The Kiddy Pool: “To My Favorite 17-Year-Old High School Girl”

The Kiddy Pool: “To My Favorite 17-Year-Old High School Girl” November 5, 2013

Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

Last week, Stephen Colbert interviewed U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins and emphasized that his is the only show that reads poetry on air. It’s probably unsurprising that as a collegiate English instructor, I am an advocate of poetry for the ways that it re-envisions language. I also love beauty for the sake of beauty, and find the rhythms and structures and playfulness of poetry more than sufficient by themselves. That said, I loved the paired reading of Collins and Colbert of Collins’ “To My Favorite 17-Year-Old High School Girl” because it is funny and clever and overflowing with love.

The title defines the audience as well as the subject of the poem, elevating a person many of us would consider typical into an exalted position. Yet throughout, the poem also deconstructs and negates that exaltation, comparing the 17-year-old high school girl to historical figures who achieved so much more in roughly the same amount of time. Collins references the building of the Parthenon and the careers of Judy Garland, Joan of Arc, Blaise Pascal, Franz Schubert, Annie Oakley, and Maria Callas. He cites Lady Jane Grey but then backtracks, remembering “But then she was beheaded,/so never mind her as a role model.” Of course all of these figures contrast with the titular character, who keeps coming up as a failed comparison.

At the end of the poem, Collins writes “We think you’re special just being you —/playing with your food and staring into space./By the way, I lied about Schubert doing the dishes,/but that doesn’t mean he never helped out around the house.” On the one hand, Collins disrupts the “snowflake” culture of parenting in these lines, reminding that most of us (parents and offspring alike) will never achieve the greatness (or suffer the tragedy) of the celebrities named in the poem. On the other hand, he reassures the audience that love isn’t based on accomplishments but on something more fundamental about being who we are. I can only imagine with longing how reassured my 17-year-old self would have been by that message—ultimately a message of grace, of being sufficient.

The poem’s last line reminds the titular character of her responsibility as well, that the great figures as well as the ordinary ones still owe something to our fellow humans. It’s not a new message per se, but its delivery is vibrant and fresh and lively. It captures a moment in time—as a 17-yeard-old high school girl—and spreads it over the course of history, where the everyday anonymous people live and love and work with little (if any) postmortem recognition. The poem recognizes achievements of genius without denigrating being what most of us are born to be: regular, but loved and expected to contribute.

I love the lightheartedness of the poem, which stands out especially well as Collins and Colbert read aloud together. It feels like a metaphor for parenting and living, and on some level, of following Christ. I value my work as a mother and a writer and a scholar and a teacher and an athlete. Yet so much of my influence in all of those areas is small and subtle, and I’ll never really know how (in)consequential I am. I’m not a genius in any area, and my name will never be listed in the ranks of celebrities either sacred or secular. As I listened to this poem being read, I felt simultaneously like the 17-year-old high school girl and the mother of someday 17-yeard-old high school girls. How often I needed and still need that kind of affirmation! It’s OK if my work is akin in quality to helping out around the house, in both my community and the Kingdom; I am still loved for being me, but I cannot escape the responsibility of my contribution, however small it may seem.

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