I’ve been thinking a lot about 17-years-olds recently.
Aidan will be that age for less than four short months. At 18, while still living in our home and subject to our rules, he will be legally an adult, able to vote and required to register for Selective Service within 30 days of reaching that milestone.
As a result of his increasing maturity, the substance and tenor of conversations Dunreith and I have with him have changed. They are informed more and more by the awareness that our time raising him during his most formative years has ended, and that we are now in a phase that combines input with letting go so that he can make his own choices.
It’s a tough balance to strike, and I am aware within myself and from his response when we are not doing that well, even as I also know that we also are operating from an understanding of what we feel he needs, rather than what he likes and wants to hear at the moment.
Of course, context can make all the difference in life, and, while Aidan is going through the college application process here in suburban Evanston, thousands of his fellow 17-year-olds are in Illinois’ adult prisons after having received felony convictions due largely to low-level drug activities.
Friend and colleague Angela Caputo tells that story in the current edition of The Chicago Reporter. Caputo writes that many of these youth commit these crimes out of perceived economic necessity. Yet, in part because of the legacy of “get tough on crime” legislation designed to deal with hard-core young offenders, thousands of these young people have felonies on their record that will last a lifetime before they can legally buy a pack of cigarettes.
It’s a sobering story told in a comprehensive package that includes a two-page graphic spread, smaller profiles of youth who have been snared in the criminal justice system’s web, and a best practices piece about Washington, DC.
Last night Dunreith and I watched an HBO documentary film about another 17-year-old. To Die In Jerusalem recounted the story of Palestinian suicide bomber Ayat al-Akhras and Rachel Levy, a 17-year-old Israeli who died in the explosion (Ayat’s given age at the time was 18, and some sources have said that she was as young as 16.).
The movie focuses on the blast, the striking physical similarity between the two young women, the impact of the deaths on the two families and Abigail Levy’s desire to meet al-Akhras’ mother.
The painful aspects of the film are many, not the least of which is the inability to take the glimmerings of connection and move beyond political pronouncements to an actual basis for dialogue, and for peace. In the film’s climactic scene, after four years of efforts to meet that culminate in a video conference, the two mothers encapsulate the thus far impossible dialogue between the two sides.
While purporting to speak mother-to-mother, Levy flicks away al-Akhras’ description of the conditions that led her daughter to take her life while insisting on a denunciation of Ayat’s actions that the mother refuses to give.
For her part, al-Akhras, while saying she would have stopped her daughter had she known what she was going to do, makes the point several times that Ayat evaluated her circumstances and chose what she felt was right.
This statement in many ways captures the range of emotions which which we contend here, in dramatically different circumstances, with Aidan’s gradual emergence into adulthood. While we counsel him on solicited and unsolicited bases, we do so with the knowledge that he ultimately will make his own choices that will have consequences for him and, to a lesser degree, for us, the rest of his family, friends and people whose lives he touches.
This is neither an easy recognition and not always a comfortable place to inhabit-especially when we consider a sidebar in Angela’s piece that points out that adolescents’ brains are not fully formed-and it is where we are.
After reading Angela’s project and watching the movie, we have another reminder of the additional level of reckoning that comes with facing the painfully imperfect world into which young people like Derrick Reed, the protagonist in Angela’s story, and Ayat al-Akhras, have been born and raised that have led them to their differently destructive conclusions.
Somber stuff, indeed, and yet, we still have cause for hope, however dim it may seem at time. Drawing on our knowledge of previous successes in other places and the faith that a better day and time can come, we continue to parent Aidan the best we can and to savor the time he has left at home as well as to work with others to build a better world for the future.
Our hope is that by doing so, we can contribute to future 17-year-olds poised on the verge of adulthood, like Aidan, Ayat, Rachel and Derrick, have different choices to make.