Unconditional Awkwardness

Most adults can see right through the acne, the angst, the aggravation of teenagedom to the brilliant futures of our children. But inside that teenager, the outlook is not so clear.

Yesterday?s road trip took my 16-year-old and me on an all-day excursion to the very heart of teenage awkwardness and uncertainty: the big audition.

The prize could be a month-long enrollment, free of charge, to the Virginia Governor?s School Summer Residency program.

Because Virginia?s left arm is apparently not connected to its right arm, the big calendar in the sky had district 12 band auditions on the same day as regional auditions for this state gig, in different locations. Both were set up so loosely that students could not know for certain that they?d be finished with one audition in time to make it to the other.

When it comes to auditions, parents don?t seem to be as loquacious with information as they are for everything else, so I had no idea of the conflict until my son happened to mention it to me, very late in the game. I scrambled to resolve it, wondering that we could be the only ones with this conflict.

District band rehearses for just a few days for a single performance. It draws from many area schools to create a presumably elite group of presumably talented youth. Auditions were being held 45 minutes away at Mclean High School.

Governor?s school auditions were being held at Shendandoah University, an hour the opposite direction. Each audition would be about 10 minutes long. But no schedules were drawn up in advance, by either institution. District auditions could not be changed and were required by my son’s school band director. Soooo, after many emails back and forth, I was thrilled to land a 10-minute audition the following week in Radford … wherever that was.

My son, who we?ll call ?Seth,? lucked out and drew number one at district auditions. He would be the first to audition, not envied by anyone. Except by us. Two weeks ago. If only we?d known.

My son also lucked out and didn?t screw up any notes on the scales he was asked to play, was able to sight read easily and consequently, we?d learn that night from a friend on facebook, he landed first chair.? Also, between warm-ups and everything running late, he was still out of the audition chamber within two hours

He texted his friend, Andrew, on the way home. His friend wasn?t so lucky. He?d drawn number 79, nixing any plans to hang out for the rest of the day.

There is some inner strand of platinum that runs through the core of every real mother. That string of strength holds tight when challenged with the absurd. It holds tight to the concepts of hope, it makes us choose the pride option.

So when I found out Radford, where Seth?s governor?s school audition would be held, is 4-5 hours south of us, my inner string shivered but held tight.

Seth didn?t dare state that his odds of getting in are slim. Just as he didn?t dare state that he reeeeaaallllly wants to go nor that it was free.

My kid is the silent type.

But not when it comes to tenor saxophone.

He had been practicing Ravel and Bonneau, pieces selected from the level VI list, the hardest music.

Whether I was charmed by the music coming through my feet on the kitchen floor from his basement practice room or my inner platinum mom-string was well-strung, I found myself suggesting we head down the night before so that in case the car breaks down, we would still make it. Our Toyota now has 205 thousand miles on it.

But the day before the audition I finally learned that we didn?t need to be there until 1 p.m. so I decided we?d leave in the morning. Two hours would be enough time for me to get our car towed off the freeway and to find a rental, I figured. So we?d leave at 7.

I packed Kleenex?Seth should have some in his pocket because he?d been getting a bloody nose a lot lately. Also a bottle of water. Nothing worse than a catch in your throat during an audition.

Seth has enough hours driving to get his license, but I did not want him to be stressed. And I wanted him to be in charge of selecting the music for our drive.

So I drove and he plugged his i-phone into the car speakers, moistening the ends of the cables at my suggestion, so they?d connect. I suggested Ravel, so he could get in the mood.

But he chose Tijuana Brass, which transported me to the living room of my childhood where my father would twitch and snap to this music.

Next Seth played Brahms.

Maybe Seth does have a chance to get in.

The Commonwealth of Virginia teaches us that parents have the most influence on their children when it comes to driving habits. Lately, Seth had been driving so much, and I had been clinging to the ?oh shit? handle and gasping for breath so much, that I was feeling guilty about affecting my son?s confidence. Instead, I should get some time in teaching by example. Or maybe it was the Tijuana Brass that channeled my father.

