I walk on by this cute little Gaithersburg pet store, and what should I see on the door but an orange cardboard sign reading “Children under 16 MUST be accompanied by an adult at all times. Thank you.” So, naturally, I expect an explanation for this, what with my mental ageism detectors going off and all.
I go right into the store and wait a bit until the employees, or at least ones I could readily identify as employees, were no longer busy with customers. Got to be polite, you know. It’s rule number one. I looked at the cute puppies for a little while until the employees were behind the counter, not with a customer, and not on the phone. Good. What with waiting for them to be available (and getting my own cell phone call while waiting, so I had to leave the store to worry with that), I began to worry I’d back down. After all, I’ve never had much of a confrontational nature. Nope. I was determined now. Or, well, not so much determined. Just set on it for the moment.
(the following is definitely not an exact quotation, nor am I confident things are in the best chronological order, but as best as I can remember it, so trying to analyze the dialogue for hidden meanings or patterns is pretty useless)
Me: “I have a question.”
Me: “I couldn’t help but notice you have a sign on your door saying anyone under 16 must be accompanied by an adult. Why is this?”
Clerk: “To keep unsupervised kids from running around and bothering the animals.”
Me: “Fourteen and fifteen-year-olds run around and bother the animals?”
Clerk: “It’s happened. Yes.”
Me: “Is this legal, though? To forbid people from entering the store based solely on their age? I’m not so sure it is in this state.”
Clerk: “Yes, it’s legal, for an establishment like this with animals and all, to prevent kids from messing with stuff or anything.”
Me: “Don’t you think that’s a bit discriminatory?”
Me: “Really? I mean, you’re essentially telling a group of people that simply because of their age, they are not welcome in your store.”
Clerk: “Well, you have to be at least 16 to buy any of the pets, so anyone younger wouldn’t be able to buy anything in the store, so they’d really have no reason to be here.”
Me: “Not true. I see over there you also sell aquarium decorations. Now I hardly see why something like that requires the buyer to be at least 16.”
Clerk: “If a kid drops one of them and breaks it, they need the cash to pay for it.”
Me: “Of course, but that’s true of anyone.”
Clerk: “Also, you can’t work until you’re 16.”
Me: “True. Usually.”
Clerk: “And we’ve had groups of kids coming in here without an adult and tapping on the glass tanks and bothering the animals, and we can’t just let them do that.”
Me: “In that case, it is the behavior that needs to be dealt with, not the age of the customers. You already have plainly visible signs asking people not to tap on the glass or make loud noises or anything. Disregarding the rules should be grounds for telling anyone to leave, plain and simple.”
Clerk: “Well, we have to control it somehow.”
Me: “I totally understand. I just feel like the way you’re doing it is by singling out a group of people and treating them like they’re less than human because you assume they’ll automatically misbehave here because others in this group have. You wouldn’t tell any other group of people not to come into the store unattended, would you?”
Clerk: “Well, no, of course not.”
Me: “Right. Yet for some reason it is considered okay to do so to certain people simply because they have not lived a specified amount of time yet. But anyway, just thought I’d ask about that. Oh, and there’s an organization I’m with that deals with that sort of thing in general. It’s called the National Youth Rights Association. Website’s at youthrights.org. You should check it out if you get the chance.”
Clerk: “Uh, okay.”
Me: “Well, anyway, I suppose I’ve taken up enough of your time. Just thought I’d mention that.”
Clerk: “One reason we do kind of need to have a sign like that is to cover ourselves for liability purposes and such. But if a 14 or 15-year-old is in here by himself and is quiet and isn’t a problem, we certainly don’t throw him out. It’s really just those who are loud and such. Plus we get some using all kinds of foul language even if there’s families in here and such.”
Me: “I understand. But people can be loud and obnoxious at any age, right? I know I’ve encountered them. In their 30s and 40s, even. Ha! You should hear my dad when he’s had a lot to drink! And I’ve known plenty of 14-year-olds that were more mature than some 34-year-olds!”
