A “Seventeen” moment last night. Stopping at a zebra crossing, a skinny kid crossed the road. Dark brown hair, a pullover that had seen better days, jeans that didn’t fit too well, unfashionable shoes, there was a timid, frightened look in his eyes; a sense that he would have felt a need to have apologized for needing to cross the road. He looked uncertain, lacking in confidence, disconsolately walking with a schoolbag of books.
“It will turn out alright,” I thought, but maybe it wouldn’t, maybe he would live his days as a shy and frightened kid. We never appreciate how much of life is sheer chance – parents, home, school, friendships, encounters – in one version of his life he might become successful and prosperous and blissfully happy, in another, things might not turn out just so well.
Janis Ian would have understood him, would have understood the timidity, the fearful look, her song “Seventeen” has some timeless quality:
To those of us who knew the pain
of Valentines that never came
and those whose names were never called
when choosing sides for basketball
It was long ago and far away
The world was younger than today
In younger days, there was an assumption that “Seventeen” was the voice of the silent majority, that “those of us” really referred to almost all of us, but one February a thought occurred: how would there be such a market for Valentine cards and gifts and nights out and weekends, if the majority of people were those who hoped for Valentines that never came? There was a realization that there was no solidarity in loneliness, that loneliness was really something in which one was alone.
Were it possible to send a message to a nervous youth standing on a pavement, waiting to cross the road, it would be that the future begins at that moment, and that only he could make it different. A wise friend in Dublin once said that only 10% of life is what happens, the other 90% is what one thinks about it.
The most disturbing line in Janis Ian’s “Seventeen” was troubling not for what it said about the past, but in its observations on the present, “The world was younger than today.” There is a sense of loss of of options, choices, opportunities. Even in the most grey moments of being seventeen, there is always an irrational optimism about the future. May the skinny kid with the bag of books find the 90% of his life filled with that optimism.