My contempt for teenagers is best illustrated in what happened to me the other day. I was on my lunch break, and headed up to 7-11 to buy a snack. It was also lunchtime for the high school across the street, and thus the store was stuffed full of teens buying overpriced convenience food. I got my banana Slurpee and a Cajun chicken sandwich, and started to head out the door. Now, standing around the front doors was a gaggle of teenage girls. As I walked by their group, one of the girls – probably no older than 15 – noticed me. She had a small bouquet of flowers that she was intently ripping the petals off of. As I walked by her, she shoved the handful of stems in my face and said, “Would you like to buy some flowers?” Without breaking my stride, I glanced at the pitiful, brownish stems, looked the girl in the eye, and mumbled, “No thank you.” As I made a beeline for my car, I overheard her tell some joke about me to her friends, and they all laughed. I was driving back to work when I began to think, “Now, really, how should I have handled that differently?” This is where I really wish I was quicker on my feet. If she wanted to play, I could have played.
Sadly, though, my first reaction is always the nasty one. As the scenario played over in my mind, I imagined me turning to her and saying, “You fucking child! Get your ass back to school!” As satisfying as it would have been, it wouldn’t have been very productive. She’d start to cry, or, even worse, get all bitchy and mean and try to assert herself. As I learned battling bullies in my youth, conflicts are never resolved by sinking down to their level. Calling her names and chiding her career choice would have been a very teenage thing to do. If anything, conflicts are resolved by you being the first to elevate things to the next level. If they take a swing at you, lay an assault charge as soon as you can. If they threaten to call the cops, you whip out your cellphone and actually do it. Trust me, they never want to go to the next level. How did Sean Connery say it in the Untouchables? “If they pull a knife, you pull a gun. If they send one of yours to the hospital, you send one of theirs to the morgue!” It’s as much the Entwistle way as it is the Chicago way. They never want to go to the next level, so end things by taking them there.
So, what would have been the next level in this case? If her joke was offering me a clutch of stems and asking if I wanted to buy them, what would have been the next level?
Buying them, of course. I have no doubt that my reaction was the one she expected, so the next level would have been doing the unexpected. And now that we’re on the next level, we see that our world is open to a group of scenarios that we would have never considered.
Scenario #1: Sincerity. Buy the flowers from her. Ask how much they cost. I’m sure she wouldn’t have had a price in mind, so as I started haggling, she probably would have gotten lost quite easily.
Scenario #2: The finicky shopper. Question her stock, and ask if she has any more in the backroom. “Well, I see that your flowers are rather substandard. I couldn’t possibly pay your for these! Now, if you throw in that promise ring your boyfriend gave you, maybe we can negotiate something.” To actually take this much interest probably would have given her the classic “dear in the headlights” look.
Scenario #3: The hero. I chuckled insanely when I came up with this scheme. If I wanted to throw panic into a young girl’s life, this probably would have been the way. As she offered her stems, I should have proclaimed, “OH MY GOD! You poor child! Here you are, selling yourself on the streets, trying to make a few dollars, most likely so you can go into the 7-11 and buy yourself a decent lunch! I shudder to think at what your home life is like! Your parents are probably drunks and alcoholics who are too busy buying whisky to even care about your basic needs. I won’t by your flowers, my dear. No! I will do even better! I’m going to get social services on the phone! They’ll take you away from your wretched home. You’ll get good meals, and never have to try and sell stems you found on the sidewalk to get lunch!” This is when I’d walk over to the payphone and proceed to dial 911. If all ran smoothly, the girl would follow me, protesting all the way, but I’d protest even louder, telling her that her Dickensian hell will soon be over.
Yup, if only I were quicker on my feet and thought of this scenario at the time. If she wants to play, I can play. I’ll be ready for next time.
But this doesn’t get to the root problem. What was going through her mind to try this? Was it some kind of bet she made with her friends? “Hey, betcha I can harass this random stranger. Betcha he’ll even buy these flowers!” I’ve never understood the teenage mind. How do they find behaviour like this to be funny? It just boggles my mind. No respect for my space or my privacy, just, “Hey, I can use you to make my friends laugh.” She was probably getting her jollies out of it, but the truth was I was on my break, trying to escape for a brief moment from work, and she violated my personal space. Just an average Joe, accosted by an average teen.
So, in the end, I’ve really learned no more than from when I began. Although, I will be wary of gaggles of teenage girls hanging out in front of the 7-11. We all know that they want to play. Well sir, next time, I’ll be ready to play the game. Next time though, perhaps the wisest question of all to ask would be why she was pulling the petals off the flowers. There’s a symbolism there that I can’t quite verbalize yet.