In this blog space, I’ve referred many times to something I call the “teen journey.” It’s the difficult, perilous 12-year developmental period called “adolescence” that has a profound, permanent impact on the rest of a person’s life. Every teen journey story is fascinating and dramatically different. In the stories, I change the name and other superficial details to protect the privacy of the real individual. In this post, Jackson’s story…
Jackson is a retired chemical engineer. He lives in a spacious home on a hill in a quiet suburb of Atlanta with Janice, his wife of forty years. At the age of 61, he’s a small, slender man whose reddish hair is now mostly white. He wears round wire-rimmed glasses and most days prefers a short-sleeved light-blue shirt and blue jeans. A soft-spoken, serious man, he only occasionally shows a thin smile, evidence that he’s content and at peace with who he is and what he has done with his life. When he’s not working at his computer or fixing his vintage Mustang in the garage, he likes to sit on the back porch, watch the birds that visit the feeders, and read.
At first, he lived with his mother, who married a man with two sons and two daughters. And when his father remarried three years later, he discovered that he had two families and two homes. He lived with his mother during the week, and he spent weekends and summers at his father’s house.
His new step-mother had ten children. She was a big, strong-willed woman who didn’t put up with his father’s drinking and abusive nature, and she quickly tamed him. Two of his older step-sisters took charge of him. Their mother’s strict nature had rubbed off on them, and as Jackson entered adolescence, these girls were a stabilizing influence. He was given chores to do and was held accountable for rules of behavior. This environment felt stifling, but it probably kept him out of trouble.
Still, he hated being told what to do. Once, when he was 12, he wanted to go to a friend’s house. But when his stepfather told him he had to finish his chores first, he became enraged. He lost his temper and his stepfather had to restrain him. A couple years later he wanted to wear his new boots to a basketball game. But no one could drive him, and the road into town was so muddy it would ruin his boots. It made him furious to think about how constrained and dependent he was. He concluded that if he wanted to call his own shots, he’d need to have his own money.
Jackson regularly attended the United Methodist church. Unlike his father, he sought answers to spiritual questions, an exploration that began as a teenager and persisted into adulthood. He remained a devout Methodist the rest of his life.
He enjoyed learning and was an above-average student. His mother encouraged him to read and to go to college, even though no one in his family had ever done so. His counselor in high school guided him to take math and science courses, which he enjoyed. But earning money continued to be his primary motivator. In the summer, he harvested crops. He worked at a filling station, and he got a job working half-days in a furniture store delivering furniture and installing carpeting.
His desire to be all the things his father never was and his desire to work and earn money kept him from the kind of trouble that finds idle minds. His one big lapse happened when a friend came to the filling station and took his car. At quitting time, Jackson decided to use his friend’s motor scooter to get home, even though he’d never driven one before. He quickly lost control of it, crashed into a car parked nearby, and later had to pay for repairs.
He met Janice during his senior year in high school. The two of them went to Kansas State, where Jackson worked to pay tuition. At age 19, he joined the Air Force, while Janice stayed to pursue an education degree. He and Janice maintained their relationship; but after attending electronics school he was assigned to Anchorage, Alaska, and he and Janice decided to get married.
After his Air Force stint, he used the G.I. Bill to return to Kansas State. He finished his degree and stayed to get an M.S. in chemical engineering. He and Janice lived a goal-driven life, deferring family until they were financially secure. Later, he regretted having given relationships and family a lower priority. So when they found out they couldn’t have kids, they befriended two young men from Korea, who became their surrogate family.
In retrospect, Jackson agrees that the worst thing that ever happened to him became the very thing that kept him focused on constructive activities during his teen journey. Since he blamed his father for everything he hated about his early life, he resolved to create a different kind of life for himself and to make himself into the kind of man his father wasn’t.
Even though Jackson’s dedication makes sense, it’s important to note that not every young person reacts this way to disappointment and frustration. Another young person might have rebelled differently. Someone else might have embraced depression and followed a path of submission and low self-esteem. His obsession as a teenager with being responsible and creating financial independence no doubt helped him steer clear of typical teen difficulties. To his credit, his commitment to hard work achieved the results he wanted, which gave him the confidence to continue in this direction as he began adult life.
Like Jackson, most teens don’t get the “heads-up” they need when they need it. That’s why I wrote these books…
Conversations with the Wise Aunt – for girls
Conversations with the Wise Uncle – for boys