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Turning 14: A Long Distance Birthday Party

Do you remember your 14th birthday? I don’t. But I am sure that just about all that mattered was spending time with people my own age who didn’t live in my house. I probably unwrapped a couple cassette tapes gifted by family and close friends: Beastie Boys, Bon Jovi, Van Halen. Most likely, I ventured downtown with my Sony Walkman, strutting to music, quarters in my pocket, heading to Playland (the arcade was the place to be). Being quarantined at that age—especially in the mid 80s—would have been painful.

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Even though today’s teens have more ways to connect, it’s still crushing to celebrate a birthday during the pandemic. And though my daughter Maddie knows there are far greater things to worry about, that in the grand scheme of things, her birthday is not urgent or pressing, the situation is still upsetting.

When you’re 14 and trying to establish independence and a clearer sense of personal identity, being stuck at home for months is physically and emotionally confining. And Maddie was feeling this yesterday as she flopped on the couch in the middle of the afternoon.

I asked her how things were going.

“I’m bored,” she said.

“Yeah, I’m sorry your birthday is in the middle of this mess.”

“It’s ok. I feel selfish for feeling sad about it.”

I listened and couldn’t wait for 5:30 to arrive.

Maddie was oblivious to the fact that we’d planned two surprises for her. The first would be a parade of honking and waving from teachers, family, and friends. The second was a video compilation of messages and movies made from all the important people in her life. I somehow managed to keep both things a secret. And when Maddie and I sat on the front porch to play cards at 5:30, the fun began.

The energy, smiles, and laughter of the parade was electric. Maddie bounced and waved, getting as close as possible to the cars without making contact with anyone. Her friends held signs out of sunroofs, threw gifts onto the front lawn, and looped around the block to smile and wave again and again.

After we settled back inside, I told her we had one more surprise.

We watched a 20-minute movie filled with messages of love, shared memories, and hilarious videos crafted by aunts and uncles, starring Maddie’s adorable younger cousins. There were skits by her grandparents, and a beautiful song penned and performed by her youngest aunt. By the end, we were all wiping our eyes. Except, of course, Maddie’s 15-year-old brother, who refused to participate in the video.

But, to our surprise, he handed her a gift he’d put away over a month ago for her birthday. Taped to the box was a handwritten card. Coming from him, this was a monumental token of generosity.

Maybe, when we’ve been robbed this long of personal connection with friends, just being showered with direct messages of love and appreciation cracks us open.

If nothing else, our quarantine birthday party idea was a memorable one. As Maddie caught her breath and continued to thank and hug everyone in the house, she said, “I never thought this could be one of the best birthdays ever.”

David Rockower is a teacher and freelance writer. He has published articles in The Washington Post, Education Week, Your Teen for Parents, and is a regular columnist for State College Magazine. His book is titled The Power of Teaching Vulnerably: How Risk-Taking Transforms Student Engagement.

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