ANKENY, IOWA — Since the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., the world that teens inhabit has been portrayed as a dark place of cruel cliques and lonely children. There's some truth to that, as Monitor writer David Holmstrom found during a week-long visit to Ankeny, Iowa (population 25,000). But there's more. What follows is a day in the life of four juniors - three boys and a girl - at Ankeny High School (1,177 students).
Austin Lamb arrives first, a little after 7 in the morning, dropped off by his mother on her way to work. Breakfast is a Pop-Tart eaten in the car. He steps outside, wiry and unsmiling, wearing a black "Star Trek" T-shirt, and enters the building under a sky of dishwater gray.
Ankeny High School.
Maroon and gold.
The heart of Iowa, seven miles north of Des Moines, a suburban school of excellence, offering one of the premier athletic and academic programs in the state.
Austin heads for the social studies resource center to talk to a teacher there, read, or hang out until 8:10 a.m. when first period starts. He's still angry at being banned from using the computers at the media center.
"They said I was playing games, but I was doing research about games," he insists, describing himself as a computer nerd faced with a school administration that is a "little too fascist for me."
His goal is to become a game programmer. At home he plays the games currently in the national spotlight like Dungeons and Dragons, Doom, Quake, and Final Fantasy Seven.
Next, Ben Schreurs wheels his dark green '97 Grand Am - a gift from his parents - into the parking lot. The shootings at Columbine are on his mind this morning as he parks alongside other cars in the lot.
He eases his 6-foot-5-inch frame out of the car. A starter on the basketball team, and a high jumper who can clear 6 feet, he enters the low brown building, heading for his locker. He wears his favorite yellow Tommy Hilfiger shirt. A number of colleges have written letters to him, hoping to gain his basketball skills.
After Columbine, like many students, Ben caught himself looking over his shoulder in the halls a few times, a strange feeling for an 18-year-old who has a trusting, easy manner, and loves children so much that he is a mentor to a boy in middle school.
"We have guys here who could do that," he says of the tragedy in Littleton. "They hate athletes. They think athletes run this school."
More cars arrive, most turning left off Ankeny Boulevard into the crowded lot. Kirsten Buck, her long blond hair spilling over her shoulders, parks her garnet-red '91 Mazda near a tree.
She's a little worried about the advanced college-placement history test later this week, a four-hour session with two essays. If she passes, she'll have fewer courses to take in college.
Kirsten's sunny, ambitious attitude toward school is to do it all - a cheerleader for the basketball team, piccolo and flute player, marching band, drum major, chorus and swing chorus, a volunteer at Circle of Friends (for children with head injuries), a DARE role model, runner on the track and cross-country teams, competitive speech, National Honor Society, and, playfully, the history of Jell-O for a final presentation in speech class.
"I like to keep busy and make a lot of friends," she says, seeing T.J. Tollakson, her boyfriend of a year and a half, mostly on the weekends.
Last to arrive in his blue-green '95 Mitsubishi is Kellen Huston, a stocky athlete at 5-feet, 11 inches tall, a runner and swimmer with a "passion for football." He'll be the starting quarterback next year for the Hawks, even though he played defensive back this year. Letters of inquiry from colleges are starting to arrive, one recently from Kansas State.
On this day he's wearing an Old Navy shirt and cool blue tinted glasses over his contact lenses. He makes his way to his locker as the noise level in the school rises.
"I'm one of the rare jocks who has a softer side," he says. "I like to see plays and go to more serious movies." But he makes clear he understands football. Describing his style as a defensive back, he says he's a "hitter, one of the special breed" that coaches like.
First period: 8:10 a.m.
When the bell rings, Kellen walks down a bustling hallway to his favorite class, chemistry, and sits near Ben.
Kirsten shuts her locker, and heads for band, describing her teacher, Charles Brizzi, as "one of the best band teachers in the nation."
Austin sits in pre-calculus, expecting to be bored, although his friend Dan Skinner, who shares a love of computers and video games, sits near him.
Each Thursday afternoon they drive to a hobby store in Des Moines and play the Star Trek Customizable Card Game with up to 1,000 cards used. It's a chess-like game so complex that tournaments between the best players often last over four hours.
"Mainly I do computers and video games," says Austin, who has won local Star Trek tournaments, "but the card game is fun and keeps me strategizing."
The halls are empty now, except for stragglers; some classroom doors are open, some closed. The daily measure of how well these four juniors perform is under way. At 2:55 p.m. - eight periods later - the academic day will end followed by a blaze of competitive team sports or practice.
What these four teens value and believe as adolescents is not wholly locked into place yet. School shapes attitudes along with the impact of family, friends, community and the techno-media culture buzzing around them.
"Students today are so visually oriented," says Robin Fields, a popular journalism teacher. "We do many projects in my classes," she says, "and the best ones are always the videos. It's the MTV generation, but the downside is that kids don't read as much as they used to."
