When Your Teen Loses Control

The following excerpt comes from Adair Lara's new book, Hold Me Close, Let Me Go: A Mother, a Daughter, and an Adolescence Survived (Broadway Books).

Buy your copy of Adair Lara's new book here.

Chapter Three

I drove Morgan to her first day of high school the next morning, the two of us barely talking. Two months shy of 14, she had unrolled the window and hung out a nonchalant elbow, so that the cold breeze came around and hit me in the back of the neck. You had to look close to see how nervously she was beating time to the music on her bare knee with her other hand.

"Did Grandpa go back to the valley?" she asked.

"I don't know. Probably."

"I liked him. He was cool."

"He liked you, too," I said. "Said he'd rather have troublemakers in the family than lemonade stand proprietors."

"I'm not a troublemaker, Mom. Stop!" Morgan had spotted crowds of kids streaming along Eucalyptus Drive as we approached Lowell High School, a low collection of beige buildings set below the roadway less than a mile from the Pacific Ocean. "Drop me here, please, Mom." We were three blocks from the school.

She got out, and then reached in the back seat for her pack. A blue Honda had stopped in front of me, and a skinny Asian girl lost in oversized overalls bolted from the passenger door. Her mother hurried after her with a backpack.

"Your homework schedule for high school, by the way, is 5 to 7:00 every weeknight, starting this afternoon," I told Morgan through the window.

"No, Mom, no way," she said in a level tone. "I'm going to be nice, but I'm not going to do that." She walked off.

"Yes you are!" I shouted after her, but she didn't turn around.

I rolled up the window and drove back over the hill over Portola, slowing as always to admire the skyline view of San Francisco from the top of the hill, a line of tall white buildings shimmering above the green bay.

Despite all her class cutting and other hijinks in middle school, Morgan's test scores had got her into Lowell, San Francisco's prestigious academic public high school. Ninety-nine percent of Lowell graduates went on to college.

But not everybody graduated. "Your freshman son or daughter will be doing homework for four hours every night, and will be lucky to get D's," the principal had said in the auditorium the week before. We parents had blanched. I saw one mother wrapped in a pea coat jot a note down on her "Welcome Lowell Parents!" sheet. The man next to me ran a hand through his thinning hair and seemed to almost rock with anxiety beside me. I wanted to rock, too. I had read somewhere that even if it meant standing over her chair while she did it, you had to make sure your high school student did her homework,. I didn't see myself doing that for the four hours the principal had stipulated, but I could manage two.

I spent the rest of the day staring at the blue screen of my computer. Student essays from the writing class I taught on Thursday nights, press invitations, telephone messages, and newspaper clippings littered my desk. I wrote a personal column on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the local paper, the San Francisco Chronicle. I stared at a note from a reader that I had thumbtacked to my bookshelf: "I wish you would explain the purpose of your column. When you are not occupying that space, others write of similar personal experiences and I just do not understand what place they have in a newspaper."

This was one of these days when I didn't either. I was tinkering with an idea about latchkey adults for the column and was just rejecting it in despair when the phone rang. "I called to remind you that I'm not coming home at five," Morgan said in my ear when I answered it.

"Yes, you are," I said. And she did. I heard her key in the lock, and then she came through my office. Her backpack bulged with books.

"Why should I have to do homework when you say I do?" she yelled, by way of greeting. Then she went into her room and started her assignments. By six she was in the kitchen, filling out an order to the Columbia Record Company and talking to a friend on the phone.

Her two hours weren't up. "Morgan, it's still your homework time," I said. "You have to go back to your desk."

She exploded. The tiny past-on stamps of CD covers went flying. "You don't even know if I have homework. You've never gone to my school!"

"I spent four years in a high school!"

"What does that have to do with me?" Morgan asked. She was a brand new person. Nobody before her had ever been to high school, least of all the haggard visitor from the Paleolithic era who stood before her.

The next night, Morgan was working at the kitchen table, amid the clutter and noise. Bill was making tacos at the stove. Patrick sat at the table unscrewing the wheels from his skateboard while telling me how his first days in the seventh grade had gone. (His homework schedule was only an hour, and had already ended.)

I wanted her to do her homework at her desk in her room, where she wouldn't be distracted by the TV or our conversations. I grabbed her red notebook. "No, Mom!" she yelled, grabbing it back. Huddling over it, all shoulders, she stayed where she was, writing her English homework with pink marker, three or four words to a piece of binder paper, while listening to a rerun of "Roseanne" on TV.

"Morgan, I want you to work at your desk." I switched off the TV. "Those are the rules."

"I'm doing my homework, Mom," she said. "Isn't that the point?" She picked up the remote and clicked the TV back on.

