janelle

“I think about if she was here, how I would tell her about everything I was doing. She wouldn’t necessarily be happy about all of it, but I could tell her.”

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Janelle lost her grandma a little over 7 months ago. She was a little nervous to come and stay in the old apartment–the one she had stayed in a million times before, the one where her grandma had lived for years. As we sat down to chat over a stack of pancakes (a la mode, of course) I asked her if it felt as weird to be in the space as she thought it would. “No,” she answered, “everything just looks so different…it feels different; it’s not the same.” That was the answer I was looking for. It meant that all of the work we’d done on the apartment so far had paid off; the new floors, the paint, the new light fixtures–the place was becoming our own. Still, somehow her answer did not yield the expected effect; I wasn’t ecstatic that someone had confirmed that the place had been transformed. I usually am–but not this time. Instead part of me felt like I had washed away her memories; scrubbed them really, so they were barely there to feel.

I felt absolved of this guilt rather quickly once Janelle started detailing all the precious time she had spent with her grandma between those walls; Benjamin Moore was not as powerful as I thought. It was almost as if she had been waiting for the chance to talk about the lady she deemed the “most supportive person ever.” “I’ve never gotten to sit down and talk about all the positive things about her,” she started; “I’ve only talked about her death.”

Janelle said she felt like she could always trust her grandma, and always appreciated how straightforward she was with her; she was never one to mince words. “Sometimes I would get dressed and come out and she would shake her head and tell me my outfit was ugly,” Janelle recalled, laughing. “She would never sugarcoat it, that’s actually what I loved about her.” I laughed right along with her–it made me smile to remember Theresa this way; it’s what I appreciated about her as well.

Janelle’s appreciation of her grandma bubbled over; she kept explaining how she supported everything she ever wanted to do. “I said I wanted to learn calligraphy, she bought me calligraphy pens–I said I wanted to play guitar, she bought me a guitar,” the teen remembered. “I don’t even know where she found calligraphy pens,” she sort of chuckled, her voice and her mind trailing off. Janelle’s interests now lie in cosmetology; she seems to go back and forth on that being her career path after high school. “I know if grandma was here, she would probably be buying me tons of makeup to practice with.”

It was quite clear to Janelle why her grandma was so supportive of all her endeavors. “She just wanted me to do what I wanted to do,” she explained. “I think that’s what she wanted for everybody, for them to be happy and to be doing what they wanted to do.” The simplicity of her explanation warmed my heart; she had pinpointed the woman I knew to a T. Theresa looked at anything I did as an accomplishment if it contributed to my happiness; I loved that about her.

So, Theresa was straightforward, supportive, and also exceptionally kind when she wanted to be. Janelle recalled how her grandma would always take her out for Chinese when she visited:

“There was this Chinese restaurant–not a takeout place, a nice restaurant, that she would always take me to and we’d always get the same thing. I would get chicken and broccoli with pork fried rice and she would get some weird thing with lobster sauce. She hated Chinese food, but we ate it every time I was here because I loved it.”

It seems to me this kindness has been passed down to Janelle; she has the same desire to support the people around her, even if she is not always sure how to do it. “I tend to try and get people’s minds off of things if they are upset about something…if one of my friends is unhappy, it really bothers me. I just want people to be happy.” This was her response when I asked what she liked most about herself.

It’s the friendship part of life that this social teen really seems to be ensconced in. She’s got a tight group of friends, and they are her world right now. I remember that–my friends being my world. I felt the urge to explain to her how much bigger the world actually is and how much things and people will change. I started to tell her–then I stopped. I realized that hers was a time to be savored. How wonderful it was to be stressing about where to go to dinner for Homecoming; she will need that memory ten years from now when “real life” is more stressful than she could ever have imagined. That real life is coming to her soon enough, and she knows it.

When asked about any fears she has nowadays, she first mentions her concern with friendships dissipating; some friends will graduate before her and she fears the change that might bring. She’s peeking into the future with some personal hesitation as well. Her freshman year, she struggled a lot in school. In a new program now designed to get her some extra help, she’s determined to get on a better path. “I was lazy sometimes,” Janelle admitted. “I’m afraid if I do that again, I’m not going to have any choices when I am done with school–I won’t be able to go to a regular college if I decide I want to.”

It was enlightening to sit down and chat with someone who is just entering the stage of their life where their actions might really have an effect on their future. I’ve usually got plenty of the requisite “aunt-speak” for Janelle, encouraging her to work for good grades and stay out of trouble. I try to balance that mainstream advice with a big dose of honesty and personal experience; I didn’t often follow the straight and narrow path so it’s not natural for me to place that expectation on her.

After she left, I got to thinking about all that mainstream advice we get at different stages in our lives; the obvious stuff seems especially prevalent during those teenage years. They say it’s important to work hard to get good grades so you can get into a good college so you can get a good job. It’s all so formulaic; this plus this equals that. I’m not sure I know anyone whose life has added up quite so neatly; to be honest I’m not sure I’d want to know them.

I failed geometry my sophomore year of high school; I now work as an accountant. Granted, I am not a “real” accountant. The industry I work in is full of fakers; we always joke in our office that we aren’t real accountants, we just play them on TV. It’s true, we are not CPAs–oh, and the electricians doing all the rigging on set–they are not certified electricians either. Our productions are full of people who just wanted to work in the movies; they got their foot in the door then found their way from there. So, it’s easy to look back at the guidance counselor I met with when I was 15 and think “you don’t know shit, grades don’t matter, failing geometry didn’t affect my overall outcome.” But, I think I’d be wrong to take this attitude as well. All those grades did affect my future–just not in the way that counselor told me it would.

When I failed that first semester of geometry, I felt stupid. I was struggling with other classes as well and my GPA fell so low I became ineligible for a week and couldn’t play in my volleyball games. I was mortified. I would sit in class and feel panic because I honestly never had any idea what the teacher was talking about. I was eventually transferred to a lower level geometry course which I’m pretty sure most 5th graders could pass.

I felt the same frustration in chemistry; I’d sit in the class, close to tears as I watched everyone else furiously jotting down notes; I would leave each hour of class with close to zero comprehension of what was talked about. I took a different approach with chemistry though. Instead of resigning to fail or be put in a lower class, I decided to teach it to myself. I don’t think I’ve ever used a textbook as thoroughly as that chemistry book junior year. I would start with the answers in the back of that book, then I would work backwards. I would stay up till three in the morning sometimes studying the periodic table. I worked and I worked till I found patterns that would get me those answers in the back of that book. By the end of the semester, I brought home a B-. To this day, I have never been more proud of a grade I’ve received.

I am hoping Janelle might start to look at learning and achieving in a different way. I hope it becomes less about consequences and more about what she can gain in her sense of self worth. I still think about that B- all the time; I carry it with me–even 15 years later. It’s my grit. It doesn’t matter what situation is in front of me or what advantages other people might seem to have over me, I know my strength is in my ability to put my head down and grind it out.

I hope she finds her strength. I think that’s what the real consequence of not trying when you’re a teenager is; you miss out on finding out what you’re made of–that’s information that’s vital when you step out into the real world. I hope she hears her grandma all the time–supporting her, reminding her to be kind, and even kicking her butt and telling it like it is; no doubt she’s going to need it all in the complicated years to come.

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