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Swarms of Bees and Teenagers

Veena Thomas

I can’t tell teenagers apart anymore.

Maybe I’m far too young to make such a comment; after all, I’m eighteen, a teenager, going on nineteen, still a teenager.

But two weeks ago, my best friend and I went to the mall for a few hours. Neither of us really had any purpose in shopping; we simply went to hang out. This is rare for me. When I was younger, I would go to the mall with my mom and gawk at all the older kids in big groups, strolling around. My mom never approved of this, which became imprinted in my consciousness, leading to a strange aversion to hanging out in malls.

But my aversion suddenly became clear to me as I watched the swarms of teenagers at the mall. Yes, I mean swarms.

I recently saw an exhibit on bees and how they live. A colony of bees and their honeycomb was kept between panes of clear plastic so visitors could observe the bees. Bee colonies consist of the male drones, the female workers, and the queen bee, in charge and worshiped by the rest. Pictures demonstrated how all the drones were identical, as were the workers, and only the queen bee stood out, being slightly larger than the rest. Of course, it’s very hard for a tourist to spot one slightly larger bee out of hundreds, so the museum had conveniently marked the queen with a small yellow dot on her back.

None of the teenagers at the mall were marked with a yellow dot, but everything else corresponded. (Actually, among bees, the male drones are referred to as the “lazy bees,” but I have no interest in starting a gender-difference war, so I’m going to leave that comparison untouched.)

Most swarms consisted of both males and females. Each guy in the swarms had on a T-shirt with an unbuttoned shirt over it, or they were wearing a shirt with a prominent chest stripe, and many sported a trendy necklace.

The girls were even harder to tell apart. Each girl, whether she was twelve or nineteen, wore a tank top and short shorts, and accessorized with a shopping bag from one of the trendy stores at the mall. Most had their hair pulled up into a casually messy bun.

To the casual observer, the members of each swarm might look to be on the same footing. But a trained people-watcher could observe someone in each clique standing a little taller than the rest, walking with a bit more confidence. These were the leaders of each group. Slap yellow dots on them and call them queen bees.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve noticed the similarities. A few weeks ago, I sat with two friends on a bench outside a movie theatre and people-watched. For twenty minutes, literally every girl who appeared to be between the ages of twelve and twenty, who entered the theatre, was wearing a tight camisole and flared jeans. Every girl. It was rather frightening: a whole army of teenage girls in uniform, taking over the nine o’clock showing of The Runaway Bride.

I never seem to match; at the theatre, I was wearing a black T-shirt and shorts. As I stood in the middle of the mall, teenagers swarming around me, I felt slightly out of place in my black long-sleeve velour shirt and non-flared jeans. But quite frankly, I liked it that way. I’m no slave to fashion. I wear what I like, and it doesn’t usually correspond to what’s trendy at the moment. I don’t like being a walking advertisement for any store. I pride myself in being true to myself, and fiercely independent, so why would I want to hide that by dressing exactly like every other teenager at the mall? If I don’t like it, I’m not going to wear it.

I suppose there’s safety in numbers, comfort in knowing you look the same as everyone else, no better, no worse. Few will tease you for wearing exactly what everyone else is wearing. You’ll be congratulated by your peers, all wearing the same thing, for having good taste, like the song “Summer Girls,” which says “I like girls who wear Abercrombie and Fitch.” Sure they do; they’re probably wearing the same thing. And so a swarm forms.

I’m content on my own. I may be eighteen, and therefore a teenager, but I’m old for my age. I don’t need a swarm; I’d rather be free to fly my own path. I can’t be a queen bee without a swarm, and I certainly don’t stand taller than the rest, but I’ll be the one in the mall that you can distinguish from the rest, walking with confidence, my head held high, and fire in my eyes. I don’t need a swarm to give me that.