I retreated to my bedroom and started to fold the laundry I had earlier dumped out on the bed. Both kids were wearing such huge clothes now that just two pairs of pants and a sweatshirt made a pile that threatened to topple over. I folded quickly and sloppily, feeling sorry for myself.

I was not used to conflict. I once burst into tears when a man ordered me to take my bike out of his grocery store. Yelling and screaming was as new to me as it was to Bill, who had taken to covering his ears in his living room chair when Morgan and I were arguing. I never yelled, not even in childbirth, not even as a child. I was always a good girl, avoiding confrontation, a classic child of an alcoholic, distressed by loud voices.

But I would yell if that's what it took. I shook out Morgan's clown-sized overalls and folded them into a square. I saw her, 40 years old, in a stained white blouse, hair lank across her forehead, carrying five plates through a swinging metal door in a restaurant because no one had made her do her homework in high school.

I hadn't plucked the image out of thin air: my mother had been forced to go to work as a waitress after Dad left. She came in tired, pasta stains on her white blouse, and left slabs of leftover teacake and bags of French bread on the counter.

She seemed uncomfortable with us once we hit our teens and had new adult bodies and problems. We went to the local high school, one after the other, but nothing was ever said about college. She was just trying to get us to adulthood.

I knew from my own family that high school divided kids into two groups: those who would eventually wear long coats and carry briefcases, and the working class, who'd wear short jackets or jeans or uniforms. I was working class, so was Bill, and so was Jim, who'd grown up on a farm in South Dakota. But we'd made our way into the briefcase-carrying class by going to college-Bill and I had been the first in our families to do so--and I was determined that the kids would, too.

On Saturday morning, Morgan was standing in front of the old-fashioned pedestal sink in the bathroom, squinting with one eye while applying blue eye shadow to the other. Makeup and brushes littered the sink.

She was dolling up for some sort of block party with Holly.

"You have to do five hours of homework today, to make up for coming in late on Wednesday and Thursday nights," I said. "Anyway, you're still grounded for that babysitting stunt the other night."

"It's my homework, not yours! I'll do it when I want to do it!" she screamed at me. The tiny stick of eye shadow waved in the air like a baton. "I'll run away if you're going to be like this!"

I grabbed some toilet paper and wiped the sink with it. "Every day I read in the paper about kids whose parents drink vodka at breakfast, or use the rent money to buy crack, or slap their kids around," I said, throwing the gob of toilet paper away. "You are surrounded by adults who love you. And you're going to run away because you have homework?"

"Stop it, Mom, stop it! I hate it when you're like this!" She was screaming, a paw print of black mascara above her right eye. "I promised Holly I would go to this party with her!" She bolted from the bathroom.

I followed. On the back porch, I grabbed her roughly by the arm, shoved her down on the bed we kept on the porch for Patrick.

"Stop it, stop it, stop it!" I yelled. Before I could stop myself, I hit her on the arm.

"Morgan?" We hadn't realized Jim was standing in the doorway that led to the yard, melon and peaches and grapes peeking from the top of the bags he was holding. "I don't like you, Dad," Morgan told him through the open door. "I was talking to Mom." He trudged on upstairs, his tread heavy on the stairs. Later, outside the door, I found he had left a bag of Mandarin oranges, Morgan's favorites.

Shocked at myself, I could still feel the soft give of her flesh against my knuckles. But Morgan hadn't seemed to notice. I heard the front door close, and knew that Bill had once again left the house, retreating to a coffee house down the street, where he read the Times from front to back rather than be around the yelling.

Gritting my teeth, trying to calm down, I sat on the bed next to Morgan and stared down at my hands.

"It's clear that my plan is intolerable to you," I said. "How about a compromise? You do your homework your way, and in three weeks I'll check with your teachers to see how you're doing."

"Why, Mom?" she asked. "Why do you care so much whether I do my homework or not?"

"Neither of my parents finished high school," I said. "Neither did my brother Shannon or my sister Robin. It's a hard way to start your life, with that failure in front of you."

Morgan tugged at a hole in her jeans, making it larger. I watched her worry the white threads. She said nothing.

"From here on in, it counts," I insisted. "The colleges you apply to will look at your entire high school transcript, including the classes you're taking this first semester."

"I'm going to college, Mom. When did I say I wasn't going to college?"

"I want you to take the life I'm offering you," I said, "A good education followed by a good job."

I had read that parental expectations counted the most, when it came to motivating kids. My brothers and sisters and I, all bright kids, had not been expected to go to college, and so most of us didn't. Besides me, only my older sister Connie had gone to college. Though she was forty, my twin Adrian was in college now, going at night, one class at a time, while working as the civil clerk at the county courthouse in the daytime. Textbooks-biology, history, pre-calculus — covered the back seat of her truck whenever she came over.

