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Dinner with a Statistic

My younger son, Evan, turned five yesterday. Each year we let our boys pick a restaurant for their birthday dinner. Evan always picks Benihana. He likes to watch the chef cook our food at the table, and artfully toss a shrimp tail on top of his chef’s hat and in his shirt pocket. It’s a performance.

When you go to Benihana if you have only four people, you share your table with another group. At our table were three young women and a newborn baby in an infant car seat. The restaurant is down the street from Piedmont Hospital, and I’m guessing the Mom had just checked out of the maternity ward, and was celebrating with her friends on the way home. The baby looked only a day or two old.

The young women called over the waiter, and asked for the children’s menu. For a micro-second I thought, “they’re ordering food for a new baby??” My second thought was, “That kids’ menu is for people twelve and under! What are these young women doing trying to get away with ordering the kids’ meal?” But then I looked at them more closely, and it dawned on me. They were certainly lying about their age, but not by much. They were probably 14 or 15.

You can’t help paying attention to people at your same table at dinner. The young women (or girls) laughed and gossiped over dinner. They each pulled out their cell phones at least five or six times to get and receive texts. They hassled the waiter that Benihnana’s Americanized version of Japanese food wasn’t Americanized enough for them.  They protested, didn’t the waiter hear them when they asked for no vegetables? They acted, in short, like typical teenagers.

As we went to leave, I congratulated the Mom and told her how beautiful her baby boy is. They all wished Evan a happy 5th birthday. But all I could think about was what lays in store for their boy, and what his 5th birthday will be like. And the girls’ birthdays, when they turn 15 or 16.

My PhD student Betsy DiSalvo and I run a program called Glitch Game Testers, designed to help economically less advantaged urban youth choose to pursue higher education in computer science. I hear about our teens’ struggles directly and indirectly all the time. But I have the privilege to almost always see them at their best, in a context that makes me hopeful for their futures. I’ve always been happy that we’re trying to help. I left dinner last night despondent that we’re not doing enough. You read about the statistics, but you don’t often have dinner with them.

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