REPORTERS ON THE JOB

By

For five monitor staffers, a week's return to high school was an opportunity to look deeply at one of the most important issues facing America: the stresses and successes of teenage life.

It was also a chance to once again experience that clammy feeling that there was some item of homework you were supposed to do that you've forgotten.

Sitting in an advanced-placement chemistry class one day, Kris Axtman - one of the three main reporters on the series - heard the teacher say something like, "divide that by Avogadro's number and multiply it by Faraday's constant," and realized that she had not the faintest clue what they were talking about it. In her notebook, she scribbled this: "Totally lost. What time is this class over?"

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This series took life in the first place because we wanted to deal with the anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in a fresh and unusual way. Rather than revisit the details of the tragedy, we thought readers might benefit from an extended look at US teen culture, the daily pressures adolescents face, and the efforts of a good school to help its students face those pressures.

To say that is not to belittle the importance of Columbine itself, and the sadness, hope, and anger that have swirled through Littleton in recent days. It stems, rather, from a belief that whole pictures remain important in an era when fear can travel the world before context gets its boots on.

We wanted to focus on a suburban, upper-middle-class school somewhat similar to Columbine. That would enable us to look at what some experts say is a generation of students isolated by parental and community prosperity.

After several schools agreed to cooperate, editors picked Naperville North in Illinois. It was chosen partly because Naperville is so demographically and economically similar to Littleton. Residents even remarked upon it themselves.

The Monitor extends deepest thanks to the administrators, teachers, and students of Naperville North for their generosity and openness with five strangers who parachuted into their midst. Reporters and editors tried to deal with privacy concerns in as sensitive a manner as possible. Parents or guardians of under-18 students shown in photos signed releases approving their use. In some cases, we decided to convey anonymity on students discussing their relationship with their parents or their personal experiences with drugs or sex.

The adventures and misadventures of the Monitor team itself will some day become an amusing miniseries, probably on Fox. Reporter Abe McLaughlin says that returning to high school was the most nerve-wracking experience of his professional life. Then he realized that he is now old enough to talk to even the coolest kids in school, while remaining young enough to not be regarded as "dolty."

Others on the team feel that perhaps Mr. McLaughlin is fooling himself in that last regard. They will also always remember the important calls he kept receiving on his cellphone regarding place mats and other details of his coming wedding.

Former Monitor staffer Craig Savoye was rehired for this series to provide the perspective of a parent of near-teenagers and a mature presence to connect with other parents and administrators. Writer Peter Grier jokingly introduced himself to a student at one point as McLaughlin's bodyguard. The student took one look at Mr. Grier's less-than-imposing physique and sarcastically said, "Sure."

Photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman says she loved how the students ignored her so she could take her affecting photographs. She admits she was so touched when she met the handicapped special-ed gym-class kids and their student helpers that she cried.

But the signal experience of the series? Kris Axtman got asked to the prom. At time of writing she had not yet selected a dress.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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