We are on the flight from Seattle to Chicago, the beginning of a family vacation. The four of us are traveling — my husband and I and our precocious (and precious) children, the 13-year-old daughter, in the throes of budding puberty, and our 10-year-old son. Only three-and-a-half years, but worlds between them.
I am sandwiched between my son in the window seat and my husband in the aisle seat. Across the aisle sits the daughter. People are boarding, looking for seats and overhead space for their luggage, and I’m not really paying attention to anyone as I get settled in with my book.
As we get airborne, some time after the pilot turns off the seatbelt sign, my husband glances across the aisle at the daughter. He then turns to me with a wrinkled brow and asks, “Who’s she talking to? Why is she talking to a stranger?”
I lean forward to see what he’s talking about and notice that this girl, whose nose is usually plastered to the pages of a novel, has turned to converse with someone sitting beside her. I lean a little further forward and see that the person she’s talking to is a young man. She has set aside her usual seriousness and reserve and is smiling and animated.
I lean back slightly and look amusedly at my husband. There, on his face, I see the first inklings and I realize — here sits the watchful dad of a teenage girl. I recognize the warning signs, but I’m not sure he does.
“Tell her not to do that,” he says to me. In these words, I foresee the day some gangly, nervous boy comes to ring our doorbell and comes face-to-face with The Dad. Fortunately, we don’t own a shotgun.
Me? I’m amused and amazed. Look — her nose has come out of the book! Look at her confidence! Is she showing off or hiding behind her intelligence? She smiles, flips her hair, which she’s taken out of the ponytail she was wearing, twisting the hair band she’s taken off and put around her wrist.
Where do they learn these moves, these girls and boys? It seems to me a sign of nervousness, but it’s a sign that guys misinterpret as flirting.
Amusing, yes, these pre-adolescent trials. But scary too — a portent of the day she may go off with some guy, grow up, go on her own. This is my warning. And I wonder, am I giving her the skills she needs to protect herself, teaching her to give her time and attention to males who value her, avoiding the jerks? We will have to have some talks about this.
The guy is smiling, too, tapping the pen on the paper he’s laid before them, loaning the pen to her. I realize they’re comparing what they know about languages. Ah, so he’s a foreigner!
And then it gets worse. The boy in the window seat joins in the conversation. So now she’s talking to TWO foreign teenage boys.
Meanwhile, her 10-year-old brother watches Robert Downey, Jr., and some other dude, both encased in iron suits, do battle on the overhead screen. One airplane, two planets.
I look back across the aisle. Now she’s pulled out her Shostakovich piano score to show the boy, and again my spouse looks at me, asking “What is she doing?”
And I wonder, should we worry about this? How dangerous can it be if Shostakovich is the vehicle for teenage conversation?
I assess the boy. He’s clean cut, and his body language is sincere. He doesn’t seem obsequious. Maybe it’s harmless.
Then I recall one of my 18-year-old students who said he’d like to have children some day, but not girls, because he knows how guys think about them and he wouldn’t be able to deal with some guy thinking about his daughter that way.
It could be worse. She could be talking to some guy in an iron suit, like Robert Downey, Jr. At least this boy is flesh and doesn’t have a glowing bionic component embedded in his chest. (Really, who thinks up this stuff?)
Later, she tells us that the boys she was talking to are brothers from Brazil but currently live in Abu Dhabi with their parents, who were seated in the row in front of them. She was the first American they’d ever spoken with.
A harmless encounter, but I’m left to wonder. Will her flight into womanhood be as smooth as this airplane ride?