THE CURIOUS CUSTOM OF GOING STEADY
A veteran observer says that teenagers are missing something by pairing up – but they don’t agree
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