What’s So Special About Being 17?

I just turned 21, and to me that is the climax of birthday celebrations. I am now legally allowed to do almost anything in the United States—except rent a car, for some reason. The landmarks and rites of passage of adolescence have all been crossed out and I am now in the bright, glaring headlights of adulthood. And that is scary. As I look back at the past 20 years, I remember all the major life events: Disney World, learning to ride a bike, first kiss, prom, high school spring break, welcome week of college. I have waved my arms above my head and gone “Woooooo!” through all of these essential life events, and now I am left with my hands in my pockets wondering what to do next. Like many people I find the best way to deal is to procrastinate, and one easy way to do this is to just dote on the past and obsess over what part of life I would like to go back to. For some reason, I keep going back to junior year of high school, when I was 17. And I don’t seem to be the only one.For me, 17 was the time to make a lot of stupid, but exhilarating, decisions and go through the hellish procedure of preparing to apply for college. I spent most of my junior year filling in standardize test bubbles or having what seemed like epic adventures at the time, which I now use as ice breakers at parties. Not really book or song material, right? Wrong!

Seventeen is the media world’s go-to age of bittersweet reminiscence. The apparently important age has its own magazine (that I think only 14-year-olds read), but that isn’t all. At 17, Holden Caulfield went through a lot of heavy stuff. It is also the age that most transformation movies have their agitated adults relive—like in “Never Been Kissed” and “Seventeen Again.” In music, 17 also comes up again and again. “She was just 17, and you know what I mean?” crooned the Beatles. And who can forget Stevie Nicks’ classic, “Edge of Seventeen,” or Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen”?

So what’s the big deal with the number 17 that makes it such an emotional goldmine? I may not have the years of experience yet to speak about this, but 17 seems to be an age of extremes. At this age most of us were deeply entrenched in high school—by this time, all of us had decided if high school was the ultimate hell hole or the best years of our life. At this point in life, there are two types of people:

  • A: You’re a person who was content and comfy in the land of secondary school. You had it all—a car to drive, financial support from your parents, a group of like-minded best friends who lived within a 5-mile radius, and a healthy case of raging hormones. Life was good, and at 17 you were beginning to understand that things weren’t going to be so easy anymore. You had to start tracing the outline of that big, scary, indefinable thing that is the future. Maybe your parents started teasing you about how soon you would be supporting them for once. So it was at 17 that you unconsciously (or maybe no so unconsciously) started savoring one of the last years of a freedom that wasn’t complicated by taxes, online dating, car insurance, and wedding showers. Now you have those deliciously simple memories of high school stored up to look back on as a time you could get away with almost anything.
  • B: You’re a person who was tortured and tired of being stuck in the ridiculous hierarchy of high school. Seventeen became the age where you had passed the halfway point and the way out was becoming clearer by the day. Hallelujah! The last three years were an unfortunate trial of seeing if you could survive dealing with people who are the definition of superficial, brain dead, and pathetic. College and the world beyond was a chance to escape and see those people you despised in high school try to make it in a world that didn’t revolve around them. For you, it was a chance to meet the people who understood how horrible the past four years had been. From 17, your life seemed to get better because you had the expectation of the bold and fresh future. Now you may look and smirk at how much more enjoyable just about everything is today.

Sure there are shades of gray in between, but one type should stand out more to you than the other. Seventeen is an age that can easily be divided into good or bad for almost everyone. Some of these people go on to write books or songs about how it absolutely blew or was a complete fairytale. What was your 17 like? A Taylor Swift-ian series of fluffy school dances and relationships? Or a Holden Caulfield-esque downpour of lost emotions and misunderstandings? Share your best and worst 17-year-old stories in the comments.