A year ago, Mark’s 14-year-old came to live with us during the school year. New city. New school. He had become a teen without a best friend as his older brother ventured off to Penn State for his freshmen year. As if that wasn’t enough transition for an increasingly angsty teen, he had to deal with a new family dynamic. He was now living with a 6-year-old who imitated his every movement. He had a stepmom transitioning from the cool girlfriend who swept in two to three weekends a month with fun plan-packed weekends to one who doled out chores, discipline and slightly too loud Taylor Swift music in the car.
That first week of school was rough. Each day, I’d come home to a backpack tossed in the corner and a boy sitting on the couch quietly watching TV or playing a game on his laptop. How was your day? “It sucked.” The end. Two words. Two syllables. Two feelings: angst and sadness. It’s not easy watching a child—step or not—struggle, to see the kid who over the years has randomly busted out the Harlem Shake and Nae Nae come to a complete stop. No more goofy, indecipherable sounds. No zombie noises in my face to put me in fetal position. No weird German accents. (Don’t ask. I still don’t understand that one.)
Avery and I have always had a fun relationship, but trying to talk to a teen is often like trying to talk to say, a 7-year-old (please reference my previous struggles), especially with distractions of phones, Skype, Snapchat (and other things I’ve never heard of).
But we both had a love for sushi. So stepson sushi date nights were born. Every Wednesday while Ethan was with his dad and Mark was at a grad school class, we’d pick a new place and spend an hour, device-free, talking. That’s right. Face-to-face, make eye contact, real conversation. This from the kid who once said he didn’t make phone calls because “they are so awkward.”
Over the course of the next few weeks I learned about how he sat alone in a crowded hallway at lunch on the first day of school. I learned his teacher’s names. I learned the classes he thought were boring and about the awesome photography class that got him excited. I heard about the random person who sat down next time to him at lunch and was “pretty cool.” There were the new friends he’d make each day. All of a sudden there was a squad. A best friend in the making came over one day and he busted out a German accent too. (Seriously, what is that about?) I learned how much he missed his brother. He didn’t say it, but some things don’t need words.
In return for sushi, he gave me numerous lessons in teen slang. It started with on fleek. By now we all now it means “on point.” Swag I knew, but sweg? Apparently that’s the hipster version.
If you’re kicking a friend, you’re not abusing them (good to know). You’re Kiking (capital K) on a social media message app. Obvy. Who texts anymore? The answer is no one under the age of 16. E-mail? The teen sometimes checks it, but wait, “Oh you wanted a response?” Make a great joke about someone? Yeet. You took them down! As someone with an English degree, I found this fascinating and slightly disturbing.
On my birthday, three months after the start of the school year, the teen and his brother gave me a special gift. It was my guide to teen slang. At that point, I knew we’d gotten somewhere.
So here we are one year later. The teen is nearing his 16th birthday and learning to drive the Arlington streets, the streets he embraces as home. We still get sushi. This semester it’s on Thursdays. We can’t do it every week, but we do it often. After our obligatory photo, we still talk, device-free.
Last night, when the teen walked downstairs after watching the GOP debates on YouTube (of course), he said, “There were some fried ponage moments. I mean, yeet.” He walked away and back up to his room to Skype with his friends, but in that moment, we understood each other.