Being the reigning Queen of High Sarcasm (more like a Supreme Leader, say, in the spirit of Kim Jong-Un), I feel compelled to somehow respond to her email, because the moment I read it I burst out laughing just imagining the contents of the typical suburban teen's personal trash. Then I began laughing even harder imagining the kind of trash generated by the typical suburban teen in our particular town (which is the real location of what was named "East Egg" in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby). Although not all of us live in homes for which the yearly property tax bill reaches well up into the higher five figures, and for a select few, six figures (we -- my family and I -- live in a very average neighborhood; that is, average for around here), teens here still share many of the same likes, styles, product preferences and spending habits of other teens throughout our nation.
However, most other teens have long stopped believing in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Justin Bieber and the idea that if you work hard enough you, too, can become anything you want even if you have no idea what a legacy student is or don't have a parent or grandparent who "knows somebody."
So here goes -- a brief list of what I imagine might be found in the trash of these AP Environmental students:
- Loose change (because coins are so annoying)
- Crumpled dollar bills ("My nose was running and I didn't have any tissues; I mean, they're only worth a dollar, anyway!" (and at least twice the number of crumpled bills if the student in question is male)
- This week's busted ear buds
- A few glass phone screen shards
- The absence note they were supposed to turn in last week
- A scrap of paper in their mom's handwriting, with a three-digit number, then a dash, and then a four-digit number, but they can't remember what it was about...is it like, an old morse code thing or something?
- A used home pregnancy test wrapped up in (ironically enough) a maxi pad, because who would ever touch a used maxi pad?
- The ignition key that they declared lost three weeks ago, costing their parents $175 to replace and reprogram, so better to throw it out than say that you found it, because now you'll REALLY be in trouble (got that right...)
- An empty ZigZag or Tops rolling papers pack, torn into the tiniest of unidentifiable pieces...unidentifiable only if one or both parents can remember the excitement when Harry S. Truman was re-elected to serve a second term. Or maybe a partly-used or even unused pack, because who uses rolling paper anymore? Their parents?
Another reason is that except for kitchen trash, I don't actually empty the many small trash baskets throughout the house. That, believe it or not, is my son's chore. Albeit, he only does it (and it usually only needs to be done) once a week, and sometimes after multiple reminders, but no empty, no money. Did I, at his age, have more chores -- or a single but more time-consuming chore -- and did I do them without fail? Yes and yes. One weekday afternoon beginning in third or fourth grade, it was my job to clean all the bedrooms. The rooms weren't large ones, but my mother was a cleaning fanatic who cleaned these same bedrooms and every other room in the house the other six days of the week (as well as worked outside the home) and her standards were high and not to be messed with. They included using damp cotton bud tips to clean every groove and carving in every last piece of furniture; dust and then polish the furniture and make sure not to leave a single fingerprint behind; lift potted plants out of their outer decorative pots and clean the insides of the decorative ones until they were spotless; vacuum the carpets and pick up and discard even the tiniest speck that might remain or appear...the list goes on and on. And I did them, because I was told it was my job and I knew that my allowance was something to be earned, not bestowed. I also carried out these exacting instructions with a sense of dread, which wasn't unfounded, because one spot missed and there was hell to pay. My son often leaves behind a stray scrap or two (sometimes on the floor just outside the emptied trash basket), but other than perhaps mentioning it the first or second time it happened, I have not since made an issue of it. I would say that I wish he was aware that it still happens and yet I don't mention it, but coming from his mother I doubt it will mean anything to him.
Neither one of my kids ever had major chores; Emma was always eager to help out, so if I needed something from the basement or in another room all I had to do was ask. Sam needed a more structured approach, and thus the baskets. Why have neither of them cleaned as my mother did, and as I did for my mother? The answer is because I don't clean as my mother did; someone else cleans for me. I clean up, I tidy up, but I don't clean. At first, it was because cleaning the house myself eventually became something I was fortunate enough not to have to do; now, it has become something I really should be doing with one child in college and another soon on the way. Except now I actually can't do it. At the age of 55, following a lifetime of puzzling symptoms, recurring respiratory illnesses, strange inabilities, anatomical oddities and finally, increasingly diminishing mobility with no answers until I finally left my longtime physician for a new one, I learned via genetic testing that I have a form of muscular dystrophy known as Nemaline Myopathy (or Nemaline Rod Disease). My variant is a rare one within what is already classified as a rare disease in general, but as many are dead by the age of two or spend their lifetimes (long or not so long) in wheelchairs, often trached and on vents 24/7, I'm pretty fortunate. The trajectory in my case is an unknown because it has been so strange and erratic to begin with, so ending up in a wheelchair sooner or later is hardly the stuff of tragedy. And I'm also happy, because I finally know something. I've put up with a lifetime of nonsense, from parents who constantly criticized the fact that I fell a lot, or yelled about my posture or made fun of how I walked and ran, to incompetent doctors who assured me that I was simply de-conditioned because I didn't exercise, despite explaining ad infinitum that I was in pain all the time, fatigued beyond all reason, and struggled to rise from a seat.
How did I manage to go from teen-generated trash to this? I have no idea, but you know what? Trash is trash. Sometimes it's tangible, sometimes it isn't, and sometimes we are equally responsible for generating the latter as we are the former. When examined up close, out in the open and piece by piece, both kinds say a lot about us, and sometimes they even tell a story. Many of us are warned from a young age not to "air our garbage" and pay a heavy price for leaving even a tiny stray bit behind that others might chance to come across.
That was my childhood. It was even a good part of my young adulthood.
And then I kicked over the garbage can.