Teens and the adults around them
ASHLAND, ORE. — It was something she read in John Steinbeck's "East of Eden" that struck Megan Harrington when she sat down to write an editorial about student shootings for her high school paper here.
"The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears ... and with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection ... and there is the story of mankind."
This allusion to the Cain and Abel story, Megan saw, also could be read as a universal warning. Citing Steinbeck, she then urged students, teachers, and parents here "to be more accepting ... taking time to get to know those around them."
Strained relations between generations seems to be "the story of mankind." But in these bewildering days of Littleton, Colo., and Conyers, Ga., how kids and adults view one another has become a clue - maybe the key - to helping resolve school violence.
The general view of teens is decidedly mixed.
When asked to describe teenagers, 71 percent of those polled use words like "lazy, disrespectful, or spoiled," according to a recent survey by Public Agenda, a nonprofit research organization in New York.
Only 15 percent use positive descriptions such as "smart, curious, and energetic," and just 38 percent of the public believes that when teens grow up, they are "likely to make America a better place."
Much of the public seems to agree with Allan Saxe, a political science professor at the University of Texas in Arlington and a regular columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, who recently declared that "the present generation of young people has got to be the luckiest and most spoiled, coddled, over-psychoanalyzed, remediated, medicated, thoroughly consoled generation in history."
In loco parentis
A trip to the woodshed may no longer be seen as proper treatment for youthful misbehavior, but adults in authority are exerting greater discipline around the country. The Massachusetts Board of Education last week voted to require public universities to notify parents when underage students are caught drinking.
"It just makes good sense," said Chancellor Stanley Koplik of this partial return to the days when schools away from home acted in loco parentis. "Parents want to know when there's been behavior by their son or daughter that will jeopardize the academic career and certainly the public safety of the individual."
Georgetown University, Clemson University, Indiana University, and the University of Delaware now have similar notification policies.
Thirteen states have implemented graduated licensing systems, measures that restrict driving privileges for the youngest drivers.
In Texas alone, more than 100 bills have been filed that would limit the activity of teenagers - things such as getting parental consent for body-piercing or having an abortion, limiting driving privileges, imposing automatic detention for fighting on a school bus.
The philosophy behind such moves has become part of the congressional discussion as well. In arguing to raise the legal age to buy a handgun, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois said last week, "I'm just saying 21 is basically a standard of adulthood...."
Responsibility of adults
On the other hand, defenders of teenagers say adults should look in the mirror to see the root of adolescent problems.
Mike Males, author of "The Scapegoat Generation: America's War on Adolescents," points out that the rates of violent crime and drug abuse are higher among adults than they are among teens, that three-quarters of the babies born to teenagers are fathered by adult men, that 90 percent of the children under age 12 and 60 percent of the teens age 12 to 17 killed in this country are killed by adults - and yet nobody rails against "widespread grown-up pathology."
"Today's adult attack on adolescents is angry and punishing," writes Mr. Males.
While seniors and middle-age Americans "have made monumental progress in feathering our own aging nests," he continues, "the US has the highest rate of children and adolescents living in families with incomes below poverty guidelines in the industrial world, the result of spending fewer public resources on children than any other industrial nation."
While painting a less-than-flattering picture of teens, Public Agenda's survey also reported that "the public holds parents fundamentally responsible for how well kids are doing."
"Fewer than 1 in 4 Americans say it is common to find parents who are good role models, and many people are more likely to blame parents, rather than social forces, for problems with kids," according to this survey.
Civil libertarians are speaking up on behalf of young people whose appearance, lifestyle, or points of view may seem too unconventional or even dangerous to adults in authority.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and western Missouri last week reported that it had been "swamped with calls from students and their parents complaining that schools have been violating student First Amendment rights."
"We have received many calls regarding suspension or discipline of students based on the clothes they wear, the literature they read, and the music to which they listen," the regional ACLU wrote to school superintendents there.
"In each of these instances, and in many other cases, students have been punished for expression that is nowhere close to the line of unprotected or potentially disruptive speech.... The discipline of students, based simply on a fear or dislike of their viewpoints or appearance, is unacceptable under our Constitution."
Megan Harrington would identify with this concern.
"I have short bleach-blond hair and I wear baggy pants," says Megan, adding, "Everyone automatically assumes that I'm a poor student, that I probably have a negative attitude. Then they're always surprised to find out that I'm one of the top students in my class and editor in chief of the newspaper."
She helped form a student theater troupe that promotes conflict resolution among younger children, and at the Ashland High School awards ceremony the other night, Megan won a fistful of college scholarships.
Some teachers are concerned as much about their colleagues' behavior as they are about the teens they teach.
"When I first began teaching public school this year, I was appalled at the lack of civility among both adults and children," confides one high school teacher in Maryland requesting anonymity. "I suspect that schools aren't teaching respect, however, because the adults can't agree on what this means.
"Sarcasm, posturing, verbal bullying are rampant among teachers, administrators, and students. It seems few know how to speak without anger and aggression."
Teens, too, are speaking out about the need for improvement by adults - especially parents.
One teen's thoughts
Marcy Musgrave, a junior at Texas A&M University, was deeply troubled by what she felt were the fundamental causes of the Littleton shootings.
"Finally, I thought, I just need to write all of this down," she says. "I went outside, really prayed about it a lot beforehand, and just said, 'God, whatever it is You're wanting me to say, just let me say it.' "
The result was a poignant letter to The Dallas Morning News, which ran as a column May 2. In it, Marcy wrote that "it is time for people to begin admitting their guilt for failing my generation."
And then she posed a series of hard-hitting questions to the baby-boom generation responsible for raising today's young people. Among the many questions were:
*"Why do you fool yourselves into believing that divorce really is better for the kids in the long run?
*Why does the television do most talking at family meals?
*Why is "quality time" generally no longer than a five- to 10-minute conversation each day?
*Why do you try to make up for the lack of time you spend with us by giving us more and more material objects that we really don't need?
*Why do you allow us to watch violent movies but expect us to maintain some type of childlike innocence?
And then perhaps the toughest question of all:
*Why is it so hard for you to realize that school shootings, and other violent juvenile behavior, result from a lack of your attention more than anything else?
A matter of perceptions
Marcy, whose family (her parents and four siblings) calls Lindale, Texas, home, admits that her perceptions were different when she was younger.
"My family is not perfect, and I'm not perfect," she says. "I used to think my parents were so mean - they just didn't understand. But now I look back and I think, if they hadn't guided me who knows what I'd be doing now."
But, she adds, "I'm so grateful to them that they took the time. I'm so blessed...."
Megan Harrington, soon to be studying at Reed College in Portland, Ore., says that adult guidance in the era of Littleton and Conyers shouldn't come in the form of added infringements on teen privacy or tougher restrictions on their activities.
"Instead of just watching them carefully and suspecting them of everything, just get to know them," she says.
It works both ways, Megan adds. "A lot of parents and teachers are afraid of rejection, too.... Students need to listen to their parents and teachers and respect that they are a positive influence on their lives, that they have a lot to give."