Clerk: “I’m sure you have. But we have had several groups of misbehaving and unattended kids in the store. This is the only way we can deal with that right now.”
Me: “I know. But, like I’ve said, it is the behavior that is wrong, not their age. *pause* Well, thank you for your time and discussion. *shakes hands with clerk* My name’s Katrina.”
Clerk: “I’m Mark.”
Me: “Nice to meet you. Bye!” *leaves store*
The preceding dialogue remained calm, low-toned, cool, and frank the whole time. No anger. No evident frustration. None of that unpleasant stuff. I left the store with the most electrified feeling I’ve had in a long time. I had never defended youth so point blank, so thoroughly, and, even more astounding, having pretty much provoked it! And think of it! I hadn’t slept in 22 hours. Also, I have to hand it to Mark the Clerk and the female clerk who spoke a few times during the conversation as well, but said the same basic stuff he was. They listened to me go on and on. They didn’t tell me to leave the store or get all nasty with me or anything. Sure, they disagreed, and I never expected to bring them over to our side of seeing things, but I’m certain they might at some point give it some thought. I do question whether or not I should have mentioned NYRA at all, though. In retrospect, perhaps makes the whole thing look too much like a staged ploy, which it couldn’t have been further from. I’ve even thought that, as a sign of general good faith aside from my politeness and calmness, I should have found something in the store to buy. Who knows?
On my bus ride home and thinking over the whole thing, aside from being absolutely flabbergasted that I had done this at all, I realized I had seen a side of the youth rights movement I often forget is there. Sadly, these days, I spend so much time in my house and moderating the NYRA forums that I tend to forget there is so much more to the movement than our quirky message board. There’s our opportunities to make ourselves heard, to be right there to be heard. I’ve regretted never taking such an opportunity, for three whole years, when I was in Salisbury, MD, for college, when this party shop just off campus sported a sign “Children 16 and Under Must Be Accompanied by Adult”. Never once did I go in there and ask what the deal was with that. If I remember right, the sign disappeared sometime during my third year there anyway, but I still didn’t feel right for not stepping in there and asking about it. I would not expect anything close to what these pet shop clerks got from me today, though. Back then, I did not know any active youth rights movement even existed. Today, however, having been with NYRA a year and a half, armed with over a year’s worth of pro-youth talking points, I was way more ready than I’d have ever thought I would be. Truly, this was an opportunity to speak out. Such opportunities come in all sizes, be it Alex Koroknay-Palicz’s Fox News appearances, to NYRA-Berkeley’s road signs, to a Brooklyn student receiving a rude response when asking a local wholesale store why they don’t allow under-16s in their facility, to Alexis Grant’s powerful voice echoing the Bethesda Chevy-Chase High School auditorium, demanding that, as a teenager, Maryland lawmakers take her input and that of her peers as well into account when they make and change age-based traffic laws. Be it grandiose or petty, you, a flesh and blood human being with a larynx as opposed to an anonymous nickname on some computer screen, are telling them, whether one million people or just one, in some issue or another, that youth need more rights than they already have because such is the right thing to do.
The grandiose speaks for itself, but what about the petty? What’s so great about ambushing two unsuspecting pet shop clerks with all these pro-youth arguments? Aside from bringing these two people to thinking about the subject (probably), I’ve done for myself, an avid youth rights supporter, what I already mentioned after the dialogue. I gained this spark from the encounter. It’s easy to sit around all day posting to the same old agreeing folks on our forums, but to actively defend the rights of youth in person, let alone inciting the whole thing yourself, requires some major burst, a drive, a passion, an uninhibiting force to push you out of the safety of silence and into the rough of the millions of tiny, scattered youth rights battles everywhere and all the time. In my case, it was whatever uninhibiting force comes with lack of sleep! What will it be next time? When will it happen? How grandiose or petty will that encounter be? How will it have changed now with my brief experience in that pet shop? We’ll see.