Rewind: 1983 — On the Edge of Adolescence

by Jess Burnquist

I turned 12 in the spring of 1983. In honor of making it to my maximum middle age, I'm writing 12 reflections about that momentous time when one foot remained lodged in childhood and the other began to tiptoe toward adolescence. If the stars align, these reflections will culminate with the year that I graduated from high school. Come visit 1983 to 1989 with me — we'll make mixed tapes and if the spools get tangled I know a trick or two. It'll be fun! Let's rewind. 

REWIND: 1983, Part I

At recess the girls pulled combs out of boys' back pockets. Mad games of chase would ensue. Then, we girls would head back to the shade cast by one of the ash trees near the four-square courts. The boys collected on the steps under the overhang of the elementary school.

"Did you see how I totally ran slow so Jimmy could catch me?" 

"Yeah, and did you see Russ try to grab Laura's butt?” 

“What? That's nasty.” 

Before the bell rang, we would plan our evenings and the upcoming weekend. Perhaps there would be a sleepover at Marlo's house — a bonus because she had a pool and her older sister had a cute boyfriend. It was likely that his friends also in high school might show up for us to spy on and whisper about in overt and annoying ways. Or maybe we'd go to Michelle's house. Her mom made the best pancakes, and we could drop the boy talk to play jacks or color fashion plates. 

Sixth grade remains in my mind a pristine stretch of the dusk between childhood and adolescence. It was the year that I discovered music my parents didn't listen to first. It was the last year I would ever ask for a doll as a gift. It was the year before my body got in its own way. I could run fast, faster, fastest.

I knew some girls who shaved their legs but that act felt years away. I knew some girls who had started their periods but they weren't at the point of wanting to share their experiences with that particular entry into womanhood.

When I realized that I would be 18 in six years, a pit would form in my stomach — half fear, half desire. When I realized that six years in the past I had been in first grade, the world tilted. Time was becoming a force not to be ignored. 

Recess crushes were largely innocent. Sometimes, though, the crush became intense enough to risk calling a boy on the phone. This was never done alone. Best friends, boys included, would huddle and develop a plan. We might run through a script in case a parent answered.

"Make up an excuse! Tell his mom you're calling to get the math homework."

Typically, if a parent did answer, we'd hang up in a dead sweat panic and collapse into a fit of giggles coupled with exasperation. If the intended answered, there might be five minutes of stunted and awkward conversation plus lots of shushing of the friends nearby. After hanging up the infatuation would remain or a fickle heart would turn.

At Margaret's house, later, we might dream aloud about our futures in junior high, high school, and beyond. Blondie, Journey, The Go-Gos, or Michael Jackson played in the background and our talk would drift into sing-a-longs. 

Read more: Top 10 Most Memorable Lyrics from the '80s

It was the year of the neighborhood. 

We were old enough to ride our bikes to one another's houses. Porch lights flashed on every street in parental Morse code signalling that it was time to get home, do homework, chores, eat dinner. Divorces brewed in so many of those homes, including mine. But we were mostly young enough that we could imagine our way out of that strife and pedal into less turmoil without gripping the handlebars of anger or therapy.

Around the corner of time, our friendships would fracture into groups that we didn't have much say in defining. Some friends were destined to reach heights of traditional popularity. Others would seek solace or adventure in drugs and alcohol. There were athletes who hung out exclusively with their teammates. And I would eventually find my crowd — artists, musicians, gifted geeks. But that was later. 

For one glorious year, 1983, we were interchangeable — like Garanimals outfits. We coordinated coats of pre-teen angst over layers of childhood. At recess, I could play chase with the boys and after school still feel completely content writing and illustrating stories with my best girlfriends.

All of us were on the cusp of something we couldn't articulate but we also inherently understood that adults weren't going to be the legends on our maps much longer. Whatever this was, we kids were in it together.

When nostalgia knocks and I think about that time — those friendships — they seem crystallized in a pureness that isn't quite uncontaminated. From this distance and vantage point, I can now make sense of so many benchmarks during that transitional year and to my surprise, as well as to my delight, much of that year remains steeped in mystery and a tinge of magic.

So, 1983, I'm coming for you. I'm about to travel back your way. This begins the reminiscence, exploration, and homage to my 12th year of life. I hope, dear readers, that you will take this journey with me and comment with versions of your own pivotal year between childhood and adolescence along the way. 


Jess Burnquist teaches high school English and Creative Writing in Arizona. Because she has a teenage son and daughter, she is literally surrounded by adolescents 24/7. Sit with that for a minute. Her writings and teaching blog can be found at