PREPARING FOR MARRIAGE. Marriage class

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

They are young and married and successful. Successful enough, at least, to walk into a local real estate office on a Saturday morning as newlyweds and buy a house, just like that.

But then, why not?

After all, he's a brain surgeon. She's a lawyer. And life is meant to be lived. Now.

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Well, maybe not immediately.

Because in reality Kristen Krupski and Billy Woodman are still seniors at Needham High School in a western suburb of Boston. Their ``wedding,'' ``new house,'' and ``high-paying careers'' are mere fantasies - dreamed up as part of a unit on marriage in their psychology-sociology class.

By giving students ``real life'' assignments like this, rather than textbook examples, teachers hope to encourage them to think about the economic and emotional realities of marriage.

Kenneth Holt, a social studies teacher who developed this course in 1969, cites a 50 percent divorce rate as evidence that some education - some practical preparation - for marriage is badly needed.

There are classroom seminars about such special topics as children, sexuality, dual-career couples, and finances. Values are introduced into the discussion by visiting members of the clergy.

But it is outside projects - centering on budgets, housing, and groceries - that often provide the best lessons. Here, says teacher Alan Otis, students learn the first lesson of marriage - seeing choices from the other person's point of view.

Thinking of ``we'' instead of ``I'' doesn't rule out thinking expensive - and this may be a commentary on American middle-class values. While Kristen and Billy were choosing their house, Amy Prensky and her ``husband'' were selecting a Jaguar.

Tom Griffin and his ``wife'' included such ``entertainment necessities'' as a 60-inch television, a Jacuzzi, and a video camcorder as they shopped for appliances. And classmates Kim Patkin and Tom Dorgan filled a grocery cart with $179 worth of food for a week.

Profligate spending may not be exactly what Mr. Otis had in mind when he gave the assignment. But these high-flying dreams in this middle-class suburb are consistent with a growing sense of economic power and entitlement evident among teen-agers throughout the country.

In a survey conducted last fall under the auspices of the American Council on Education, three-quarters of college freshmen listed being ``very well off financially'' as a ``very important'' reason for going to college. Twenty years ago, by contrast, 83 percent of students listed ``developing a meaningful philosophy of life'' as very important.

Dr. Holt confirms the changing attitudes.

``Our students are much more money-oriented now,'' he says. ``They want lavish homes and expensive cars. Cars are very important to them as status symbols. They talk about 50-year mortgages and say, `It's just rent.' In the early '70s they followed the model of their parents, which was to pay off the mortgage. That was an accomplishment of married life.''

Behind the dream houses, the fantasy cars, the wishful thinking about huge salaries, Holt and Otis detect far more serious student concerns, often expressed in a wariness about marriage.

Holt recalls a conversation a year or two ago in which one boy told him, ``I always thought my mother and father were the ideal marriage, and that's what I wanted. Then they got divorced. Now I'm not sure I can trust marriage.''

``Kids see no reason to trust marriage as a lifetime commitment,'' Holt says. ``So they enter it talking about `what if,' instead of something that will be part of the joy of the rest of your life.''

In Holt's early years of teaching the course, teen-agers seldom discussed living together. Now, in classroom polls slightly over 50 percent of students claim living together is a valid test for a marriage.

Students are also interested in premarital contracts, a subject that never came up earlier. ``They're very conscious of what's `mine' rather than what's `ours,''' Holt says.

Even in the form of ``let's pretend,'' the game sobered up the big spenders as they went along. Kristen explains, ``Before this, I had no idea what you would do to start to buy a house. And when we walked out of the real estate office, we said, `Oh, my gosh, how could we ever raise that much money?'''

For all their talk about top-of-the-line purchases, teens are more conscious of budgets than they were a decade ago, Otis reports. ``When they see what it would cost to live in a place like Needham today, they're shocked.''

In some instances, that shock translates into a renewed appreciation for students' own families, and finally an awareness that what it takes to support a family goes far beyond finances.

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