Labor Day’s done, and now comes the annual ritual at the school bus stop across from my driveway: tiny children with Elmo backpacks, brand-new sneakers, and too-short haircuts, hopping up and down with excitement as their moms try not to weep and their dads record it all with the family video-cam. Yes, it’s the first day of kindergarten, an American rite of passage if ever there was one, the first bona-fide step away from home and towards adulthood, or at least as much adulthood (i.e., solo trips to the restroom) as can be credited in five-year-olds.
Farther up the street, at the bus stop for the middle schoolers, it’s a slightly different story. They’re righteous and rammy and slugging one another with abandon. They’re almost-big-kids, with their parents relegated to the next driveway, holding coffee cups instead of cameras.
At the top of the hill is the stop for the high school bus, and there’s nary a parent in sight – except, perhaps, that anxious mom with a freshman daughter, slumped down in the parked minivan where she hopes no one will see her. These kids are barely awake, languidly texting as they wait, while one couple elevates their morning pulse with a tangled kiss or two. There’s a jaded, been-there-done-all-that air to this bus-stop, which is of course blown away by the speeding (waaaaaay over the limit), honking cars driven by lucky juniors and seniors, freed forever from bus-purgatory by drivers’ licenses.
But there are other rites still ahead for those seniors: SAT’s, prom, college applications, and graduation. Looming ahead are college and jobs, first houses and mortgages, marriages and babies, and the whole cycle begins again.
Such are the milestones for modern American kids: first day of school, first boyfriend/girlfriend, first cell-phone and driver’s license. There are zillions of others, of course, from first solo in the ballet recital to first home run in Little League, the first sip of forbidden beer to a whole lot of other forbidden things that parents would rather not think about. While three years separates my own son (21) and daughter (18), they’re both excited about an upcoming first that they’ll share at the same time: voting in a presidential election.
All of which made me think of the big events that marked transition in the lives of young people in the past, say, two or three hundred years ago. School was seldom in the picture, especially school beyond the barest basics. If your father was a farmer, that first step towards maturity could be the first day you were deemed old enough to go out in the fields to work for the day, instead of being kept at home to help with your mother’s chores, or, if you were a girl, the first time you were considered responsible enough to oversee the kitchen fire and midday meal.
In my three historical novels, the 17th century women who became my heroines were considered self-sufficient at ages that would astonish modern mothers. Sarah Jennings (Duchess) was a maid of honor in Charles II’s court soon after her thirteenth birthday. By the time she was nineteen, Barbara Palmer (demurely painted as a teen-aged bride, left) (Royal Harlot) had already left behind her country upbringing, conducted passionate affairs with several different gentlemen, married, and become the mistress of the king of England. Youngest of all was Nell Gwyn (King’s Favorite), who had found her first “protector” at twelve, and four years had become the most popular comic actress of her time.
If you were a boy of a higher rank, perhaps the most important first step would be your “breeching”, the shift from wearing a babyish gown to breeches like the men, or perhaps it would be the first time you were permitted to ride a proper horse instead of a pony. If you were a girl, it could be the first time you were allowed to wear your hair up, or to attend a party with dancing at a neighboring inn.
Depending on your family’s circumstances, your father could sign apprenticeship papers that would take you away for years to learn a trade. He could send you into service in a rich man’s house, or give you over to the enlistment officer for a career in the military, or marry you off to a suitable mate.
If you lived near one of the new mills or factories, your father could find you a job working dawn to dusk, even if you were only seven years old, and contribute your earnings to supporting the entire family. If you were more enterprising, you could bid farewell to your family forever and emigrate to a foreign land –– America, Australia, India –– where fortunes could be made and land was free for the taking.
For wealthy, titled offspring, the landmarks were grander. Young gentlemen would leave behind the family schoolroom for public school, and a grand tour of the Continent afterwards, to be followed, perhaps, by a maiden speech in the House or overseeing an estate, or a younger son’s honorable career as an officer or clergyman. For young ladies, a Season in London would be crowned with a match, and a marriage, and the serious career of being a wife, mother, and mistress of the household.
But on the whole, people haven’t changed much. Whether 1808 or 2008, rich or poor or in between, the goal for parents remains generally the same: to see their child become a contributing, useful member of society, to find both security and happiness. It’s only the paths and the stops that mark the way that have changed with time, and with each individual, too.
So what was a favorite “rite of passage” for you –– an event or moment that you were sure changed your life? Was it something that seems charmingly insubstantial now (getting your ears pierced, or taking the subway without an adult), or one of life's perennial biggies, like marriage or the birth of your first child? What was it that signified that you were at last on your way to being a “grown-up”?