement. That very first day, he oriented himself squarely towards the tabletop microphone and commenced his lecture, in a deep voice and gallant tone, “Well hello there, ma’am.”
He lowered his hand from his heart and drew forth his battered copy of Aristotle from the pocket of his tweed jacket.
He exhaled, pumped his fist, and scanned the room, piercing us all with his gaze.
“Let’s begin, students.”
A muffled crash emanated from the middle of the desks. The tabletop recording ensemble had fallen to the floor.
By attempting to open his textbook, Ted had knocked it over.
Whenever we’d go to Richmond for Latin conventions, adult supervision was tight. We were never permitted to be alone or outside the confines of the Downtown Richmond Marriott and Convention Center. For those who stayed at the Crowne Plaza, adult-supervised private vehicle transport was the mandatory logistical procedure. The Marriott and the Convention Center were connected via an underground passageway, which was fortuitous since above-ground street crossings would have required students to locate and persuade a parent or teacher to serve as a sort of Charon the River-Styx ferryman to see them safely across the painted striations of the crosswalk. Parent chaperones idled in their Suburbans in the Marriott’s circular driveway, keeping watch to ensure there were no crosswalk protocol violators.
The penalty for violating the safety rules was “to be immediately sent home at your parents’ expense,” as we were made to repeat in unison at the mandatory daily assemblies for all 1,500 students grades 6-12 who were taking part in Latin convention.
With these rules leaving few other options for the hours not spent reciting Latin poetry, Richmond became an opportunity to indulge in the world of Cable television, a commodity often severely restricted or altogether forbidden at home.
A seemingly ordinary teenaged girl in California is secretly a pop star. Her earnings appear to support the entire family: in one episode she gets in trouble for using a credit card in her own name to buy a rug. The family feigns a normal middle class lifestyle because they are actually rich.
A seemingly ordinary teenaged guy is actually from the future. His parents struggle with adapting to life in the present day, so he always has to clean up their messes. The parents have the wherewithal to rent a Chrysler Sebring convertible but not enough to understand that they must pay for their purchases nor actually buy tickets to the sports event they had already promised their children the family would attend. The parents act like impecunious scatterbrains because they are actually from the future.
Another seemingly ordinary teenaged girl isn’t from the future but she can see into the future.
A seemingly ordinary teenaged guy is going out on a date with the daughter of the US president. He is singing a rock song about it; “My date with the president’s daughter, My date with her, My date with her…”
Having a big secret that makes you cooler than you seem at school appears to be a key aspirational plot point in Cable television for teens.
So too is the search for a romantic partner.
A teenaged guy knocks down a birdhouse with a lawnmower while trying to clandestinely watch as Stacy’s Mom sunbathes. Stacy’s Mom drives a Mercedes, but not some big clunky SUV like your mom has. Stacy’s Mom’s Mercedes is a two-door convertible that gives you a good look at her legs when she pulls up to the school carpool lane. Stacy’s indignation that you pretend to date her in order to ogle her mom is part of the comedy.
A bus with black-tinted windows sits in a parking lot, full of prospective dates. Standing outside, a lucky young man or woman — depending on the episode — summons forth potential matches from inside the bus, one by one in a game of blind serial dating. It’s always a gamble: should she choose the first halfway decent guy knowing that there may yet be someone more desirable still inside the bus? Or maybe he’ll turn out to be the best one and she’ll have lost her chance? There’s no way for her to know. One girl says she really wants a clean-cut boyfriend. When a guy steps out of the bus wearing ripped jeans, she rejects him without even greeting him. Next contestant.
The more people you have to choose from, the cooler you are. The hurt of those you rejected is funny and gives you social clout.
These were the messages we absorbed in the wee hours of the morning while sprawled atop floral-patterned bedspreads on Richmond Marriott double beds.
During commercial breaks, uptempo rock jingles touted the virtues of plastic toys.
Some of the commercials were for girls and some were for guys. All ended with the injunction to “Ask your parents if you can buy…”. The juvenile counterpart to the prescription-medication commercials to treat Restless Leg Syndrome or depression that end with an “Ask your doctor about…”
Both types of commercials create a consumerist urge, but force you to get the permission of a higher authority figure in order to fulfil it.
People on television often don’t have much agency but they never fail to have material possessions.
Getting to the weeklong national Latin convention was quite an ordeal. Generally speaking, if that year’s location was east of the Mississippi River, we’d drive, and if it was west of the Mississippi, we’d fly. When it was to be a roadtrip, a charter bus would set off from the school parking lot, accompanied by a caravan of parent chaperones driving three-row-seat SUVs.
