Peers as collective parent

In the age of the busy parent, teens often set rules for teens - on fashion, dating, drug use.

Editor's note: This story contains some frank exchanges among teens that we think provide useful insight, but that some may consider inappropriate for our youngest readers.

Inside of every high school is a high school of which even the savviest adults are only dimly aware.

Call it Kingdom of the Teens. Its hierarchy consists of circles of friends and ever-morphing cliques. Its laws are standards of conduct that teens themselves define. Its styles are set by a handful of trendsetters, each as definite in his or her own way as Ralph Lauren or Martha Stewart.

In an age when parents seem increasingly absent, teens often act as a sort of collective parent. Take Amy Norman and her friends.

They were, like, totally unhappy that a boy and girl in their circle had paired off and were suddenly having sex. Not that the sex, per se, bothered them. "We were totally cool with that," says Amy, a sandy-haired junior with a fondness for bright-blue eye makeup.

The problem was that the couple wasn't using protection. They had both been virgins and figured they had nothing to fear. "We jumped all over them for that!" says Amy, her voice rising for emphasis, as if she were a teenage Dr. Ruth. "What about the trouble in nine months! You guys gotta use something!"

This was after Amy's circle had decided collectively to tell a boy's parents about his drug problem (he later thanked them) and passed the hat at lunch to buy contact lenses for a friend named "Goo." In fact, the entire gang - a group of about 20 girls and boys - sets rules, enforces norms of behavior, and provides the occasional small loan.

"We all rely on each other a lot - a lot," says Amy.

Call it the benign side of peer pressure. Today's high-schoolers operate in groups that play the role of nag and nanny - in ways that are both beneficial and isolating.

It's part of the evolution of high school hierarchy, which changes year to year and generation to generation. Generation Y may be more activist than its predecessor, more oriented toward teamwork and making a difference.

"The bitterness of Generation X isn't evident in this generation as much," says Tim Kurth, a Lutheran youth minister and parent of a sophomore at Naperville North here in western Chicago. "These are ... the ones who have been coddled."

In learning to deal with this culture of their peers, teenagers take their first major steps away from their parents' houses and out into the wider experience of the world. It isn't easy. It isn't always fun. It happens too fast. To hear teens talk about dealing with new moral challenges is to sense, sometimes, wistfulness beneath the bravado.

Chris (not his real name) comes from a typical, upper-middle-class, step-parent-filled background. He says he talks to his mom about lots of things - classes, sports, even religion. But he hasn't told her, he says, that he lost his virginity last month.

He thinks maybe he's in love. He wonders if that can happen so fast. He talks to his friends about it, but talking to teenage boys about love is about as productive as talking to cats about hockey.

"Maybe if my dad was a little different, I could talk to him," he says. "But I don't really feel comfortable doing that, so I just keep things inside of me. That's not good."

Arbiters of taste

Three senior girls - Emily Kottman, Allison Vorel, and Anne Roesner - are huddled around a table in the Naperville North High School lunchroom. They are looking at photos from their trip to Marco Island in Florida. They don't say so, but Marco Island is the sort of place where Bentleys are as common as snipes.

The girls' parents took the whole group. "We forced our parents to be friends 'cuz we were friends," says Emily.

The photos are filled with pictures of good times - and the latest in female teen fashion. The girls laugh as they flip through dozens of shots of short skirts, tank tops, and the latest word in trousers, capri pants.

At school, the girls say they try to dress up several times a week - which means dress shirts, fitted pants, or skirts. Brands? Please! Only Gap, J. Crew, Old Navy, and Abercrombie & Fitch need apply.

"There's a lot of Abercrombie, especially among the sophomore scene," says Emily. "For the young kids, it's so safe, so acceptable. They can't be made fun of."

The girls then proceed to make fun of the "preemie scene," a sub-style that features extremely short skirts and glitter makeup.

"Their hair is made to look like bedhead, but you know it took two hours to do it," says Allison.

On their first day of high school, virtually every freshman in America learns by looking around them that something they are wearing on their person is dorky. There follows a tremendous rush to correct the defect and fit in. The majority succeed so well that, to an outsider, most high schools appear to have been dressed from one communal closet. Differences in girls' clothes are discernable, with help. The boys hew strictly to the cargo-pant line.

Safety in numbers

The occasional all-black outfit identifies a passing Goth. Hair styles show some individuality. But on the whole, clothes are not much of a hint about the second stage of high school adjustment: clique membership. For an outsider, mapping cliques requires a guide.

"The groups in this school are very well defined," says Marius Pakalniskis, a tall senior whose black, retro-style glasses make him look like what he hopes to soon be - a psychology major at the University of Chicago.

"Abercrombies" are what used to be called "preps." Goths are the self-perceived outsiders who dress alternatively. The academic kids are still called "nerds," though the dotcom revolution has robbed this tag of some of its sting, and jocks still sit atop the heap.

"Oh, and your ravers. They're kind of cool," says Marius. "That's this new group that evolved from skaters. They like to party and are into the drug scene."

