"I Was Never a Teenager"

by Dean Stockwell, as told to Aljean Meltsir

Motion Picture, February 1958


On the morning of March 5, 1957, I woke up a few minutes after 11, pulled on a pair of slacks, washed my face, shaved and breakfasted on half a bottle of milk, about the only thing I could find in the refrigerator. Barefoot, I leaned against the sink and toasted myself with Grade A homogenized milk. It was my 21st birthday.


According to the laws of the land, I was no longer an irresponsible, unstable, troublesome teen-ager. I was permitted to get married without asking anyone's permission. I was permitted to vote. And I had the legal right to get quietly drunk in the corner booth of the nearest bar.


On the evening of my 21st birthday, I did none of these things. I went to a movie by myself.


I didn't laugh any more or any less at the movie than if I had gone to see it the night before. At midnight after the show I wasn't any hungrier or any less hungry than I usually was. At the drive-in where I stopped for a cheeseburger, I didn't eat any more French fries or any fewer than I would have eaten the night before. The car radio wasn't turned any louder or softer, and the music I listened to was the same music I had liked the night before and the week before and the month before; and, when I drove home, I took the corners a little too fast as I always did.


But one thing was different. I was no longer a statistic neatly hung on the walls of someone's office. I was no longer a name bunched together with a couple of million other names on a piece of somebody's graph paper to make a "delinquency curve" or a "non-delinquency curve." I was no longer a "thing" to be pinched, prodded and pinpointed by a lot of educators, PTA lecturers and psychologists who had never even met me. I was no longer a "teenager."


But I was NEVER a "teen-ager." And I don't think anybody else ever was either. At least, not in the way that the rest of the world seems to use that word. Because the rest of the world doesn't use the word "teen-ager" to mean a girl who is 15 years old or a boy who has just had his 18th birthday. To the rest of the world, the word "teen-ager" seems to mean a group of people who have to be lumped together like stale peanut brittle and appraised in articles or surveyed in lectures every few weeks.


You've read the articles as many times as I have:


"All teen-agers conform to the desires of their chosen in-groups."


"All teen-agers wear leather jackets, prefer their blue jeans skin tight and ride motorcycles."


"All teen-agers own hot rods and drive them too fast."


Other people are just as positive that: "All the teen-agers in this city go to church on Sunday and spend their afternoons working at the local orphanage."


"All teen-agers are shy and lovable."


"All teen-agers are healthy, innocent and full of high spirits."


Depending on the particular article that you are reading, all teen-agers think only about "sex," or "football," or "world affairs," or "rock and roll," or "how to change the ratio on a compression engine."


All teen-agers are "well-coordinated," or "lazy," or "energetic," or "insecure," or "rebellious," or "trustworthy," or "untrustworthy," or "arrogant," or "the future saviors of the human race."


You can take your pick.


The one thing that nobody seems willing to recognize is that people in the teen-age group are simply and merely human beings in a state of growth, just as people between the ages of 70 and 80 are simply and merely human beings in a state of growth. TEENAGERS ARE PEOPLE NOT PART OF A "TEEN-AGE PROBLEM."


A couple of friends of mine went to a movie at a small art theater the other night. The theater was crowded, and they were stopped at the door by the manager and told not to make any trouble.


"What do you mean?" one of them said.


"I don't want any rough stuff in my theater."


"What the h . . .?"


"Cut it out, George," the other guy said. "Let me handle this." And then to the manager, "Look, we paid a dollar and a half apiece to see this movie. What makes you think we paid that money just to tear up your seats or throw popcorn at each other?"


"Yeah," George added. "Do you warn all your patrons about making trouble, or did you stop us just because we're teen-agers?"


The manager admitted that he was wrong and apologized. But he had only been doing what most adults do. They're so busy classifying teen-agers the way they would classify butterflies that they don't realize that "teen-ager" is merely the name for an awful lot of different individuals who happen to be the same age.


Some teen-agers go to movies because they are interested in going to movies. Some teen-agers play chess. Others don't know how to change a flat tire. Some 17-year-old boys win amateur boxing tournaments, while others win prizes for baking the best cherry pie at the state fair. Sure, most teen-agers "conform to the desires of their chosen in-groups," but so do adults. How many middle-aged businessmen do you know who would wear Bermuda shorts to a formal dinner? But who sits in judgment on all businessmen because they "conform to the desires of their chosen in-group?"


Are blue jeans any more of a uniform than colored shirts with a Brooks Brothers suit? Are most teen-age clubs any harder to join than most country clubs?


I have never wanted to never been able to classify or pigeonhole people. People have always been just "people" to me not "young people" or "old people." I see a person as an individual and talk to him as an individual. I could cheerfully drown some children I know, but some of my best friends are real little tads 4 or 5 years old.


I suppose that one reason why I feel so strongly on this subject is because I have so often been classified in the minds of people who have never met me. I was "Dean Stockwell rich, spoiled, conceited young Hollywood child actor" to people who assumed that all child actors must be rich, spoiled and conceited. Among the people who classified me this way were some of the students and teachers at a Los Angeles public high school.


When I was 16, I went to a public school for the first time. I had nothing in common with most of the other students. It wasn't my fault or their fault. Between the ages of 7 and 15, I had made 22 or 23 motion pictures. I had worked from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., six days a week - including Saturdays. The three hours each day that I went to school were spent in a schoolroom on the MGM lot.


I never had time to learn how to play football or how to clean a carburetor. A lot of my classmates were aware not of me, but of my reputation. I was a movie actor. Because of this, I was ignored, left out of things and treated more or less as an oddity.


It has only been in the last few years that I have realized that I WAS an oddity that everybody is, to some degree, in some way, an oddity. Maybe not different on the surface the way I was. But underneath the surface, every person I know is fantastically different from every other person I know. It is this fact that the writers of articles about "all teen-agers" don't seem to remember. Even if most teen-agers do wear blue jeans, so what? The long telephone conversations, the drag races, the leather jackets that are rightly identified with the teen-age years are really just outer shells that tell very little about the real person underneath.


Two people can wear the same sort of clothes or even try out for the same position on the football team for very different reasons. I knew two boys who played tackle on the high school team. One simply liked to play football. The other one hated it and was trying to prove to himself that he wasn't a coward. A girl I dated joined the dramatic club because she thought acting in a school play was the best way to get herself known so that she could run for secretary of the senior class the next year. Another girl joined the same club because she was scared to speak in public and was trying to force herself to overcome her fear.


There are people with problems who are 15 or 18 years old, but there are also people with problems who are 50 or 80 years old. Turning 21 doesn't automatically end all those problems. In the last eight months, I have done almost as many reckless things and stupid things that make me ashamed as I did in the eight months before my 21st birthday. And if a 16-year-old boy has to free himself from his parents' control, is his problem any more difficult than that of a 72-year-old woman who has to learn how to die?


Teen-agers have a heart, two lungs, two legs, one nose and ears like everybody else.


Perhaps if more people realized this, there wouldn't be so much of a "teen-age problem" to write about.


(Dean Stockwell stars in Bryna Productions' The Careless Years, and is currently starring in the Broadway play, Compulsion).


The End