To look at the world out of 18-year-old eyes brings a certain clarity to the landscape, a certain freshness to encounters. Every day is literally a new day because you haven’t experienced that many days as an adult. When you’re 18, relationships are budding, flowering, or blossoming. “Withering on the vine” isn’t part of the discussion. It is a time when all your body parts work like a charm and the mysteries of aspirin and ice are yet to be discovered. When you are 18, the seductions of your world are driven by passion and excellence and biology. It is a holy time.
Although, there is a curse to being 18. When you’re 18, older adults, and definitely relatives, are given a playbook with a set litany of questions to ask on any occasion. Trust me. You could be jogging down the road or sitting at Thanksgiving meal, it doesn’t really matter. Be prepared for any one of the following: (1) What are you going to do with your life? (2) Do you have a boyfriend (girlfriend)? (3) Do you have a job? (4) When are you going to get a real job? (5) And don’t you think it’s time to get serious?
These questions are anything but fresh. And when asked of an eighteen year old, you can see their eyes go dead and their fingers twitch for the comfort of the touch screen. It is confounding why any older adult would ever ask these loaded and judgmental questions. It seems just lazy.
So, I began by asking 18-year-old Robert what he was going to do with his life . . . . See, that’s him down the sidewalk. Incongruously pushing a dustpan and broom amidst all the snow. But Robert is cleaning up after you and me. Several months ago, he had a bit of good fortune, assisted by his grandma, and became an employee of Operation Downtown. They’re the group that tithe the downtown businesses and then plow the money back into beautification, clean-up, and keeping an eye on the downtown. This day, Robert’s job is to pick up cigarette butts and garbage that didn’t quite make it to the trash bins. There wasn’t much to pick up on this morning, the day after Christmas, with temps in the single digits.
Robert told me that he is the youngest on the downtown crew. “Everyone else is at least 50 years older,” he says smiling, which would put the next youngest employee at 68. “They all make fun of me — in a good way,” he says by explanation.
A recent graduate of Southeast Polk High School, this is Robert’s first year without a winter break — a vacation during the holidays. He hunches his shoulders at the thought of working on the day after Christmas, twists his head down to the ground, and bemoans the loss of those younger years with a Job-like cry: “Come on, really.” However, Robert is thrilled to have the work. He sees it as building character. He hopes that it will open doors to his ultimate goal of becoming a construction worker. “I hate the cold and the heat, but this job shows that I can work in the cold and heat.”
And the fun? “I like walking around. Everyone is friendly here.” And the perks? “They provide everything but shoes, underwear, and socks.” And what are you going to do with your life? Robert smiles . . . .
18 years old. What did I tell you.