Once at a Tennessee gas station, a silver Volvo that looked similar to the lead car caused an inadvertent disruption to the caravan. Several parents drove behind that Doppelgänger Volvo for half an hour before realizing their mistake.
Despite having the bus at their disposal, students generally preferred to ride in the parental SUVs as they were always generously stocked with fresh snacks and cold drinks and plenty of DVDs to play in the rear passenger entertainment systems. We would ride along the interstate in an air-suspension bubble, stopping only for bathroom breaks.
At a fast food restaurant in Ohio, we were instructed to each buy a soda so we could use the restroom. “But only a Small, girls,” came the command from the front seat, an index finger stopping our DVD audio with a push of the Parental Control button. “You need to get used to having small portions while you are young,” said our chauffeur, Astrid’s mom, herself a former cheerleader. Whenever Astrid’s mom runs into an ex-boyfriend, he always tells her she still looks great, even after four kids. Recently she bumped into a high-school ex at the Minneapolis-St Paul Airport. He recognized her right away, which is exactly why you should always order the Small.
The Taco Bell counter was purplish and sticky. A young woman’s photo was taped to a plastic jar. An employee of that restaurant, she’d been involved in a serious car accident and her colleagues were collecting donations to help cover her medical bills. The jar contained some quarters and a few one-dollar bills. The photograph looked old, like it had already gotten wet and been dried off a few times.
The year we went to Indiana, I rode with Olivia and her mom. My mom drove me to the school parking lot for the familiar ritual perhaps best described as the SUV Handover. We pulled up alongside Olivia’s mom’s pearl-white Cadillac Escalade, so that my mom could deposit me and a portable electric cooler filled with vegetarian snacks of a quantity that far exceeded reasonable requirements for a 12-hour ride to Indiana. Mothers clutching stainless-steel coffee mugs chatted in the parking lot as the bus and cars were loaded up with art projects, Latin-themed t-shirts (one for each day) that would be our uniform at the convention, and large 3D props to be used in group skits and at Latin-themed pep rallies.
We were 14 years old that summer. For Olivia’s mom, this was an important chance to educate us on the facts of life. There would be no DVD’s this time: instead, we listened to an audiobook about teenage insecurities, called “The Canyon of Inferiority.”
There’s really no need to feel insecure about the size of your feet, the male narrator reassured us in a soothing tone. It’s a really bad idea to try to wear shoes that are the wrong size, because that can cause serious long-term medical problems.
I felt somewhat insecure that it had never previously occurred to me to feel insecure about my shoe size.
Corn fields whizzed by outside the window.
I gazed languidly at the Escalade’s GPS screen. “No points of interest within 25 miles of your position,” it said.
We passed a vast field that was being used as a repository for hundreds of blue plastic portable toilets.
That seemed like a pretty remarkable “point of interest” to me.
The Indiana University campus was sweltering hot under the July sun. Equipped with a Moto Razr flip phone, an annotated map of the campus, and an unwavering confidence in my still-embryonic sense of direction, I decided that I would navigate the loose agglomeration of low-slung midcentury brick buildings on my own. This wasn’t my first convention and my schedule was a nearly uninterrupted 12 hours of daily activities at multiple locations across the campus. Waiting for an adult chaperone to ferry me between buildings seemed to me a highly impractical idea. After all, I was already rapidly becoming a woman, at least according to the audiobook narrator.
Early Wednesday afternoon, midway through the convention, I was walking along a campus sidewalk when a pearl-white Escalade roared into view. Upon coming alongside me, the vehicle screeched to a halt. A tinted window rolled down to reveal Olivia’s mom in a state of visible agitation.
“I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” she called out to me, “Get in this car right now!”
Reluctantly, I complied.
Slumped in the backseat sat Olivia, her cheeks flushed from recent reprimand. Judging by appearances, she had been caught red-handed in her own attempt to navigate the campus.
Olivia’s mom floored the gas pedal. The Escalade surged forward along the campus service road.
“Why were you just walking around by yourselves like that?” she questioned. “You girls don’t even know this area at all! What were you thinking?”
Helplessly, I watched out the window as we flew past the building that had been my intended destination.
“I knew where I was going,” I muttered under my breath.
Olivia’s mom slapped the leather-wrapped steering wheel, her frustration now past the point of containment.
“Somebody had better shoot me if I ever do this again!!” she shouted, to Olivia and to me but most of all to herself.