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An essay by Helen Hunt Jackson

The Awkward Age

Title:     The Awkward Age
Author: Helen Hunt Jackson [More Titles by Jackson]

The expression defines itself. At the first sound of the words, we all think of some one unhappy soul we know just now, whom they suggest. Nobody is ever without at least one brother, sister, cousin, or friend on hand, who is struggling through this social slough of despond; and nobody ever will be, so long as the world goes on taking it for granted that the slough is a necessity, and that the road must go through it. Nature never meant any such thing. Now and then she blunders or gets thwarted of her intent, and turns out a person who is awkward, hopelessly and forever awkward; body and soul are clumsy together, and it is hard to fancy them translated to the spiritual world without too much elbow and ankle. However, these are rare cases, and come in under the law of variation. But an awkward age,--a necessary crisis or stage of uncouthness, through which all human beings must pass,--Nature was incapable of such a conception; law has no place for it; development does not know it; instinct revolts from it; and man is the only animal who has been silly and wrong-headed enough to stumble into it. The explanation and the remedy are so simple, so close at hand, that we have not seen them. The whole thing lies in a nutshell. Where does this abnormal, uncomfortable period come in? Between childhood, we say, and maturity; it is the transition from one to the other. When human beings, then, are neither boys nor men, girls nor women, they must be for a few years anomalous creatures, must they? We might, perhaps, find a name for the individual in this condition as well as for the condition. We must look to Du Chaillu for it, if we do; but it is too serious a distress to make light of, even for a moment. We have all felt it, and we know how it feels; we all see it every day, and we know how it looks.

What is it which the child has and the adult loses, from the loss of which comes this total change of behavior? Or is it something which the adult has and the child had not? It is both; and until the loss and the gain, the new and the old, are permanently separated and balanced, the awkward age lasts. The child was overlooked, contradicted, thwarted, snubbed, insulted, whipped; not constantly, not often,--in many cases, thank God, very seldom. But the liability was there, and he knew it; he never forgot it, if you did. One burn is enough to make fire dreaded. The adult, once fairly recognized as adult, is not overlooked, contradicted, thwarted, snubbed, insulted, whipped; at least, not with impunity. To this gratifying freedom, these comfortable exemptions, when they are once established in our belief, we adjust ourselves, and grow contentedly good-mannered. To the other _regime_, while we were yet children, we also somewhat adjusted ourselves, were tolerably well behaved, and made the best of it. But who could bear a mixture of both? What genius could rise superior to it, could be itself, surrounded by such uncertainties?

No wonder that your son comes into the room with a confused expression of uncomfortable pain on every feature, when he does not in the least know whether he will be recognized as a gentleman, or overlooked as a little boy. No wonder he sits down in his chair with movements suggestive of nothing but rheumatism and jack-knives, when he is thinking that perhaps there may be some reason why he should not take that particular chair, and that, if there is, he will be ordered up.

No wonder that your tall daughter turns red, stammers, and says foolish things on being courteously spoken to by strangers at dinner, when she is afraid that she may be sharply contradicted or interrupted, and remembers that day before yesterday she was told that children should be seen and not heard.

I knew a very clever girl, who had the misfortune to look at fourteen as if she were twenty. At home, she was the shyest and most awkward of creatures; away from her mother and sisters, she was self-possessed and charming. She said to me, once, "Oh! I have such a splendid time away from home. I'm so tall, everybody thinks I am grown up, and everybody is civil to me."

I know, also, a man of superb physique, charming temperament, and uncommon talent, who is to this day--and he is twenty-five years old--nervous and ill at ease in talking with strangers, in the presence of his own family. He hesitates, stammers, and never does justice to his thoughts. He says that he believes he shall never be free from this distress; he cannot escape from the recollections of the years between fourteen and twenty, during which he was so systematically snubbed that his mother's parlor was to him worse than the chambers of the Inquisition. He knows that he is now sure of courteous treatment; that his friends are all proud of him; but the old cloud will never entirely disappear. Something has been lost which can never be regained. And the loss is not his alone, it is theirs too; they are all poorer for life, by reason of the unkind days which are gone.

This, then, is the explanation of the awkward age. I am not afraid of any dissent from my definition of the source whence its misery springs. Everybody's consciousness bears witness. Everybody knows, in the bottom of his heart, that, however much may be said about the change of voice, the thinness of cheeks, the sharpness of arms, the sudden length in legs and lack of length in trousers and frocks,--all these had nothing to do with the real misery. The real misery was simply and solely the horrible feeling of not belonging anywhere; not knowing what a moment might bring forth in the way of treatment from others; never being sure which impulse it would be safer to follow, to retreat or to advance, to speak or to be silent, and often overwhelmed with unspeakable mortification at the rebuff of the one or the censure of the other. Oh! how dreadful it all was! How dreadful it all is, even to remember! It would be malicious even to refer to it, except to point out the cure.

The cure is plain. It needs no experiment to test it. Merely to mention it ought to be enough. If human beings are so awkward at this unhappy age, and so unhappy at this awkward age, simply because they do not know whether they are to be treated as children or as adults, suppose we make a rule that children are always to be treated, in point of courtesy, as if they were adults? Then this awkward age--this period of transition from an atmosphere of, to say the least, negative rudeness to one of gracious politeness--disappears. There cannot be a crisis of readjustment of social relations: there is no possibility of such a feeling; it would be hard to explain to a young person what it meant. Now and then we see a young man or young woman who has never known it. They are usually only children, and are commonly spoken of as wonders. I know such a boy to-day. At seventeen he measures six feet in height; he has the feet and the hands of a still larger man; and he comes of a blood which had far more strength than grace. But his manner is, and always has been, sweet, gentle, composed,--the very ideal of grave, tender, frank young manhood. People say, "How strange! He never seemed to have any awkward age at all." It would have been stranger if he had. Neither his father nor his mother ever departed for an instant, in their relations with him, from the laws of courtesy and kindliness of demeanor which governed their relations with others.

He knew but one atmosphere, and that a genial one, from his babyhood up; and in and of this atmosphere has grown up a sweet, strong, pure soul, for which the quiet, self-possessed manner is but the fitting garb.

This is part of the kingdom that cometh unobserved. In this kingdom we are all to be kings and priests, if we choose; and all its ways are pleasantness. But we are not ready for it till we have become peaceable and easy to be entreated, and have learned to understand why it was that one day, when Jesus called his disciples together, he set a little child in their midst.

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Helen Hunt Jackson's essay: Awkward Age