If I get a nose ring, I will not look young, like one of them. No, I will look pathetic, a person who should know better, a person too old to wear a piercing through anything besides a boring old ear lobe.
I'm studying the piercings and the tattoos. This is so distracting. One by one, the students come into my office, and I'm trying to find patterns. So far all the tattoos are on boys and all the piercings are on girls. No, not boys, not girls. Young men and young women. College seniors about to enter the job market. I see faces, arms, occasional bellybuttons. The rest of the tattoos and piercings are presumably covered by clothes.
The shy ones, I think, are the ones with the most dramatically placed rivets. Eyebrow, lip, tongue. Tongue? The young woman sitting on the other side of my desk right now, she did not seem the type. In the classroom she struck me as preppy, modest, all sleek hair and loafers. And now as I listen to her speak I see, or I think I see, a flash of silver in her mouth, not a filling, no, in the fleshy center of her mouth -- a spike through the tongue.
Why did you do that? What do you do with that? She's telling me about her essay, a 20-page writing assignment, and all I can think about is her tongue. This is the fourth tongue spike I've seen today, my afternoon of student conferences.
I feel safer around the nose rings. A dot. A tiny sparkle of blue or green or pink. A girl with a nose ring wants to stand out -- but just a little bit: "I am a creative person! I am a person with a complicated soul. I am a person forgoing convention. See? I have a nose ring."
The girl with the tongue spike started the semester writing about her grandfather dying, but her project has dramatically morphed into a rant against her mother for marrying the stepfather who has no time. She asks me if I think she should be as angry as she is. I try to turn her back to the text.
Again and again I find myself suggesting therapy, prayer, a visit to a trusted aunt. It isn't my job. My job is the text. But there is so much injury everywhere. I don't remember so much angst in friends at this age. Did we just not talk about it? We had alcohol and drugs, same as they have, but the volume of emotion was not cranked up this loud, not even close. Did the piercings and tattoos start when everything just got too loud?
In the class I teach, the students are allowed to write about anything. This is Senior Seminar, a chance to test-drive the creative lives they've been forging these past four years. Every year, it seems, I get at least one who writes about rape. This year I also have two who write of bruises, and one who swears the incest was his own fault. This is not society's fringe. These are mostly middle-class kids with student loans and used cars and meal plans that allow for nonfat mocha lattes and chai.
Everyone has a back story. At least half of the back stories are about divorce. What surprises me is that it's never the front story. One student proposed an essay about what happened to her when her parents split, but the idea was unanimously shot down by her classmates. "It's been done." "There's nothing to say that hasn't been said." "Everyone knows that story."
They write of their parents as friends or enemies. Moms are girlfriends with bad boyfriends. They write of trying to help their moms find the strength to dump the loser who won't commit, or to stop drowning her sorrow in microbrews. They write of fathers they don't blame for leaving -- Mom was stupid for sleeping with the dentist. What surprises me is they never write: What about me? Was anyone even thinking about what would happen to me? They write of trying to understand their parents as they might TV characters, with little expectation of heroism or protection, wisdom or sacrifice.
I am generalizing. There are so many exceptions. They write about losing God and looking for God and once in a while finding Him. They write about dogs, pizza, Iraq, ambition, chess and spring break. They write to confess bulimia and addiction, uncontrollable rage and crushing loneliness.
And so I suggest therapy, prayer, a visit to a trusted aunt. It is not my job. It is not my job to wonder about the tongue piercings, but I can't help it. I want a nose ring. I don't want to be young like them, because it sounds too hard. But I want to be accepted, to find some way to swoop in and protect, which is probably just every grown-up's job.
Jeanne Marie Laskas's new book, Growing Girls: The Mother of All Adventures, is being published this spring by Bantam. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.