The first teachable moment came when I spotted flashing lights in the other lane a mile or so ahead.

?You tell me what is going on,? I said, ?I?ll keep my eyes on the road.?

I could not avoid seeing the billowing steam and the firetruck, the huge hose dousing the passenger car.

?Wow,? said Seth.

?That is what a carfire looks like,? I said, ?although it might just have been a radiator problem. It looked like just steam ? did you see how white the smoke was??

?If you are ever in a wreck,? I intoned, ?you should get away from the vehicle as quickly as possible. The gas tank can be damaged and when the gasoline trickles down onto something hot the whole thing will explode ? there?s no reason to stand right there and do the paperwork. You can get away from the vehicle to do that.??I even recalled an accident from his childhood, explaining why I had dragged him and his brother up a steep slope to watch from a healthy distance. I was careful to explain of course, that even though his father had been at the wheel, his driving prowess had averted a more serious accident.

The road was long. I had time to drag out every scene of gore in my memory.

I knew I had saturated Seth with visions of traffic accidents when he turned to his i-phone again and started playing video games.

Ah, to be a teenager.

As we drove down the Shenandoah Valley I noticed a slight change in weather. Here snow dust covered the shadows, giving an eery feel to the place. Beautiful slopes, gracefully placed plantation-style homes showed white where dark should have been.

This bright blue shadowed scenery, with light yellow of dry grass seemed unchanged from the centuries past I?d imagined as I read Michener?s Chesapeake.

Shenandoah Valley
Shenandoah Valley

When Seth got tired of re-moistening the cables, I pressed the FM button. A public radio station from Roanoke warned listeners of a traffic problem on 81. In the northbound lanes a semitruck was blocking traffic about 20 miles north of Buchanan, at milemarker 267.

I had seen the sign indicating mileage to Buchanan and when I glanced at a mile marker I was able to state with certainty that in about two miles we?d see a wreck on the left. I also gave Seth a one-mile warning.

?Wow, mom,? Seth said when the line of tow trucks, police cars etc. came into view, ?how did you know that??

Did my child not hear what the guy on the radio had said? Did he not know what a milemarker was? Did he even know the name of the freeway?

Maybe his listening skills were nowhere near what his musical ability had suggested.

But I kept my doubts to myself and simply explained it.

When we got to Radford the sheer grandeur of the brickage indimidated Seth to the degree that he started to shake.

I pulled over to check my email.

?Oh, good,? I said. My friend from crew had responded. She?d had a son attend school here and indeed, she did have a lunch recommendation. We clicked on the link she provided and started following directions to the Riverhouse restaurant, located it would turn out, way the hell up a country road where restaurants do not normally hide. ?Overlooking the river. Of course.

We relaxed in front of a real fireplace with a real fire in it, stoked periodically by a real man wearing a real worn plaid shirt.

The waitress was a real student hoping to transfer to what she called ‘a real college’: Radford.

After deliciously greasy onion rings, a huge splurge item that would mark the occasion as one of import, as well as some hefty sandwiches we headed for the audition back at the brick emporium.

I dropped Seth off at the front door to face his demons and went on a parking quest.

After consulting with a young woman wearing a Radford-emblazoned sweatshirt who was walking a puppy, I left my vehicle in the hands of the parking gods, assured of its safety. Rural places are good for puppies, friendly people and parking.

Brickage of the torture chambers at Radford University
Brickage of the torture chambers at Radford University

When I passed through the double glass doors I spotted Seth in a seat across the large oval room. I sat next to him and noticed his tense posture was mimicked by about every third person in the waiting chamber.

My way of fighting the awkwardness exuded by teenagers is to talk. Or better yet, get someone else talking. The message I hoped to convey: ?Everything is going to be OKAY.?

My first victim was a woman of my own age and similar pudge-factor. We were just getting started yacking when her daughter emerged from the torture chambers looking relieved but not happy. The two left quickly.

