Took the bikes out on the Cape Cod Rail Trail this morning. Not a long ride. Only about 8 miles, round trip. We went from Orleans Center to Nickerson State Park and back, with a lunch break at our favorite clam shack along the way. The 9 year old rode behind me on a tag-along. He's not fast enough on his own bike to keep up with the big folk. Meant I had to go slow and pretty soon Uncle Merlin, the blonde, and the 12 year old had left us far behind. Which was fine. Gave us a chance to talk.
At one point we met up with a high school kid coming the other way on his bike. Probably 14 or 15. Before we could say hi to him, he flashed a great big smile and called out, "Hello! How you doing? Great day for a ride, huh?"
An American teenager who's not sullen and withdrawn, who's open and friendly with strangers even when he's not being paid to be is not the rarest bird on the Cape. But they are terns to the other sort's gulls, who are much better at making their presence known and felt.
What’s with him? I asked myself. Must have just fallen in love, I guess.
“Nine year old,” I said, “Here’s some excellent fatherly advice. When you’re a teenager, smile and say hello to people.”
I was more or less thinking out loud, not expecting him to pay much attention. Too much else going on around him for another lecture by the old man to hold his interest.
But he said, “Why is that?”
When he asks why, he expects a real answer.
“Because it impresses people,” I said, “It makes them feel good. They’re not expecting it.”
“Because most teenagers don’t smile and say hello.”
“Why don’t they?”
“Because most kids that age don’t feel like smiling a lot of the time.”
“Well, they have a lot going on in their lives,” I said carefully, thinking that it wasn’t the time or the place to explain the horrors of puberty. “They have to deal with a lot of changes. When you’re like 14, 15, 16, there are lots of new things in your life and new experiences that you don’t always know how to handle.”
“Yes,” he said, “Like going to a new school and making new friends and sometimes they have jobs and girlfriends and boyfriends.”
“Yep,” I said, “So they’ve got a lot on their minds and a lot of times they just get lost in their own thoughts and problems and they forget there are other people in the world. So grown-ups sort of expect teenagers to be sullen and withdrawn and kind of unfriendly.”
The words sullen and withdrawn aren’t in his vocabulary yet, I guess. “I’m not sure what you mean,” he said.
And then, at that moment, we came upon two more teenagers, boys about 14 or 15, leaning on their bikes by the side of the trail as if they’d be planted there by a sitcom writer for the purpose. Both were glowering about them, their mouths hanging open, their eyes cold and inward looking, their expressions...well, sullen and withdrawn.
The 9 year old called out to them, “Hello! How are you today?”
Both kids looked startled. One just frowned, the other said, after a pause, “Lo.”
That cracked the 9 year old up. He laughed and when we were far enough past them he called to me, “Now I see what you mean, Dad.”
The whole rest of the way he made sure he shouted out hello to everyone we passed and he pointed it out to me whenever a teenager didn’t say hello back.
We’ll see how well the lesson took in five years.