Second period: 8:56 a.m.
Ben and Austin move on to US History where Ben's big end-of-the-year report focuses on how the atom bomb changed the course of history.
Kirsten goes to honors US History in room 434, and Kellen hunkers down in American Lit, his least favorite class. "I know how to communicate," he says, "so why do I need all this background of literature?"
Ankeny High School was built in the '70s, with an eye on energy savings. Thus, none of the classrooms have windows. Still, the facility is well-kept, random walls are splashed with blue, orange, and red, but no graffiti. The main halls are spacious and carpeted.
You won't find much spiked hair, tattoos, or metal-studded leather jackets here. But short hair, designer labels, and understated T-shirts are as plentiful as the late-model cars in the school parking lot.
"Decent but not too nice," is Kellen's axiom for clothes. "I think it's important to look presentable to people," he says, pointing to his "substitute" necklace. "My favorite gold one broke," he says." Would he ever wear an earring? He grins. "My dad would rip it out."
"My parents say that school is my job," says Kirsten, who is a top student too, and is not rewarded for good grades by her parents as some other students are. She wants to be a pediatrician.
"School is fairly easy for me," she says, "but managing my time is the hard part. I sometimes wish I could relax a little. I thrive on activities and when I don't have something going on for an entire week, I get a little antsy."
Ben smiles when asked later if he values school, and says, "I actually like school, but don't tell anybody . Basically, my parents won't put restrictions on me until I give them a reason to, which hasn't happened yet."
Third period: 9:58 a.m.
Austin goes to Computer Graphics, and the other three head for Concert Choir to prepare for a trip to New York's Carnegie Hall to sing with other high schools. But Kellen will stay behind for a track meet because he is a key relay-team runner.
Austin describes himself as "probably an outcast," and is defensive about his reputation as contentious. He recalls vividly what happened earlier this year when he dared to challenge the school's policy of mandatory attendance at afternoon pep assemblies for athletics.
After protesting to the administration that he didn't like sports, and disliked being forced to attend the rallies, he was told it was either the pep assembly or a seat in the school suspension room during the assembly.
"They think we should idolize football players," he says of the assemblies that are designed to foster school spirit. "I don't like it, so my friend and I started sitting in the rallies and yelling 'sports sucks.' I was shoved, hit and pushed. Some of the jocks told me if I did it again they were going to meet me after school, but they never did anything."
Although Austin's mother, Leslie, supported his stand, few people saw the rebellious outbursts as acts of courage in a sports-dominated environment.
"We talked about the consequences that might result from his stand," his mother says, "and was he willing to accept those consequences. He is a neat kid, and very creative."
"I think a lot of kids don't want to be there," Austin says of the assemblies, "but only a couple of kids said publicly that they agreed with me."
But the school also includes recognition of nonathletic accomplishments. "The assembly is still mandatory," says Gary Ratigan, Ankeny's principal, "What we did was to broaden the recognition at the rallies of programs other than athletics, like the dance team, our jazz band, and the debate team - which was state champion this year."
Austin isn't impressed. "The school is always telling us to not be violent," Austin says, "yet they yell at the assemblies that they are going to kill the other team. To me it's hypocritical."
Kellen and Ben, who work out each day, and live for football and basketball respectively, shrug at Austin's protest. "He needs to broaden his sense of life," says Kellen "I don't stand up and say, 'computers suck.' "
Fourth period: 10:44 a.m.
Between classes, Kellen always returns to his locker. "I don't like to carry books around," he says. In Spanish, he sits either in front or the middle. "I never sit in the back," he says. "You're out of it there." Spanish has been a challenge for him, he says, but that hasn't kept him from A-level work.
Ben and Kirsten prefer sitting toward the front in classes, and Austin likes the left side at the back, but some teachers say he should work harder. "Austin's a very bright kid," says Charles Lierman, European History teacher. "If he applied as much effort to his classes as he does to the Star Trek card game, he would be doing much better."
By now lunch period is only an hour away. Hunger and reverie start tiptoeing through levels of classroom concentration. Mrs. Fields, who has taught 10 years at Ankeny, says there are three things usually uppermost in student minds: their friends, concerns about plans after high school, and how to get a car.
Austin looks forward to July when he will be old enough for a driver's license. His father, who lives in northern Illinois and just started a telephone-distribution company, has an old car waiting for him. "A definite help for summer job hunting in the computer field," says Austin.
Kirsten and Kellen have lined up jobs as lifeguards for around $7 an hour, Kellen at the YMCA and Kirsten at the local community-supported aquatic center. Ben will help mow a golf course for $6.50 an hour and work seven days a week for awhile.
For Ben, perhaps the most outgoing of the four students, working for his father's construction company over the years has helped shape his work ethic and attitude.
"He's been around a lot of adults from an early age," says his father, Lee, "and he's figured out from them what it takes to get a job done."
Lunch period: 12:09 or 12:54 p.m.
