Loco Parentis: The Secret Life of Boys

It’s a grim, dark world of headbanger rock and video-game death and mayhem. Isn’t it?


“What are you doing?” I ask, studiedly casual, as I carry the laundry basket past my son’s computer in the living room.

“Nothing,” Jake says quickly, and puts his hand up to cover the left side of the screen.

I shift the basket to my other hip. “Let me see what you’re doing.”

“No!” He puts his right hand up, too, hiding more screen. The picture there looks just like all the games he plays — rooms in shades of dark brown and gray, inhabited by little guys in faux-medieval outfits. But he’s got me curious now. I put the basket down.

“Let me see,” I wheedle, and tug his hands away from the screen. Lightning-fast, he drops his fingers to the keys: tap-tap-tap. A black box on the screen pops and vanishes before I can do more than glimpse that there are lines of text onit. I take a step back and stare at Jake.

“What was in the box on the screen?” I demand, the playfulness gone from my voice.

He sighs. “It’s nothing. It’s just where you can talk to the other players online.”

“Why wouldn’t you let me see, then?”

“Because—” He sputters in outrage. “It’s like reading someone else’s mail!”

“What do you talk about?” I hear myself: shrill, suspicious. Well, why not? Didn’t some dopey 16-year-old just fly to Jordan to hook up with a guy she met on myspace.com?

His only response is another sigh.

“You can get into trouble talking to people online! You don’t know who you’re talking to,” I tell him.

“I know that!” He’s practically shouting; he sees me start to protest. “Sorry. I mean. I know that.” More calmly. “It’s not perverts or stalkers. It’s just other people who play the game.”

“How can you be sure?”

Big eye-roll. “You’re right. You’re always right. I’m not sure. Since they know where we live, one of them could be heading over here right now to rape and murder us.”

“You didn’t give our address!” I’m aghast.

“Sarcasm!” Jake says. “Do you think I’m an idiot?”

No. But I sure find you hard to read, son.

THESE ARE THE TEEN YEARS. I was lulled into a false sense of security by Jake’s older sister, Marcy. Oh, she’s been prickly. And she’s had her hormonal fits. But not even her first real boyfriend interrupted the steady flow of information she has always seemed compelled to impart to me. When I pick her up from a movie, I get a complete plot rundown, opening scene to credits, along with commentary on the wardrobes, haircuts, makeup and love relationships of the stars. When I pick Jake up from a movie, I get nothing. When I ask if it was good, I get a grunt. At best.

I respect Jake’s right to be less forthcoming than his sister. But I can’t help feeling wistful that he and I don’t share things that same way — that we measure our words around each other, cautious about misunderstandings and crossed signals. Marcy has always been an open book to me. Jake is written in runes. As similar as he and I are — more similar than his sister and I — our relationship is mired in suspicion. We can’t tell if the other is angry or just kidding. He doesn’t trust me to do the best thing, and I don’t trust him to, either. We’re working on it, but it doesn’t come naturally.

I worry about him, on so many levels. I worry that his personal habits (room-cleaning, tooth-brushing) are, um, substandard. I worry that he doesn’t have enough friends. I worry that he spends his days and nights in lonely isolation, sitting at that damned computer. His dad and I try to get him out of the house: Doug takes him fishing, and I challenge him to tennis. But you can sense his fingers itching the whole time he’s unhooked from his Dell.

He hates French class and marching band. He loves Guns N’ Roses and spaghetti and meatballs. He doesn’t want to be president or an astronaut or a lawyer when he grows up. He wants to design computer games.

I’m the mother of a male teen in the 21st century. Which means I have nightmares that my son will grow up to be another Unabomber. I have nightmares about Columbine.

Jake’s in Boy Scouts. Doug and I have been back and forth on this, because the organization’s stand on gays sucks, and because Jake’s troop is full of misfits. They’re awfully nice kids — don’t get me wrong — but they’re misfits. You sort of have to be. At the Cub Scout level, the vibe seemed more normal; there were all sorts of boys running around and whacking at each other. But Boy Scouts are serious business — Jake’s troop goes camping every single month of the year except December, and not in cabins, either. One annual highlight is a January campout at Valley Forge in which they relive the Revolutionary Army’s winter experience. I’ve heard that kids get frostbite.

Since Jake moved from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts, we’ve been to half a dozen Eagle Scout ceremonies. The kids who stick with Scouts and take it to that level must be All-American types, right? Gerald Ford, Neil Armstrong, Michael Dukakis—they all made Eagle.

Along with L. Ron Hubbard, Marion Barry and — gulp — David Lynch. For some boys, I think, Scouting is a cover; they know it lends a veneer of normalcy. I can just picture Lynch snarling, “For God’s sake, Mom, I’m a freaking Eagle Scout. Get off my back.”

But at least camping and hiking and white-water rafting are wholesome. Un-electric. And there’s a Teddy Roosevelt rough-and-tumble to it all. One afternoon as Jake and I come down the hill to the pool at the swim club, he spots his Scout friends Tyler and Tom in the water. He cannonballs into their midst, and the three of them romp like walruses, big awkward boys wrestling and wrangling and trying to dunk each other, their bodies — unfamiliar and new each morning as they spurt toward adulthood — made more manageable by the water’s buoyancy. I look on, simultaneously terrified they’ll drown one another — can’t the lifeguards put a halt to this? — and delighted to see my son behaving like a, well, normal kid.

