Conversations and Connections: A Teenager in his Native Habitat and at the Skirball

My son Arlen, standing at the entrance of the Women Hold Up Half the Sky exhibition, which he called “actually pretty cool.”

My son Arlen, standing at the entrance of the Women Hold Up Half the Sky exhibition, which he called “actually pretty cool.”

Living with my fifteen-year-old son, Arlen, is like living with a wild animal. A non-verbalizing, hedonistically hibernating, ragingly ravenous animal. The palate craves only that which is smothered in cheese. The wild mop of hair has been known to cause strangers on the street to nag (or, to my dismay, compliment and rave). The clothing is monochromatic. The vocabulary is monosyllabic. Parenting a teen is like living with a beast whose sole mission in life seems to be to eat more groceries than I can afford and to thwart my efforts at planning quality family time.

According to a great article I recently read in National Geographic, my son’s qualities could probably be attributed to the intense brain reorganization that kids his age experience. Nonetheless, I desire more connection with him, and I’m willing to try almost anything. Since many of my conversations with Arlen involve overwrought pop psychology on my part, and a series of grunts and somewhat base gestures on his, it has come as a huge relief to find things to do at the Skirball that inspire genuine communication. The Skirball is well known for our programs for young families (I am itching to sleep overnight inside Noah’s Ark at the Skirball), dynamic adult education, and thought-provoking and beautiful exhibitions. But did you know that there is a mélange of meaningful moments to be had at the Skirball with that favorite teen animal/angel in your life? I am so happy to trumpet to you all that there is. THERE IS!

I spent my first six months working here as a timid observer, wondering if my son would like our offerings—or if he could be coerced into showering for any of them. Then, I signed up for the Skirball’s Teen Parenting Seminar, hoping it would give me techniques to foster open communication. The seminar was full of eager parents and brave new ideas—and the most simple yet profound of these zapped my brain like a laser: do new things with your teenager.

So, we tried doing a few things. We went to the Huntington Gardens, but my own mom and I enjoyed their gorgeous rose gardens a teensy bit more than my son—although he did get in some quality texting time. We have now been to Disneyland more times than

probably anyone you know, and frankly we are both bored of the “happiest place on earth” (how much is there actually to say about Space Mountain?).

This conversation may have been slightly altered to serve my parental bias. Mental note: Discuss the concept of artistic license with son.

This conversation may have been slightly altered to serve my parental bias. Mental note: Discuss the concept of artistic license with son.

It took me a while to realize that some of the Skirball’s offerings might suit my son very well indeed. So, I signed us up for a Skirball Member preview of a documentary film called Bully that has been at the center of much media attention. It was a stealth invitation, meaning that I just texted him that I had scheduled an activity. I didn’t give him any details. This turned out to be a brilliant plan on my part: I hadn’t given him any information, so there was nearly nothing to which he could object.

After watching Bully together, something incredible happened: we really talked afterwards. We talked and talked for over an hour about the film, as well as my son’s own experiences with bullying. For the first time in a long time, we had an organic, genuine conversation. The experience was transformative, and I mean that in the truest sense of the word. We were transformed from a mother and son who barely recounted the banal happenings of our day to each other… into two people who felt substantially closer to one another. And the best part is that we now have a way to keep that closeness going.

I am now hooked on attending the Skirball with my teenager. I have since brought him to the concert with dynamic performer and outspoken activist Sayon Bamba, and of course to the groundbreaking Women Hold Up Half the Sky.

Our experience at Sayon Bamba’s concert is a perfect illustration of how the Skirball has helped me tame the beast that is my teenager.

Sayon Bamba in concert at the Skirball. Photo by Ethan Smith.

Sayon Bamba in concert at the Skirball.

The concert was on a Friday evening, after a very long week. My stealth invitation to the concert that morning had been met with what I will classify (because I’m nice) as a somewhat mixed reaction, so it was no surprise when, after taking a too-short car nap on the way here, my teen arrived at the Skirball feeling good and GRUMPY. (Attention, parents of toddlers—the reset nap is still in full effect during the teen years.)
I merrily pushed past all of my son’s reticence and insisted that he change into some clothes I brought for him. (The same clothes he had not-so-subtly “forgotten” on the dining room table that morning.) This was met with a fairly unmixed reaction—and I’ll let you guess what flavor the mixture was. The last thing on this tired, sullen teen’s mind was to attend a concert that was bound to be—in his estimation—at the very least somewhat lame, and at the very worst utterly lame. Boy howdy, was he wrong.

Sayon Bamba is a resplendent performer, whose personality is warm, funny, deeply inspirational, and downright fun. Somewhere in the middle of song two, I was thinking about how much I loved Bamba’s infectious, divine sound when I looked behind me to discover that my son was absolutely beaming with enthusiasm. His attitude made a complete turnaround as he gushed, “OK. You got me. She can really sing!” And his ebullience didn’t stop there. Not only did he like listening to this wonderful Guinean singer/songwriter, my teenager actually stood up in a crowded room, of his own volition, and DANCED WITH HIS MOTHER. For multiple songs. While smiling and clapping. I made sure to obtain photographic proof.

Figures in this image have not been stretched or distorted to make them appear musically ambulatory. We used to call him the Boogie Master because he was such an incredible dancer at weddings, but until this night, this boy hadn’t danced within view of his parents since the age of five.

Figures in this image have not been stretched or distorted to make them appear musically ambulatory. We used to call him the Boogie Master because he was such an incredible dancer at weddings, but until this night, this boy hadn’t danced within view of his parents since the age of five.

All of these Skirball experiences have provided numerous points of connection for me and my son—and I am pleased to report that we suddenly have plenty to talk about. We have learned together, laughed, danced, and yes, really talked together (and not just about LOL Cats). We discuss real issues like how the persecution of girls and women could be eradicated with interventions like microfinance, bullying of LGBT teens, and the cultural divide (and points of connection) between Christianity and Judaism.
The boy is still hungry, loves cheese, and the hair remains quite mop-esque, but we have found new things to enjoy together, and are embracing our ability to connect on a deeper level. That’s why I plan to bring him to the Skirball’s Sunset Concerts, which start on July 26 and run every Thursday through August 30.
I’m composing my stealth-invitation text message now. Shh…don’t tell him yet!

Me and my son. Note the words of wisdom on his t-shirt. Photo by Rebecca Baillie.

Posted in Family History, For Families and tagged , , , , .

About Samantha Starr

Samantha Starr joined the Skirball as Grant Specialist in 2011. She’s the one you’ll see hanging around in the Skirball galleries, doing her best impersonation of a fly on the wall so that she can abscond with quotes and observations to use in her writing projects. Samantha’s background in theatre and music helps her to do that: she has more than twenty plays, musicals, and operettas under her belt. Her best production to date is her fifteen-year-old son, and she doesn’t even want to know how old that sandwich is at the bottom of his closet.

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