Austin gets lunch money from his mother every day. Food is not important to him, and he buys randomly - pizza, hot dog, or whatever is being served that day.
Kirsten sits in the noisy cafeteria area known as "The Pit" and eats a bagel and milk with about 10 girls, some of whom she has known since grade school.
"Some are old friends who party on the weekends," she says, "but they are still my friends even though I don't do that. My boyfriend is really my best friend. We can talk about everything."
One of Ankeny's two Learning Center teachers, Roger Rohwedder, stops his work to discuss the issue of partying and drinking at Ankeny.
"I think we have an alcohol problem here," he says bluntly. "We have a lot of kids who drink, even the ones we say are good kids. There are parties at houses all the time on weekends. Word gets around big time when parents are out of town, and we have a lot of empty, remote fields around here, too."
Ben, who says he doesn't drink, questions whether it is as widespread as Mr. Rohwedder claims.
"I know it happens on weekends," he says. "Some parents don't really care. Because I think of myself as an example, I wouldn't want kids to remember me because I got caught drinking. It's stupid. One of the guys on the basketball team got caught over the summer and wasn't allowed to play in the first three games."
Kirsten, who thinks drinking is fairly common among teenagers on weekends, says the strongest influence in her life has always been her parents. Her father is an art teacher at another high school, and her mother works at an elementary school.
"I know some teens have much more difficult lives than I do." she says. "If your parents don't care about your life, then I guess you don't care either."
Ankeny guidance counselor David Kissinger, who has been advising teenagers for 24 years, is convinced that it isn't teens who have changed over the years. Parents have.
Seated in his office overlooking the media center, which would have been called the library 20 years ago, he says, "Sometimes expectations at home now aren't nearly as high as they are at school.
"Kids want to be loved for what they do, and to be told 'no' and 'yes,' and that doesn't happen from parents as much as it used to."
Seventh and eighth period: 1:29 to 2:55 p.m.
After lunch it's harder to concentrate unless the teachers, who these days are part concierge, mentor, and entertainer, know enough to sprinkle the time with a little humor.
For students like Kirsten, Ben, and Kellen, who are popular and academic achievers, their home life echoes the encouragement they find at a school where some 75 percent of graduates go on to a four- or two-year college.
Ben says his family - mother, father, and two sisters - eat together nearly every night in their contemporary home a few miles from school.
Kellen's father, who manages a steel plant in Des Moines, sets a good example for him. "He's the hardest working man I know," says Kellen. "And Steve Carstenson, my concert choir teacher, is unbelievably intelligent. He can grab a hold of you and make you think at different levels."
Austin's mother and father divorced when he was a baby. "I see my Dad on holidays sometimes," he says. "I'm friendly with my uncle who has a really demanding job as a systems administrator at John Deere, and my grandpa has a business making cabinets. Sometimes I help him on the weekends."
Asked what he values most in life, Austin pauses, staring at the table in front of him. "My skills," he says, slowly, "because they can get me places. If my house burns down, and I lose everything, I still know everything and I can get a job and get it all back."
Kirsten's angle of approach on life runs on one track. "Accomplishment," she says, and adds with a laugh, "You have to have fun too."
None of the four work regular jobs.
Austin usually grabs a ride home with his friend Dan, or they go to Dan's house "If it's Tuesday," he says, "we'll watch 'Star Trek.' " On other days it could be "Dr. Who" on TV, or video games or reading the science fiction of L. Ron Hubbard or Terry Brooks.
Ben's schedule is fairly consistent: 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. is track practice with plenty of stretching, high jumps, two of three miles of running and some sprints. A weight-lifting session follows; then basketball practice by himself for an hour followed by more weight-lifting. "I dedicate my life to basketball," he says.
For Kirsten, the chance to run long distances on the track team is a "chance to get in touch with myself," she says. "It's not easy for me, but I've learned that my mind is much more powerful than my body."
With Kellen nearly everything is secondary to football. He confesses this afternoon that a less than sterling performance at a track meet a week ago was because "I maxed out on weight lifting for football the night before." Now tipping the scales at 178 pounds, he wants a little more strength and bulk.
In the quiet of his room at home, Ben ends his day usually between 10:30 or 11 p.m. After homework, e-mailing his friends, and catching SportsCenter on ESPN, Ben prays for his grandmother who recently passed away. It is the first time he has had to grapple with the death of someone close.
"I pray for her a lot," he says quietly, "and I pray for my grandpa, and I pray that my whole family stays healthy and good."
Kirsten is usually in bed between 10 and 10:30 p.m. "Sometimes I do a little reflection about the day," she says.
And depending on school projects, Kellen calls it a day around 10:30 p.m. "Sometimes I'll just sit and ask myself why something is happening, and try to understand it spiritually," he says.
For Austin, a last check to see if there might be any unopened e-mail, a short walk to his bedroom, and lights out.