Bridges are rites of passage for people and their vehicles, crossing rivers, highways, and otherwise impassible places. Growing up in small town rural Indiana, they were rites of passages in another sense too. Kids on the verge of growing up spent time beneath them, engaging in activities– namely booze, drugs, and sex. However, the biggest attraction of these bridges was that they were gathering places for teens to discover themselves, to come of age, and try on adulthood for a little while.
Beneath Four Arches, Dunbar or Crows Bridge, kids congregated via word of mouth to pass the time, connect, converse, play cards, gossip, and simply hang out. There were no official gatekeepers or rigid rules for who could join the club. Cheerleaders, jocks, pot heads, greasers, geeks, trailer trash and country club brats met and mixed at night and during the day, on weekends and week days. These bridges were ideal places for teens to get away from the prying eyes of adults, and to explore behaviors that mark the end of childhood. Not just smoking and drinking, but discovering.
Now a lot of this discovering would have made parents cry. Children were conceived and lungs were contaminated. But it was still a safer place than the backs of pick up trucks or older friends’ houses and apartments where adults preyed on the young and the restless.
There were other options too, but not all that many. Here in the city, bridges belong to the homeless and destitute. Kids can go to movies, bowling, museums, cafes, music venues, theaters, roller rinks, parks, shops, malls, ice rinks, and community centers to come of age, though certainly experimentation goes on in basements and side streets, parks and cars just like it did in my small town.
Frankly, kids need places to go and grow away from the prying eyes of parents and other adults. They need to be in situations where their decision-making skills are tested. But they also crave stimulation and sensation. They thrive on it. Drugs, booze and sex might be the easiest ways to get high, but they are not the only highs available. Being with friends, free to talk laugh without lines marking what is acceptable and what is forbidden, is how kids learn about themselves and each other. You can see it in the exchanges on Facebook, the virtual playing ground beneath the bridge–kids exchanging thoughts and comments, poking fun of each other, discussing music, sharing experiences in snippets and code words that baffle their parents.
Parents ought to be comfortable with some befuddlement. Sure, they need to talk to their kids too, ask questions, set guidelines, and be firm, dolling out consequences when required. But if they don’t allow their kids to find some time to make decisions and choices, they will have deprived them of an important part of youth, that part that requires them to practice the tricky balancing act taking them on their rite of passage, the bridge from childhood to adulthood.