"All I want is to be happy," Morgan said now in a hopeless voice.

"It's all I want for you, too," I said. She hugged me, and I tightened my arms around her. We stayed that way for a long time.

I could not back off. To let up on her homework would be a form of leaving, and I was determined never to leave her. I knew too much about what that felt like.

Coming home from work at noon a week or so later, my head full of a book I'd been reading, I jumped down from the N Judah streetcar at Duboce Park, near our house, and nearly collided with two teenaged girls who had paused to light cigarettes as soon as they got off.

One of them was Morgan.

"Morgan!" I said. She wheeled around, her backpack a blur of blue. She wore green plastic mirrored sunglasses. I saw myself in them, my collar pulled askew by my briefcase, pale, my short blonde hair disheveled. I grabbed her cigarette and ground it under my heel, then picked up the butt. With her was Holly, dressed all in black, as she always was. I'd seen her quietly let her own cigarette drop. "See you later, Morgan," she said, and walked off quickly, her boots clicking.

"I was just trying it out," Morgan said to me, as the other passengers parted around us, heading up the sidewalk or across the green park.

"Tell me the truth, Morgan," I said. We had turned to walk toward the house, but I stopped her on the sidewalk and looked at her. "Do you smoke?"

She didn't drop her eyes. "Yes," she said.

"Since how long?"

"Since last summer."

A year, then. This, from a girl who had started a "Just Say No" club at school when she was 11.

I felt sick. "You used to hate it yourself when people smoked. You thought it was stupid."

"I know, Mom," she said.

"You don't know!" I said heatedly. "You never knew your dad's brother Herb. He smoked all his life and died of lung cancer." I remembered green-eyed Herb, the handsome one in his family, watching football surrounded by his daughters, shifting his hips in response to a persistent ache that would turn out to be cancer. Dead at 58.

"I just did a column on this," I said to her. "Only five percent of teenagers who smoke believe they'll still be smoking in five years. Seven years later, two thirds of them are." Morgan had her head down, waiting out this boring lecture.

"And of those who smoke by age 17, half will still be smoking at age 36. Half! And of those, half will die of a smoking-related disease." The statistics had lodged in my head.

I might have been the sound of the wind in the trees. We had passed the rec center, and Morgan was eyeing our yellow house at the end of the block as if salvation lay within it.

"I'm going to quit, I promise," she said impatiently. "You don't have to keep talking about it."

"What do the other kids think of your smoking?" I asked. The September sun burned the back of my neck.

"The ones who don't smoke tell me I should quit. The other ones bum cigarettes."

We walked in silence. The old Chinese man who lived on the corner was sweeping the walk with the edge of his newspaper, as he did every morning.

No wonder Morgan wasn't worried. She knew no one in my family has died of smoking, and my family's been on fire for years. When we go across the bridge to visit my mother in the county, we enter a friendly club, people who go through each other's purses looking for smokes, bum matches, and argue about who stole whose Merit Lights.

"I don't want you to smoke," I said again, feeling hopeless. I knew she would go on lighting sticks of tobacco and drawing the nicotine deep into lungs that were in her body, not mine. I couldn't do a damned thing about it.

After that every time I smelled tobacco on her clothes and asked her about smoking she claimed she had quit. Jim and I went on finding packs of Newports in the pocket of her BP jacket. "Those aren't mine," she'd say hotly. It reminded me of how we used to find candy wrappers in her pockets after school. "Kids drop wrappers on the playground," she'd explained piously. "I pick them up to throw them away."

Several nights later I sat in my office, arms aching from the tension stored in them as I listened to Morgan laughing at The Simpsons with her new braying laugh. It didn't sound quite real, her new laugh. It sounded forced. I stalked into the kitchen and said, "You must have homework."

"You promised you wouldn't bug me about that," Morgan protested. "You always break our deals!" We argued for a while before stomping off to our separate rooms. "I want my old mom back!" Morgan shrieked from behind her closed door.

I sat on my bed, staring at a framed photo on the wall of the kids and me at a footrace Adrian was running in, years ago. I'm crouching down, holding the two little kids by the legs, all three of us wearing the white caps they'd been handing out and grinning at the camera.

I wanted Morgan's old mom back too. I had been so confident, so easy with them before.

