— For one day last year I got to be “17 Again,” like the main character in the movie of that title. OK, I didn’t really go back in time, but I did unexpectedly spend around 24 hours in the mindset I had at that age.
It started when I learned a friend of mine was working with my old high-school crush and it hit me that Crush Girl might be a good source for a magazine article I was writing. Talking to her, I figured, would also give me the chance to right an old wrong. Back then, I’d been too nervous and lacked confidence to say much to her and I’d always regretted it. But now that I was reasonably successful and still looked pretty decent, this time would be different.
Except it wasn’t.
As soon as I heard Crush Girl’s voice mail, all the old teenage anxieties flooded back. I really did feel 17 again. My positive thoughts (see above) sounded like a Stuart Smalley pep talk. Sure, I’ve had some success, but it’s not that impressive. And yeah, I look OK, but I wasn’t exactly Brad Pitt to begin with, was I?
But wait. The adult me isn’t a self-doubting George Costanza. A few months earlier, I’d had no problem talking to another high-school crush, Deborah Harry, for an interview. So hitting it off with the world-famous Blondie came easy, yet here I was sweating over Ms. Teen Crush.
Hollywood taps into these conflicted feelings we have about our teenage selves in films such as “17 Again.” You can see the love-hate relationship adults have with their pasts played out again and again in similar movies such as “Freaky Friday” (both versions), “13 Going on 30,” “Peggy Sue Got Married,” “18 Again,” “Like Father, Like Son” and all three “Back to the Futures.” These movies tap into our desire to be young again and play on our fear of what might happen if we really did go back.
Between my Crush Girl experience and seeing previews for “17 Again,” I wondered why it’s those teen years that stir up such emotions. I mean, why not childhood, the era Sigmund Freud claimed all our problems stemmed from? Or why don’t films have characters go back to their 20s when most people get married? To get answers, I sought out opinions from experts in an assortment of areas of teendom.
The first person I tapped was the most obvious: the screenwriter for “17 Again,” Jason Filardi. Filardi says he chose the age of 17 for his character because he “always thought there was a movie in the saying, ‘If only I knew then what I know now.’” He says his film centers on a character at 17 because “it’s about going back to a time in your life where you make some decisions that really foretell which direction your life is going to take.”
Filardi also admits that for him personally, those years were the most fun. So he’d want to go back, then, you’d assume? Uh, not exactly. “I wouldn’t want to be 17 again because of the awkwardness of it all,” he admits. “From the pimples to thinking you’re too cool to show feelings to girls because you think it’s weak.”
Wow, who would ever do that (cough, cough)? Anyway, I asked Filardi if he ever wishes he could go back and redo something from those days. Would he change a hasty decision, like he has his “17 Again” character do? Were there any affairs (ahem) he didn’t pursue?
Uh, no, he says. But he wishes he hadn’t broken his thumb during baseball season: “I always wanted to go on and play college baseball. In my senior year I was the captain of the baseball team.”
No thanks for the memories
Ah yes, captain of the baseball team. Gee, what a shock. Not. My younger brother was captain of the baseball team. And a few years after I struggled to come up with an opening line for Crush Girl (which I never did find), he happened to meet her little sis and they started dating. Immediately. I never felt competitive with him later in life, but this one incident always bugged me.
But, hey, lucky for me, my feelings are totally normal! Or so says David Rubin, a Duke University professor of psychology and neuroscience. The Harvard University graduate coined the phrase “autobiographical memory bump” to explain why studies showed our adolescent and post-adolescent memories carry the most significance for us.
We remember those years so well, Rubin says, because we do so many things for the first time then, like drive a car or fall in love. He says he also sees this “bump” in autobiographies. So if our memories are that vivid, maybe we really do want to go back. What about you, doc?
“No,” he states emphatically, but with a laugh. “I teach at a college and see these guys and I see what they’re going through. It was a wonderful, exciting time, but it’s not the easiest time of one’s life.”
But looking back on age 17 is about more than funhouse mirror memories, says Dr. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and author at Rutgers University. Because of the way the brain develops in adolescence, we actually experience more intense emotions, she says, and so we get more intense memories.
“The cognitive areas (of the brain) are not fully developed until late teenage years, and of course, social relationships are certainly not well developed,” notes Fisher, who is also an author. “And (teenagers) have not yet fully developed all the cognitive processes to deal with these strong emotions. They have no skill set from experience. So the emotions are sort of rattling around being profound and thus we remember them.”
Fisher also adds that although she had some good times at 17, she wouldn’t go back. She cites dealing with “too much passion, too much anguish and too much panic over school work” as the reason.
Rock ‘n’ roll high-school redux
Passion. Anguish. Panic. Kind of sounds like the feelings experienced by characters in one of Sarah Dessen’s books. Dessen is a Young Adult novelist who has mined her own teenage memories to conjure eight Young Adult novels (with a ninth due out in June). When it comes to creating popular art from teenage recollections, she’s the go-to person.
Dessen, whose novel “Just Listen” was a New York Times best-seller, says our teen years are “such a wild rocky ride” that they offer an unrivaled wealth of inspiration. “I think that’s why I’m drawn to that period and keep going back to it,” she says. “I always think there are a lot of other things that have happened to me since high school I’d also like to write about, but for some reason I keep getting pulled back in.”
Dessen also says she wouldn’t want to go back to being 17. “High school was very fraught for me,” she says. “There was a lot happening and I obviously have a lot of material to draw from or I think I probably would have moved on from it by now.”
But she does go back in her mind. In fact, Dessen’s writing process seems to embody the “memory bump” Rubin spoke about. For a lot of her plot lines, she says she recalls an old conflict and wonders how she could have better handled it. “What if I had been able to do this at that moment instead of doing what I did?” she asks rhetorically. “What if I had had the perfect comeback instead of just standing there speechless?”
Hmm. Standing there speechless and regretting it. Tell me about it. And so my journey to the center of teen angst was almost complete. But there was still one opinion I needed to get: that of the Ramones. Yes, the Ramones. The legendary New York punk group’s diatribes on the travails of teenarama had help shape my mind in high school.
Tommy Ramone, the band’s sole surviving original member, says the group behind “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” was able to write about that era so well because they were able to mix adolescent memories with emotions from that period that were still raw.
“We had no trouble thinking like teenagers — we understood the world of the teenager,” says Ramone. “What that did was open up a broader spectrum (for our writing). In other words, we were more worldly, but we still understood totally the tastes and aesthetics of teenagers. We didn’t have to pander to them. We were sort of immature in our own minds.” Ramone also says he enjoyed being 17 but wouldn’t go back.
And that was that. So would I really want to be 17 again? 17 might be a very good year, as Frank Sinatra once sang, but seems better to remember than live through. For all the nostalgic value of those time travel movies, no one I spoke to wanted to be 17 again. And if I had to do it again, I’d maybe go back to age 21, but not 17.
I have a good reason, too. At the end of my “17 Again” day, I never did return Crush Girl’s call. I didn’t like thinking that I might lapse back into the teenage me while talking to her. So I e-mailed her saying I didn’t need her as a story source after all. Bye!
It was only when I came back around to reality I realized her message had opened with the words “very nice to hear from you” and her tone had sounded friendly. Oops. So much for getting it right the second time. But then it’s hard to make rational decisions when you’re 17 again.