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Teen-age subculture: a room of their own

By Marilyn Gardner / November 2, 1982



Many adults would agree with the conclusion of Robert St. Clair of Hopkins, Minn., a member of the board of directors of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, that ''the adolescent subculture has become such a dominant force in America. They have their own music, their own language, their own dress. They have their own customs. It's no longer what I would call a transitional stage - it's almost a separate state in its own right.''

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This is not the place to add to the volume of explanations of teen-age subculture - something beyond the interest of the teen-ager, and beyond the competence of the adult.

But it may be pertinent to ask what signals the teen-agers are sending through the means of their subculture, and what signals adults are receiving?

Teen-agers can be brutally frank about the reason for seeking out some of their ''scenes.'' Why do they flock in formation to the video arcades? ''The arcade,'' a 15-year-old girl in Rockford, Ill. explains, ''is just a place to get away from your parents.''

''It becomes a cult thing that kids can talk about and their parents don't know what they're talking about,'' says Russell Miller, a teacher in Rockford. The ''scene,'' obviously, is more than a physical getaway.

Behind the mysteries that so baffle and sometimes frighten adults seems to lie this desire of teen-agers to establish their own kingdom - the country of the young to which only they possess the keys of admission, where only they know the code.

Adolescent subculture sometimes bears a rough resemblance to the treehouse of childhood, where only the club members can climb. The limb would crash down if an adult tried to gain access.

Horror films, the occult, Mohawk haircuts, and roller skates - almost anything will do in a pinch to position the teen-ager as a race apart, puzzling and, if possible, shocking the adults.

Above all, there is that secret code-of-codes, rock music, known to many of the parents we interviewed as ''noise'' or ''that garbage.''

''If adults were able to hear the words,'' Dr. St. Clair says, ''I think there'd be a chance of an adult revolution in this country. There's some very trashy stuff, and I don't think the kids realize how much of an impact that has on their values. Musicians of rather mediocre talent can galvanize a group of a thousand junior high schoolers. Every school has four or five guys who could get in front of the student body and plug in their amplifiers, hit three chords on a guitar, and the kids would all just scream. It's very powerful stuff.''

But, he adds, ''There's so much distortion in the sound, with the volume and the pace of the music, that the words generally pass unnoticed by adults. I think sometimes by the kids too. The kids'll say, 'That isn't what it means. That's just funny. Nobody believes that.' ''

The criticisms of adolescent subculture are justified. A lot of it is, like its music, ''very trashy stuff.'' But there also can be a bit of a double standard applied by their parents' generation. A lot of the same mothers who terrified their mothers by squealing for Elvis Presley are now terrified by their daughters squealing for Bruce Springsteen or Billy Joel.

''If you examine it historically, every era of new teenagers has come up with some form of entertainment that has irritated the daylights out of adults,'' says Dean G. Berntsen, a high school principal in Minneapolis. ''That becomes part of the presumption that all of today's - and put any year on that - current teen-agers are a little bit crazy, and we weren't quite as crazy.'' He notes that ''the so-called best kids and the so-called worst kids all seem to like, in general, the same music.''

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, the Chicago critics who discuss new films on their TV show ''Sneak Previews,'' deplore the fact that even better films of the fantasy-cult - like ''Raiders of the Lost Ark'' and ''Superman II'' - offer their many adolescent viewers no adult role models except to become an acrobatic and combative adventurer or the perennial woman-being-rescued.

Good point. But what role models were offered by the westerns or private-eye melodramas the parents favored as teen-agers a generation ago? For that matter, how edifying is most adult entertainment today?

Parents with martinis in their hands and tranquilizer pills in their medicine cabinet are pointing fingers at teen-agers for inventing the ''drug culture.''

If the adult world gave teen-agers more of a role - adult model or not - they might not have to play all those games of rebellion in their tree-houses.

''If kids don't have something worthwhile to pursue, if there isn't something of significance to do, it won't work just to say 'Don't do it!' to drugs or alcohol,'' says Maureen Girard, one of the members of Carmel (Calif.) High School's Parents Who Care group.

''Probably the greatest need teen-agers have is to feel worthwhile,'' she concludes, adding: ''And that's the hardest need for adults to fill'' - partly because they are often less than certain what is worthwhile in their own lives.

The adolescent subculture cannot be isolated, as adults tend to do. It is a cracked mirror of the adult culture, and until adults and teen-agers can find a culture worthy of both of them to share, we will, as Therese Burke, a Needham, Mass. teacher puts it, ''misinterpret a lot of their rituals'' and continue to mistake symptoms for the cause.