THE CU­RI­OUS CUS­TOM OF GO­ING STEADY

A vet­eran ob­server says that teenagers are miss­ing some­thing by pair­ing up – but they don’t agree

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - CAMERON SHIPP

When teenagers like each other, there are cer­tain ri­tu­als to fol­low.

Go­ing steady, as I re­mem­ber it in the North Carolina town where I was fetched up, was pretty much for grown folks. It meant that a girl was spoke for ­– ob­ject, mat­ri­mony. Thirty-five years ago, when I first be­gan to look at girls with alarm, young males con­sid­ered go­ing steady ridicu­lous. We thought a boy who’d get trapped like that was mak­ing an old fool of him­self.

How times have changed! To­day lit­tle boys and girls of 12, as well as big boys and girls of 16, go steady as non­cha­lantly as we used to stick pig­tails in ink wells. They have im­pla­ca­ble rules about it too. Their rites and cer­e­monies con­sti­tute a pro­to­col as for­mal as a min­uet.

Around my house, thickly pop­u­lated by teenage peo­ple, some mine, I am known as ‘Oh-Dad­dyYou-Don’t- Un­der­stand’. But I pay at­ten­tion and some­times I catch on.

Take Emmie, 15, and gor­geous. She went to a prom the other night. I asked her about it. “Have fun? Dance with lots of boys?” Emmie gave me a pa­tient look. “I danced with Jim.” “Every dance?” “Nat­u­rally every dance. It was real neat.”

This is how it goes. Many of ­to­day’s young peo­ple not only dance to­gether ex­clu­sively but go as ‘steadily’ as pos­si­ble in every other way. My re­search shows that there are sev­eral ways of do­ing this. There’s go­ing-steady-by-tele­phone, there’s go­ing steadily, just plain go­ing steady – and ‘go­ing ape’. I will ex­plain.

Take our friend Chuck up the street. He and his girl Mar­i­lyn are 13. Chuck trod a mea­sure or so with Mar­i­lyn at danc­ing school and found her, un­like most girls, less de­testable. “She smelled good,” Chuck told me, “like bread.”

Chuck walked Mar­i­lyn home from school one day. A week later she was wear­ing his ring on a chain around her neck. It is com­monly ac­cepted that they are go­ing-steady-by-tele­phone. I asked Chuck when he saw his girl. “Oh, I holler ‘Hi’ in the hall at school.” “You don’t call on her?” “Heck, no!” Chuck replied, clearly alarmed by the sug­ges­tion. “When do you talk?” “Why, gee, on the tele­phone, of course. Every night at 7.30. She does my health-and-safety les­son for me.”

Go­ing steadily is more dif­fi­cult to get at. As I dig it, Allen and Martha are go­ing steadily. Allen takes Martha to all high-school af­fairs and to var­i­ous birth­day par­ties to which he is ex­pected to fetch a date. Other­wise he ig­nores Martha, who is con­tent with the ar­range­ment. This is as far as ei­ther party wants to go.

Liza is a girl who goes ape – a phrase which means los­ing your head over some­thing. The

some­thing may be cars or Chi­nese food, a movie star or a boy. It is usu­ally a boy. Liza went ape over Lester, who sits near her in Ge­om­e­try I. Did she ask Lester to help her with her home­work or drop some kind of fig­u­ra­tive hand­ker­chief? Of course not. She told Betty, who asked Lester’s best friend if Lester liked Liza. She also told four other gi rls, who co­op­er­ated by teas­ing Lester about Liza. Sud­denly vic­tim of a con­certed cam­paign, he be­came blaz­ingly con­scious of her, re­alised she was ex­traor­di­nar­ily pretty – and cer­tainly ver y in­tel l igent to pre­fer him. They were go­ing steady in no time at all.

Go­ing steady – the full treat­ment – is the one with the taboos and rites. In a true case, a 16 year old has more obli­ga­tions than an un­em­ployed fa­ther of eight.