“I’m going to the eighth-grade formal,” Jake announced in May. He met my gaze evenly, carefully. “A girl asked me. I didn’t see any reason to say no.”

A girl asked him. In my parenting career, this is the equivalent of Copernicus shifting the center of the universe. A girl asked him?

“I think I need something to wear.”

I take him to the big and tall shop. Where else do you take a kid who’s this big and tall? The salesman extends a hand to Jake: “So, what’s the occasion?” Man-to-man. Establishing a relationship. I’m incidental, just the wallet — for now. The salesman, Dave, is doing his darnedest to see that Jake goes on shopping here long after I’m gone. He outfits my son in a handsome blue blazer and gray slacks. I stare at the unfamiliar figure in the mirror.

“Give it a minute,” Dave advises Jake. “You’ve never seen yourself in clothes like this.” Jake is standing a little taller, shoulders squared back, gazing at his reflection from behind the too-long scrim of his hair.

Dave marks up the pant legs for hemming. “You have a shirt? Tie? Belt?”

“Uh … yeah,” Jake says. “A pink shirt.”

“That’ll look good,” says Dave.

I’m out of town the day of the formal. Can’t be helped. My husband oversees Jake’s outfitting, and gets him to the dance on time. Marcy takes photos. The whole thing has a dream-like quality for me: I don’t see it with my own eyes, so I don’t really believe it. Especially when I call from my hotel room and Doug reports, “Yeah, he said it was great. He danced the whole time.”

I sit on my hotel bed and try to imagine it: Jake, blue coat, gray pants, pink shirt. Dancing. The whole time. Marcy went to her eighth-grade formal — but stag, I realize: She didn’t have a date. Little brother scoops big sister! Who is this girl who asked my son to the formal? What does she see in him?

And what is it that I don’t see? Perhaps we’re on the verge of some breakthrough, and Jake’s about to emerge from behind his computer keyboard socially triumphant, looking all comers in the eye while smiling pleasantly, speaking clearly instead of mumbling, putting the toilet seat back down.

“How was the dance?” I ask excitedly when I return from my trip.

Jake shrugs. “Okay.”

IN THE HEAT OF SUMMER, he leaves for a week at Scout camp. There’s a flurry of mysterious last-minute activity having to do with prerequisites and merit badges and something called the Order of the Arrow. It’s all vaguely like The Da Vinci Code, or my father-in-law’s allegiance to the Masons — guy stuff, with uniforms and insignia and testing of limits. Jake arms himself with a pocketknife and a bolo tie and heads out into the woods.

I take advantage of his absence to give his room a good, thorough cleaning, now that I’m not constrained by his pleas of “Don’t throw that out! I need that!” The space beneath his bed is particularly gnarly, stuffed with spent Magic Markers and copies of Mad magazine and tumbleweeds of dog hair. As I’m gathering up discarded socks, I glimpse an unfamiliar book and pause. It’s his eighth-grade yearbook — the first time I’ve seen it. I open it. The usual treacly theme and platitudinous introduction. The usual bad candids, looking like they were shot underwater. The usual rows of head shots of smiling girls and grim boys.

And on the endpapers and in the margins, snaking like Sanskrit, dozens of messages adorned with hearts and smiley faces:

JAKE U R SO COOL!
JAKE YOUR GREAT!
YOU MAKE ME LAUGH SO HARD IN FRENCH CLASS!
JAKE HAVE A GOOD SUMMER! LET’S HANG OUT!
♥ U, JAKE! C U NEXT YEAR!

I stare at the messages, match faces to the names signed beneath them. Jessie, the hot blonde who’s in band with him. Jenny, the cute redhead who used to be on his soccer team. Alissa, at whom he threw a lunch box in seventh grade, earning his first suspension:

I’LL MISS YOU, CRAZY JAKE!

I look more closely at the photos in this middle-school Rosetta stone, observing my son in his native habitat: grinning from the back row of the football team. On the top bleacher with the choir. With his sax in jazz band. Frozen in a joking gangsta pose with Student Council — God, that’s right, he was elected to Student Council. An election. He won.

He doesn’t stand out in these photos. He fits right in.

For reasons of his own, for American male rite-of-passage reasons he doesn’t understand, it’s important to my son that he keep me off balance in these years — that he spurn my advice, snarl at my requests he do chores, hide from me the messages he trades with his online friends. He’s in the process of creating Jake, the Jake he’ll show the world, and he’s still testing models out. The process puts me on edge, but I’m reassured by Jessie and Jenny and Alissa and the rest of Jake’s yearbook admirers. It seems they already know what I’m just beginning to suspect: My son isn’t the sum of my fears. He’s absolutely normal. Salt of the earth. Eagle Scout material, in fact. His secret life isn’t the death-and-mayhem computer games; it’s the crush he has on a pretty girl, his yearning to earn varsity playing time in soccer, the fact that he really loves to — gasp — dance. In, oh, four or six or eight years, he’ll finally be comfortable enough with who he is to let me in on it.

♥ U, Jake. C U then.

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