So, you’ve turned 13, and suddenly you feel as if you’re in Death Valley. You come home from school and Oprah is on, talking about America’s Youth in Crisis; your parents assail you after dinner with antidrug literature, asking what you’ve been experimenting with lately; and from every corner — school, home, church — you’re being told: ”Be careful! These are four of the most important years of your life!”
Well, relax. I’ve been there, and let me tell you: your teen years aren’t that important at all. The important years come when you want them to. Ray Kroc was a two-bit, middle-aged, milkshake-machine salesman when he founded a little company called McDonald’s. His most important years started right there.
As for me, I’m a junior at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. Although I’m still in the thick of my teen-age years, I think I’ve learned a thing or two by now. And as far as I can tell, being a teen-ager is just like being a kid, except that you’ve got five extra niggling concerns: sex, money, smoking, drinking and getting into college.
First things first: sex. You already know all about sex (at least the mechanics of it), so I’ll spare the birds-and-bees stuff. The most important thing to remember about teen-age sex is that television is not a study guide. Watching ”Dawson’s Creek,” you get the idea that every American over the age of 11 has a steady boyfriend or girlfriend, and that sordid, love-triangle sex kicks in by age 15. The reality is far less lurid, I promise.
Your friends are an equally unreliable study guide. Starting at 12, their bragging begins: ”I did blah-blah-blah with so-and-so. As a general rule, take everything your friends tell you about sexual experience and cut it in half. Then you’ll have a reasonably accurate picture of what’s going on.
As for dating, here are some tips. Boys: join a rock band. Or a sports team. Or anything. What girls are really attracted to is affiliation. Buff up your brooding skills and don’t talk much. Never underestimate the repellent power of dandruff. When you find out a girl has a crush on you, act fast — it’ll last two weeks at most.
Girls: you’ll never be rejected if you ask a guy out. He’ll be so dumbfounded or thrilled that he’ll just shut up and nod. Another thing: those quizzes in YM magazine are totally useless. And glitter makes you look messy, not cute.
Despite what I’ve just said, however, don’t sweat the small stuff. Romance will eventually come your way. No matter how dorky you are, you’ll most likely get your first kiss in the next four years, if you haven’t already. Other people’s mouths taste strange at first, but you’ll get used to them. You’ll go for a nice walk in the park; you’ll fall deeply in luuuv; you’ll do all the cute stuff. It will be fun.
Next up: money. Let’s see, you’re probably living rent-free, with free food and free clothes. In addition, you can earn extra cash by, say, working part time in a store. The next four years could be pretty profitable. Question is, how will you use your earnings?
Most likely, you’ll wake up Saturday mornings thinking you’ve been robbed, but soon realize that you’ve spent the week’s money on the silly scraps of teen-age life: school supplies, movies, haircuts, T-shirts. Why waste it? As weak as it sounds, I say save your money. Wait until you can afford something really cool, then indulge. The $50 mini-backpacks can wait.
Now we hit the naughty stuff. In the next four years, you’ll inevitably meet up with cigarettes and marijuana. You already know what smoking’s like. Haven’t you ever been stuck with a puffing relative at a family funeral? Smoking a cigarette yourself is similar — it tastes nasty and burns your throat. As for pot, it shares smoking’s characteristics with one extra benefit: it makes you act really dumb.
But you’ve been told that before. All teen-agers have. Yet somehow they all end up at a party where somebody offers them a joint, and they have nothing to say but, Uh, sure. Well, here’s what you say: Nah, I tried that stuff once; it really messed me up. Proceed to tell a ridiculous anecdote about the time you tried that stuff. If the story’s funny enough to get everybody laughing, you’ll slip out of the situation. Alternatively, simply shake your head, act uninterested and get into a conversation with somebody else. The quick, silent rebuttal is devastating.
Drinking is also a tricky issue. From an early age, you’ve seen ads that promise that the moment you crack open a beer, football players will magically pop up on your front porch with bikini-clad girlfriends in tow. Real teen drinking scenes are far less glamorous, I’m sad to say — we’re talking glassy-eyed party-goers slouched on couches. But there’s an easy way to handle parties without getting stinking drunk. Take a drink — anything, whatever they give you — and walk around pretending to sip it. (You’ll need a plastic cup for this trick to work. A glass will give you away.) After an hour, discreetly put the drink down on a table. Nobody will notice this sleight of hand. And it’ll be entertaining to watch the inebriation (real or feigned) of others.
Finally, you’ve got to contend with college. Now, you already know what school is like: you come in; you keep quiet; you don’t break anything; you leave. High school is the same, except on the horizon, looming over you, are these monstrosities: the SAT’s, the Achievement Tests, college interviews. A word of advice: don’t worry so much about college. To be sure, you can learn a lot at a university. At the same time, plenty of successful people — Thomas Edison, Bill Gates, even my grandfather — never went, or dropped out as soon as possible. At a high-pressure school like mine, teachers push the idea that your college will absolutely determine your future, but nothing is set in stone. If you want to go, go; but don’t freak out about it.
The media present adolescence as hell on earth, chock full of evil cliques (the cliques in grade school are worse), domineering parents and wrenching decisions that will determine the rest of your life. Nah. Adolescence is a time to sit back, make some friends — and maybe discover what you’re good at. Don’t believe the hype.
Photo: Nicholas Brunschwig, center, a student at the Center School in Manhattan, will turn 13 in October. At right, Eve Bertin-Lang and Jordan Nassar, both 13. (PHOTOGRAPH BY MARK PETERSON For The New York Times)