With an empty seat between us I started in on the large, Norman-looking man next in line.


He spoke with that absolutely charming drawl of southern Virginia hill country. He annunciated each word with cay-uh.

He said ?paper,? for example, carefully pronouncing each of three syllables. ?Pay-uh-puh.?

Apparently most people with whom he converses are unlikely to be familiar with the term ?corrugated? because in his mind, it was absolutely necessary to explain what the term meant when referring to his prior occupation in box manufacturing.

I was fine with that, if he would just keep talking.

Silent Seth was listening, but I didn?t know it.

Soon the man, who periodically removed his knit hat to scratch his shaved head, was telling me about his high school football career, how the other boys made fun of him for also being one of a vast minority of males in chorus.

He had two daughters, ?Irish twins,? he said, explaining they were 11 months apart. The younger one, 18 and a junior in high school was applying for the art section of governor?s school. She is pretty good at drawing he said, but lacks confidence. The older daughter just produced his first grandbaby.

I congratulated him.

He told me he enjoyed coaching softball, but avoided the drama and personal details of the girls? lives.

He said about 300 kids were competing for 45 spots in the art program and although he had to drive 2 hours to get here, he didn?t really think his daughter had a chance.

I wanted to repeat what my son?s basketball coach had told him in elementary school about never making a basket if you don?t shoot the ball, but the man just kept talking.

And I kept listening.

Soon the daughter emerged, her number, 13 was not close to being up. She told him in a worried voice about what she had seen in the torture chamber.

I studied my i-phone.

They make you draw ? and they watch you, she explained.

?Don?t be nervous,? the man advised, ?just say a prayer.?

When there was a pause, I mentioned to the girl that everyone in the room was nervous. I also mentioned that her daddy had been telling me about her and that he was very proud of her. I got the feeling that he didn?t ever come right out and say that very often.

She returned to the torture chamber and the man began talking again, about anything. He was nervous too.

The music of his voice was extraordinary, the ups and downs and smooth graceful notes ? I wondered how this southern accent developed. It was certainly an evolutionary advantage.

When it became clear the woman at the registration desk had forgotten us ?it had been 45 minutes ? I suggested Seth ask again about warm-up rooms.

He was immediately led away down a long hall.

As he disappeared I realized he had neither Kleenex nor a bottle of water.

I murmured something to the southern gentleman as I pulled out a phone to find a bottle of water. The man whipped out a paper map and showed me how to get to the bookstore, which, totally unmarked, I never would have found.

I texted Seth when I returned but he didn?t seem interested in water. He wanted to know who else had shown up for the instrumental audition. I looked around the room, misidentifying two violin cases for tenor sax cases. ?One terrified black girl and one Asian girl dressed like a five-year-old, both carrying tenor saxes? I reported of the violinists.

An hour later Seth emerged with a relieved look on his face ? and a tiny smile.

He hadn?t screwed up.

During the interview section he?d revealed his passion for jazz and the interviewer had gone to a piano to play some blues chords. The two had jammed for awhile with Seth doing improv on his sax. Cautious hope was renewed.
I asked Seth if he wanted to drive and as soon as he had become accustomed to the freeway traffic as he drove north, only then did Seth comment on my conversation with the man in the lobby.

?Who does that?? Seth asked.

?You mean who yacks it up with total strangers?? I asked, explaining, ?I loved the way he talks.?

?No, who is proud of their pregnant teenage daughter??

?You mean who tells total strangers that their teenage daughter got pregnant??

That is easy.

?He loves her,? I said. ?We don?t know the details of the situation. We don?t know if she was raped, or what she is like … and we don’t know their culture. ?

But he is what a grandparent should be. He loves that grandbaby, which is exactly what it needs.

It?s that inner strand of platinum.


By Maile

Maile Field is a writer living in Northern California. Born in Hawaii and raised in Montana, she earned her master of fine arts in nonfiction at George Mason University in Virginia. She encourages constructive criticism.