I always felt like I was doing high school wrong. I never had a boyfriend of any sort, I didn’t have a tight knit friend group, and I actually preferred staying home with my parents on a Friday night. Heck, I’ll admit it, I genuinely liked my parents. So why did I feel like such a fraud?
In part because of songs like “Jack and Diane” by John Cougar Mellencamp, one of many that glorify youth, and high school in particular. The chorus of this famous 1982 hit says, “Oh yeah, life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone.” The song follows the lives of sixteen year old high school sweethearts Jack and Diane. “Jacks gonna be a football star, Diane’s the debutant of the back of Jackie’s car.” Their favorite past times included “Sucking on chili dogs outside the tasty freeze. Diane’s sitting on Jackie’s lap, got his hands between her knees.”
Now I’ll admit, the song is catchy. I’ll give you that Mr. Mellencamp. No wonder it has become a sort of American anthem, something most people inadvertently learn the lyrics to at one point or another. But Jack and Diane’s experience is certainly not reflective of my experience in any way, and it wasn’t for most of my peers back then. Yet ever time I hear it I think, Shoot, did I miss out on some quintessential American right of passage? No boy ever put his hands between my knees– I’m a loser!
I recently read writer and actress Mindy Kaling’s book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? and I was pleased to find she shares my aversion to this song. She says, “I wish there was a song called ‘Nguyen & Ari,‘ a little ditty about a hardworking Vietnamese girl who helps her parents with the franchised Holiday Inn they run, and does homework in the lobby, and Ari, a hardworking Jewish boy who does volunteer work at his grandmother’s old-age home, and they meet after school at Princeton Review. They help each other study for the SATs and different AP courses, and then, after months of studying, and mountains of flashcards, they kiss chastely upon hearing the news that they both got into their top college choices. This is a song teens need to inadvertently memorize.”
Now there’s a song I could relate to. Why don’t we praise the teenager who sets the table for dinner? Who works at McDonalds after school to pay for their first car? Or who attends church every Sunday and youth group every Wednesday?
The only slightly realistic factor about this song is that Diane winds up running off to the city and Jack probably gets shipped off to the Vietnam war or loses his football scholarship due to low grades. In the bridge, Mellencamp mournfully croons, “Hold on to sixteen as long as you can, changes come around real soon, make us women and men.”
In a culture that glorifies youth and deifies aging, we are often bombarded with the message that its all down hill from here. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Enjoy high school/college/fill in the blank, because its the best time of your life.” Seriously? I for one am enjoying growing into a woman and embracing the changes coming my way. I wish I could go back and tell my sixteen year old self that she will indeed do all those things her little heart desires one day, so just sit back and relax. Everything in its time.
The thrill of living should not be gone after high school. There is no such thing as ‘the good old days’– the trick is to realize you’re living them right now. Sure, its okay to hold certain special memories near to your heart, but don’t let them blind you from the thrills happening in the present moment.
Screw Jack and Diane. They’re over rated. Write your own song.
P.s. That’s me on the left, sporting my flattering graduation gown. 13′ baby.