Jim and I divorced when Patrick was four and Morgan was five. I moved into a downstairs apartment, then into a couple of others around the city. Now I was living downstairs from him, with my new husband. I suppose a shrink would hazard a guess that our boundaries were becoming fluid. Jim sent bowls of soup downstairs, cake servers, eggs, and stores his wine in our extra refrigerator. He came down to show me funny things in the Clark, South Dakota paper that he subscribes to by mail from his hometown. He came in to use my fax, to ask me to read over something he's written for a book flap (he's a publisher of local books), to discuss the state of the roof (Bill and I now owned 34% of the building), or to show us how to unstop the bathroom sink with a kitchen plunger. He walked in unannounced, always calling "Hello!" but then using his key. Sometimes Bill, imagining himself alone, reading the paper in the early morning, was surprised to hear Jim in Morgan's bedroom arguing with her.

When I went upstairs, I didn't need a key, since he never locked his back door. I sprinted up to steal apples from his kitchen (we called it the "Jimstore" as in, "We're out of rice. Can you get some up at the Jimstore?"), to play pingpong with Patrick, or to browse through the shelves of books.

Even Mike, my old bad-tempered black and white cat, yowled outside JIm's door when he wanted to be let in downstairs.

No matter how often I went up there, it was always, fleetingly, like stepping into my own past. Jim and I raised the kids for the first five years of their lives there. He never changed anything, so the pictures on the walls were all of the kids when they were under five, because I put them there. My hats were in the downstairs closet, my baby albums in the living room shelves, my college texts in the attic, my old coats in boxes upstairs, my former husband working the crossword at the kitchen table.

When we talked, we stayed, always, in the present. A wife and husband learn intimacy together: an ex-husband and his ex-wife must unlearn it. We talked about Morgan's grades and Patrick's shoes, but not about our history, his and mine.

Before I met Bill and moved back into the building, Jim and and I shared them equally, half a week each, and everybody got along. I remember walking down the street holding a blond child with each hand, smiling back at old ladies who smiled at me. You could find the three of us together in front of the TV, eating dripping popsicles while watching "Police Academy 6." I bribed them to memorize Robert Frost poems. Evenings we got through homework, and then danced together to Michael Jackson in the kitchen, blasting it out through the windows to Patrick's escaped turtles in the backyard. At night Morgan would pretend to fall asleep on the couch so that she had to be dragged, useless legs catching on everything, a smile on her supposedly sleeping face. Once I had told the teacher the kids were sick when the three of us had really sneaked out on a bike ride.

Morgan seemed fine then. Morgan WAS fine. A typical outfit for her at age eight was boots, black parachute pants under one of my All American Girl sweatshirts, charm necklace, blond hair raked off to one side a la Tina Turner, carrying her lunch and wadded-up homework in a pink aerobic bag. In the second grade she was at a loss to understand why Mr. Sichel wanted to be the only one who got to talk in class. She had firm plans to marry her cousin Ryan, could spell "hypothesis," and wanted to skip "Oh, three or four" grades because the work was too cinchy. She had three Cabbage Patch dolls who were present for every meal, and were, as Morgan indignantly reminded me five or six times a day, not to be referred to as "dolls."

I was relaxed then. I was almost nonchalant. I knew I was a pretty good mom because I liked myself when I was with them--because when I was with my kids, my world felt right, felt complete.

But when Morgan was in the eighth grade, I had become a new kind of mom. I was vigilant, watchful, suspicious. Morgan was Annie in the musical, always trying to get out to the streets, and I was Miss Hanigan, creeping after her. It was clear to me that Morgan was a wild child, a child who felt the lure of the street. Until she got older, and got some sense, I would have to keep her safe, and in school.

The danger was real. Two girls Morgan's age really had been raped and killed by a gang of boys in the city, as I had told her, and Morgan had blithely admitted to having hung out on that very same corner.

What did I do to keep her in? I grounded her.

Grounding was what I knew how to do. My mother had grounded my brothers and sisters and me, or tried to. We would come in late, or cut school, or throw something in the neighbor's yard and get the neighbors mad at Mom, and she'd say, "You're restricted!" But after her first fury had passed, it was hard for her to remember that we were being punished. "What are you doing hanging around the house for on such a nice day?" she asked me after she had grounded me for walking the streets with my boyfriend Johnny after curfew.

The year before Bill and I had bought travel locks, the kind to give hotel guests protection against intruders with keys. We didn't lock her in her room, of course (though it was tempting),but at bedtime we'd creep from front door to back door, after Morgan had gone to bed, and affix these flimsy tin locks to the doorjamb. The locks became a new secret language between her and me. She never mentioned seeing them. It was as if they didn't exist. The locks said, "I don't trust you." Her silence about them said, "I never try to sneak out, so I never see your stupid locks."

Morgan needed a wise TV mommy, one who could laugh at her foibles, exert loving but strict discipline, and dish out wisdom. What she had instead was me. While she'd been changing into a restless thrill-seeker, I should have been preparing myself somehow, getting wiser or stronger or more intuitive. Instead I had lost ground, grown soggy and weak, undermined by love and fear.