Who’s afraid of the big bad teenager?

My daughter is tired of adults jawing about how the children are our future; as she has noted acerbically, she exists in the present, thank you very much. Maybe she is on to something: Do we only perceive a hopeful future in cute, little children who still want to hold our hands? In compliant youngsters who speak when spoken to? (If any such may be found.)

On the contrary, just when our teens are more evidently turning into the adults they will soon become — when they grow taller, louder, and, yes, sometimes lacking in discretion — why do we distance ourselves as if they were alien beings? Are we actually afraid of teens?

Some parents seem to be afraid of their own kids — the parents who can’t say no, who look the other way when kids get in trouble, or like Harry Potter’s Aunt Petunia, mother to his cousin Dudley, refuse to see their budding bullies for what they are. On the other hand, some adults are afraid of other people’s kids. We can talk all we like about the village it takes to raise them, but we behave as if we live in a gated community. Two recent episodes exposed this nerve for me.

I recently walked an uncomfortable gauntlet of young men in a parking lot — boys, really, I saw when I got closer — and I didn’t like the language I heard from their midst. I didn’t like how they stopped talking when I walked through toward my car, then burst into a language I didn’t understand. Their words sounded harsh and forbidding. I simply didn’t get the feeling they were inviting me to have a nice day. Did I mention they were all dark-skinned and I am white?

I had to drive my car back through the lot to pick up a passenger at the entrance of a building. The group had begun to spread out in the lot, moving slowly and blocking my way. You know, that kind of taunting jaywalking pace some people adopt? It speaks of lack of respect for drivers, for the law. It’s an attitude: Who are you to be driving on my street? It’s like a double dog dare. Then I heard an epithet directed at me when I drove through the group in the lot; perhaps I imagined more. I was angry. And I was angry because I was afraid.

Fear provokes flight or fight. I decided in my own way, to fight. I got out of my car and turned around to talk to the first kid I saw; others gathered quickly. I figured, why can’t I, as a citizen and adult, tell these kids what I think of their behavior? Feeling pretty righteous and fairly calm, I chewed them out for talking disrespectfully. I asked how they he would feel if someone spoke to their mothers or sisters that way. Finally one, a sweet-faced kid probably 14 or 15, apologized. Another spat on the ground.

The apology mollified me, but I left brimming with doubts and questions I’m still sorting out. How much of my reaction was driven by my feelings as a woman, by being sick of a lifetime of feeling assessed and harassed as I walk by some man or a group of men? How much was driven by race or language — if I had understood every word, if these kids had been white, would I have responded differently? And what part of me views teens as an alien species — adult in size but with completely different brains and values and culture?

Just days later at the Southdale movie theater in Edina, I witnessed a magnified version of my own experience. As I left the theater, I heard someone yelling in the parking lot. A mall patron, a white guy in his 30s, I guess, was loudly rounding up a bunch of teenage boys, one black, one white, all clean cut and none looking especially menacing. Then, a small swarm of cops and mall security urgently arrived at the scene, car lights flashing, doors slamming. I didn’t see what had happened but the witness claimed there were 30 kids fighting. (It was 60 kids as he retold the story minutes later.) As he departed after the cops arrived, I heard him screaming obscenities at the black kids, probably in response to someone’s jeer.

Next thing I knew, a black kid was being searched against a car, then handcuffed on the ground, then jerked upright by a young cop and directed into the back seat of a patrol car.

Look, I did not see what the kids were doing. I don’t know what pressure they felt to show off, redress perceived wrongs, or pick fights to prove manhood. I don’t know if anyone had a weapon or made credible threats. I don’t know how many kids were really involved. I don’t know if the kids knew each other, if anyone had a record.

I do know I could see the veins in that man’s forehead. I saw the angry look in his eyes. I think I recognized the fear behind the anger. And I cried for the barriers it seems we construct between genders and races and ages — between our present and our future — from everything we don’t understand.

Kris Berggren is a Minneapolis writer.

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