To be­gin with, he has to take the girl to every teenage func­tion. This means trans­porta­tion and, since the fam­ily car is not al­ways avail­able, he has to pro­vide his own – usu­ally a fifth-hand job. He has taught him­self to be an ex­pert me­chanic in or­der to put it in shape. He also toils af­ter­noons and Satur­days at some job to pay for the $ 400 his car costs.

For dances he pro­vides a cor­sage, av­er­age price $ 3.50. He pays $ 2 for the dance ticket. He takes the girl out af­ter­wards and feeds her. I talked with a kid we’ll call Jack­son, who said his to­tal ex­penses for the se­nior prom ran to $17.80. That isn’t all. If Jack­son wants to go steady with a real neat girl, he does well to earn a foot­ball let­ter. He puts this on a white sweater which costs $24 and the girl wear s it . Jack­son never gets to wear it at all. Be­tween foot­ball, work and so­cial obli­ga­tions, Jack­son must also be good at maths. He must call at Sally’s house every night and ex­plain her les­sons in qua­drat­ics. Also, he must tele­phone at least once dur­ing the af­ter­noon or early evening.

Sally’s obli­ga­tions? Sally wears Jack­son’s ring on that chain around her neck. She is ex­pected to wait af­ter each class for Jack­son to tote her books. She de­clines all dates with other boys. She beau­ti­fies her­self for proms and par­ties. Sally has got it made. Her so­cial life is a cer­tainty.

I haven’t men­tioned love, for go­ing steady of ten has lit tle to do with ro­mance. Some­times it has, of course, but go­ing steady is less a mat­ter of amorous­ness than of con­ve­nience, tribal cus­tom and so­cial se­cu­rity. Am I be­ing naïve? I think

Go­ing steady is less a mat­ter of amorous­ness than of con­ve­nience and tribal cus­tom

not. Bi­ol­ogy has al­ways been with us. Boys and girls fall in love. But noth­ing new has been added to it by go­ing steady.

One lady of 16 who sprawls a good deal at our house (not a daugh­ter, the poor­est pos­si­ble source of in­for­ma­tion) ex­plained a few things to me the other day: “It’s like this: There aren’t enough neat guys to go around. Oh, a girl doesn’t de­mand a big wheel, but she doesn’t want to bounce around be­tween queak s , does she?” (‘Queak’ means – I think – what ‘square’ used to mean, only squarer.)

“So,” my girl friend con­cluded thought­fully, “go­ing steady’s a good thing. You get to know a boy real well when you have life­time in­ter­ests and go steady with him for maybe three months.”

All told, I think they are good kids. Cer­tainly they are bet­ter scrubbed and in­formed than the pre­ced­ing gen­er­a­tion. They are not overly sex- con­scious. It is no longer con­sid­ered square to make good grades. And a girl does not have to smoke, drink or neck to be pop­u­lar – es­pe­cially if she wants to go steady.

But there used to be an­other real neat way. I know to­day’s kids would like it if they give it a chance.

In my well- spent youth no­body went steady. We paired off from time to time, but we also took care to cir­cu­late widely. You fetched a girl to a dance to show her off and to give her a good time rather than to hold her in your own arms all evening. It was your re­spon­si­bil­ity to start her off and see that she got cut in on of­ten enough to feel pop­u­lar. That way, a girl might go to a dance where she didn’t know a soul and wind up the belle of the ball.

A girl can’t en­joy an ex­pe­ri­ence like that to­day. This strikes me as a sad­ness and a shame. At least once, a lady of 16 ought to get a rush, en­joy the tri­umph and tuck away a warm and ten­der mem­ory she can smile over when she’s a grand­mother.

And a boy ought to know what it’s like to see his girl com­peted for. It makes a man in his teens feel im­por­tant.

But un­doubt­edly I’m an old relic of the past. The kids will only say, “Oh, Daddy, you don’t un­der­stand!” Cameron Shipp rose from a small-town news­pa­per re­porter in North Carolina to one of the best- known pub­li­cists and au­thors in the coun­try. He is known for his work on the US ra­dio show Fa­ther Knows Best.

A boy ought to know what it’s like to see his girl com­peted for. It makes a man in his teens feel im­por­tant

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