Today I'm thrilled to share this story by my dear friend Laura. I met Laura in the first months I moved to Los Angeles, and she's been a treasured friend since the day I met her. Laura is the ultimate go-to for how to do anything involving sewing, crafting, drawing, or starting creative projects, and has the best historical fiction recommendations. She lives in Glendale, California, with her boyfriend.
While Dear Sabrina often speaks to the joys and challenges of parenting, I have to disclose that I have no kids, no plans to have kids, and consequently, I've given very little thought to what it’s like to raise them. That said, I did have the opportunity to spend some time with my favorite tween recently and I've been invited to share some thoughts about it.
Back in August I was at a friend's cookout when her fourteen year-old daughter, Maya, told me that she wanted more than anything to make her own Sailor Moon costume but she had no idea how to do it. As it happens, I used to make costumes for the theatre and I generally have more free time than I want people to know about. I'd also just had a few beers so I impulsively promised her that I could make this happen. We planned a Saturday workday and I bought the pattern and supplies.
Now, because I don't have kids I have a limited perspective on what they can and cannot do. Maya is a smart girl and I assumed that if she can use an iPhone, she could learn to use a sewing machine. However, there are a lot of tedious steps that go into making even a simple garment—and this was definitely no simple garment. I anticipated she would get bored and frustrated pretty quickly so I started doing all the really hard parts on my own in advance so she could at least see some progress.
It turns out I underestimated her. She listened attentively to every instruction and I was amazed at how focused, patient and careful she was. For hours! She seemed eager to impress me, but also really nervous about using the machine as though she might break it. She was clearly afraid of having her fingers anywhere near a moving needle or large steel shears and especially afraid of a hot iron. But her determination moved me. Once she got comfortable I started giving her all of the pieces that had straight lines and simply said "You are completely capable of doing this. Just let me know if you have any questions as you go." When she messed up, she cheerfully sat with a seam ripper and picked out all those tiny little stitches and re-did them. She pinned and traced and re-pinned and never complained once. I have to admit she had far more patience than I did. It’s been a long time since I taught anyone to do anything so I really had to control the urge to jump in and do things for her. Fortunately, her total absence of frustration really helped me to chill out, too.
As she worked, she half-jokingly suggested she would wear the costume to school, to just dress in cosplay all the time and be "that anime girl". We both laughed, but I empathized with that. I can remember starting high school wishing I already had a completely formed, cool identity. Which leads me to the next thing I didn't anticipate: her desire to just talk. Like girl-talk. In hindsight I really should have seen that coming. And man, does a fourteen year-old girl have a lot to talk about! That day Maya was about two weeks away from starting high school and was really anxious about it.
From my perspective, I knew that a pretty girl who was friendly and funny and good at sports would have no trouble making new friends, and I cheerfully told her so. But she was seriously worried. It’s a vulnerable age, and I suppose it’s harder for her to see those qualities in herself, so it warranted about thirty minutes of further discussion. She asked if there are bullies in high school and what if her teachers don't like her? She talked about a friend who insults people just to provoke drama, about a boy who's had a crush on her since 6th grade and the guilt she has for not returning his feelings. These were not brought up as general topics, the way adults would discuss them: every small interaction in her life became a twenty-minute detailed story. It amazed me how much gravity she attributed to each smile she got from a boy, the fifteen different ways to interpret a comment made by a friend, and each soccer move that might have been witnessed by a popular girl.
As a 36 year-old woman, I find it really hard to be patient with this kind of hyper-analyzing. But it reminded me that adolescence is completely new territory, one in which it’s hard to tell what is important and what's not because we haven't yet seen the outcome of anything. The highs feel so high and the lows are often crushing. The experience (cynicism?) of adulthood tempts me to blurt out that a boy choosing to be lab partners with some other girl means absolutely nothing in the course of her life. But I couldn’t say that. Because if the failures and fallouts of 9th grade are meaningless in the long run, the frightening implication is that the accomplishments and affection of others are not worth anything either. And when you're in the middle of it, all of it is make-or-break every single day. It made me ponder how much thought I give to my own interactions in life, what the little things might mean to the people I see every day, and if perhaps they should mean more to me.
When it was time for lunch Maya asked if she could make the grilled cheese sandwiches, which was fine by me. Then she asked how to do it. Again, I didn't see that coming. Apparently she isn't allowed to use the stove at home so she thought it would be dangerous. Hiding my eye-roll, I explained the basics (bread+cheese+ butter = sandwich), told her that she is now as fully qualified as anyone to do it, and I sat down and chatted about music while she cooked. She ended up using five slices of cheese per sandwich and not nearly enough butter—but who cares? She got to test her skill at something new in a safe, private space with no consequences - something that I now recognize is rare for adolescents.
We had three more Saturdays like this, all of them eagerly requested by Maya which I will take as reassurance that I wasn't forcing child labor or unlicensed psychology on her. I did end up doing a lot of the costume work on my own, which she appreciated because it turned out beautifully in the end and she got to do all the fun parts herself. I hope the experience left her with a bit more self-confidence. For my part, I was reminded of how intense life can be, for better or worse, when we pay very close attention to all the little things. Thank God I never have to be fourteen again! Even I would find myself longing to put on a super-hero uniform and just get on with life, trusting that I'm qualified for it.
Top photo by Tirza van Dijk. Author photo by author.