AUSTIN, TEXAS — Talk with Derrick Bryant, and you might feel as if you've stepped back to a more innocent time. This quiet, athletic senior is grateful to his parents for giving him food, a safe home, and encouragement to study hard. And he's not afraid to say thank you, now that he has two colleges to choose from next fall.
"Saying thanks is pretty important," says the tall senior, standing in the busy hallway at Austin's Travis High School. "If you don't tell someone thank you, they might just go through life not knowing you're grateful. It's good to reinforce it."
If you don't recognize Derrick from the evening news, it may be because he is one of those American teens who negotiate the mean streets with wholesome values and a penchant for gratitude. He and his friends are more likely to pray in church than prey on the weak. They volunteer willingly at church and school, look up to their parents, and pursue their educations with the goal of finding good careers. And according to some striking statistics and recent public opinion surveys, the Derricks of America are a less-visible but growing majority.
Consider these numbers:
* In a Gallup poll released yesterday, 40 percent of teens said they expressed gratitude to others "all of the time," with nearly 78 percent saying they express thanks to God or a Creator at least "some of the time."
* Teen pregnancy is actually on the decline. Incidents have dropped 12 percent in the past four years, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. The drop was even steeper for black teens, down 21 percent.
* Fifty-one percent of teens told The New York Times pollsters that they got along with their parents "very well" in a recent survey. And 89 percent said that when they go out they have to tell their parents where they are going.
For pollster George Gallup, who conducted the nationwide survey on gratitude for the nondenominational Dallas group, Thanksgiving Square, the results aren't all that surprising.
"I don't think it's anything new, it's just going in the opposite direction than people expect," says Mr. Gallup, founder of the Princeton, N.J.-based Gallup polling group. Such good news can get lost amid the tragic headlines, such as the recent killing spree in Jonesboro, Ark., but Gallup says the bottom line is that most American parents are giving their children a moral framework to help them negotiate today's more difficult problems.
"People have not gotten worse," he says. "The problems have."
To be sure, America's teens experience a world quite different from that of their parents. According to a survey conducted last year by Public Agenda, nearly 4 out of 10 American teens know someone who uses drugs daily. One out of 5 said they come across violent street gangs every day. And while 65 percent said they get an encouraging word from an adult almost daily, nearly a third of teens said there is no adult at home when they return from school.
"Ten, 20, 30 years ago, you didn't see most of these issues; they weren't even on the map," says Margaret Dunning, spokeswoman for Public Agenda, based in New York. "So now people are asking, 'Where are the parents?' And if parents are failing, then the public says, 'Let's have the schools inculcate these values.'"
For Matt Robeson, a junior at Travis High School, school-teachers have provided the kind of parental encouragement that he can't get at home. He moved out of his parents home a few years ago and struck out on his own.
One dynamic teacher in particular, Jacqueline Spiser, helped Matt turn his life around. She sparked his interest in broadcast journalism, and today, he is executive producer for a school-run TV program that airs on a local TV station.
"She's more than a teacher, she's kind of like a parent to me," says Matt, his blond ponytail tied neatly in the back. "She's connected me with a lot of job opportunities and scholarships. She's there when I need her."
Elizabeth Fabian, a senior at Travis High School, says she'll carry the moral lessons her parents taught her all through her life. And she felt so grateful to her English teacher, Miss Hettenhausen, for helping her pass the English proficiency requirement for graduation, she bought her a bouquet of flowers.
"I think it's very important to say thank you," says Elizabeth, wearing a bright orange hall-monitor vest as a swirl of classmates bustle past. "I think a lot of kids want to do it, but they don't have time. They have jobs to go to after school. It's hard."
Travis principal Nelda Howton says these kids aren't the exceptions; they're the norm.
"I think you have to change the expectations: If you expect them to be good, they'll be good," says Ms. Howton. It hasn't always been easy; gang activities have been lessening, but last year, two kids were wounded here in a gang-related shooting. Even so, she adds, "the majority of our kids are religious ... and they are the most giving kids and staff I've ever seen."
Indeed, some observers argue that Americans, and their news media in particular, could afford to change their expectations about today's teens.
"When you have 78 percent of teens saying that they express thanks to God or a Creator, that shows that we have not lost our course in the world," says Gallup. "It's reassuring that people are not feeling that they can handle it all themselves. That's the most disastrous element of the 20th-century mindset."