by Lawrence J. J. Leonard
The best part of growing up is finally getting into high school and then graduating. The worst part of growing up is finally getting into high school and then graduating. There are not equal parts of happiness and sadness. There are mostly sad and emotional issues for everybody involved. Going from teenager to adult is not easy. It is how we react to those situations that either force us to be “just like everyone else” or cause us to invent our own kind of “normal.” Most of us have looked in the mirror and wanted to change something about ourselves or our lives. Usually because we have compared ourselves to others, we ended up feeling like we were the ones lacking something. But, high school is a product of where we live. Almost nobody can go to high school in another state, like we can for college. So, it is our neighborhood that determines the social order of our teenage years that we struggle against.
Fighting the forces of hormones, emotion, social cliques and destructively selfish children are the topics that American singer-songwriter Janis Ian (born Janis Eddy Fink) wrote about in her early career. Janis was born in New York and cut her teeth in the folk music scene during 1960s as a teenager. Her first hit was “Society’s Child” and it made it to #13 on the Cash Box Pop Singles chart in 1965. As a performer she took on quite a bit as a 14 year old. That song’s focus was interracial romance. The reality of social pressures from parents and schoolmates forced the girl to end her relationship in the song.
Not being able to “deal with the pressure” is not a failing of any young person who wants to have a friendship or something more meaningful with another person. Janis decided to speak about this in her music. After releasing several unranked songs that achieved critical acclaim, she ultimately wrote a song that struck the most sensitive nerve with young women (even to this day). She composed a song that unreservedly pointed to the cruel way in which young women were and still are treated poorly by insensitive boys. She also exposed most young women’s secret misgiving, that they feel ugly because they are not accepted by those same selfish people and their high school peers.
Life is what we make it. So, if it is a struggle, we either gear up and learn to push back, or we just go along to get along. Either way, we make an active choice to get from 9th grade into 12th grade. This can be a skill that translates into surviving adult society’s pressures. But, why should we only survive in this world when we can live the way we want and love ourselves in the process?
Janis won a Grammy Award for “At Seventeen” for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. The track was released as a single in August of 1975. This was just five months after “Between the Lines,” her seventh album, was in the stores. Both the album and the single hit the #1 position on the Billboard charts. It has been documented that there were some artists who tried to have Janis blacklisted because they made assumptions about her and her guardian while she was an underage performer. However, it was the honesty of her lyrics that triumphed and a way for her and her career.
Teenage years can be exciting, but then they can be upsetting because of bullies, teasing and hurtful classmates. We all know that there are kids among us who were NEVER told ‘no’ and got away with the most destruction. This says a lot about their parents and how poorly they learned to be good citizens. We know that it takes discipline to appreciate what others have that we don’t. While there are teenagers who act with self-centeredness because of their upbringing, we should build a discerning environment for our family. Being a teenager is juggling act. We have to know that studying and learning not just facts but learning compassion is the most valuable virtue of all.
Lyrics: written by Janis Ian
I learned the truth at seventeen
that love was meant for beauty queens
and high school girls with clear-skinned smiles
who married young and then retired
The valentines I never knew
the Friday night charades of youth
were spent on one more beautiful
at seventeen I learned the truth
And those of us with ravaged faces
lacking in the social graces
desperately remained at home
inventing lovers on the phone
Who called to say, “Come dance with me”
and murmured vague obscenities
it isn’t all it seems at seventeen
A brown-eyed girl in hand-me-downs
whose name I never could pronounce
said, “Pity, please, the ones who serve
they only get what they deserve”
And the rich relationed hometown queen
marries into what she needs
with a guarantee of company
and haven for the elderly
Remember those who win the game
the lose the love they sought to gain
in debentures of quality and dubious integrity
Their small town eyes will gape at you
in dull surprise when payment due
exceeds accounts received at seventeen
To those of us who knew the pain
of valentines that never came
and those whose names were never called
when choosing sides for basketball
It was long ago and far away
the world was younger than today
when dreams were all they gave for free
to ugly duckling girls like me
We all play the game and when we dare
to cheat ourselves at solitaire
inventing lovers on the phone
repenting other lives unknown
They call and say, “Come on, dance with me”
and murmur vague obscenities
at ugly girls like me at seventeen
Copyright © 1960-2017 Lawrence J. J. Leonard All rights reserved.