There is some separation by ethnicity at Naperville North, but not much. That's because there isn't much ethnicity present. Asian-Americans are the school's largest minority, at 13 percent of the student body. Blacks comprise 6 percent.

Blacks and a few Hispanics tend to congregate in the northwest corner of the larger of North's two lunch rooms. "There's not a wide variety of people here, and there's a lot of racism," says Nathan Brooks, a black sitting at the northwest tables with his friends.

People say they aren't racist, continues Nathan, but they still single minorities out. Michael Daniel-Collins, sitting next to Nathan, was suspended earlier this year for fighting in the parking lot - but he was only rough-housing with his buddies, he says.

Last year's tragic shootings at Columbine High in Littleton, Colo., sparked a lot of media attention about guns, schools, and violence. But that's because the victims were white, says Nathan.

"Black kids are gunned down on school grounds every day and the media doesn't care about them," he says.

The wealth effect

In Naperville, the real dividing line between students isn't race, religion, or even clique membership, say administrators. It's something that cleaves the world of adults, too: money.

In such an affluent community, status depends not on whether you went away for spring break, but where, and not on whether you got a car for your 16th birthday, but what kind.

Generation Y is more concerned with making big bucks than its immediate predecessors, says chemistry teacher Lee Marek. It's the first thing they talk about, when they talk about life after school.

"Everybody wants to be a millionaire," Mr. Marek says.

Fewer, however, want to be mathematicians. Kids aren't as good with numbers anymore, says Marek, whose own ability to make chemicals do entertaining things has landed him guest spots on David Letterman's show.

That may not mean teens are getting dumber. It just means they are focusing on other things.

"Kids are as bright as they ever were, as talented as they ever were - maybe even more so," says Marek.

Love and other matters

They're also as interested in the opposite sex as they ever were - maybe even more so.

In some ways the pressures to pair up are less than they were only a few years ago. There's less one-on-one dating, and more going out in large, loosely-knit groups.

But teens live in a culture that uses sex to sell just about everything. The TV shows and movies they watch are filled with teenage intimacy. The assumption that high schoolers are all having sex, or about to, seems to permeate much of popular culture.

There are still clear limits to teen behavior in the bedroom, however, if North is any guide. They aren't the limits of their grandparents, perhaps - but limits nonetheless.

Take sophomores Drew Jensen and Lauren Ishikawa. They're sweethearts. There's no other word for it. As they gaze into each other's eyes while the school swirls around them, secure in their four-month relationship (an eternity by high school standards), they're ... let's just say they're adorable.

Their friends tease them regularly about how much time they spend together.

"They're just jealous," says Lauren.

But they haven't had sex. Nor do they plan to. For one thing, Lauren's father made her promise she wouldn't, and gave her a necklace to symbolize that promise. For another, they're too young.

For sophomores, sex is mostly "unacceptable," says Drew. By senior year, "it's much more common," he adds.

Amy Norman - the budding Dr. Ruth - estimates that about a quarter of her friends, and half the school in total, have had sex. Girls typically want to wait until they feel they love somebody. Most boys are actually very respectful of the girls they date.

Sure, boys talk big, as they always have. "That's such a show," says Amy, rolling her aqua-blue eyes.

Drugs, on the other hand, are a problem few at North want to talk about. Administrators aren't naive. ("We would be burying our heads in the sand to say there aren't drugs in the school," says Detective Louis Jourdan, North's school resource officer.) But adults say that drugs aren't the scourge they are in other, less-affluent districts.

At 10 one morning, however, a bunch of seniors sitting around shooting the breeze claim they could get anything from pot to LSD, if they wanted to, before the end of the school day. "Drugs here are like cockroaches," says curly-haired senior Doug Kropp. "They're not seen, but you don't have to look too hard to find them."

From cocaine to Christianity

You don't have to look too hard to find the people drugs have hurt, either. Senior Mabel Guerrero used to do everything from pot to cocaine. A year ago, she was failing all her classes, and had run away from home.

"My Ma finally just said, 'Go,' " says Mabel.

Her best friend's parents took her in - and took her to an evangelical retreat. A religious awakening has changed her life, she says.

She still sees her old drug friends at school. Instead of joining them to smoke dope, she tells them: "I'm going the other way, guys, if you want to come along with me."

Alcohol is a much bigger problem in Naperville than drugs, say school administrators. The reason? Parents' attitudes, as much as students' desire to drink.

"The parents will buy for the kids - or let them raid their liquor cabinets. What can we do?" says principal John "Jack" Lorenz.

Earlier this spring, during the NCAA basketball finals, there was a huge keg party at a Naperville North student's home. Two hundred kids showed up from all over the city. Inevitably, somebody called the police, and when the cops arrived, the party turned into something out of a bad National Lampoon movie with kids running out the doors, flinging themselves out of windows, and crawling into any hiding space they could find.

The police eventually handed out 50 tickets for underage drinking. One senior got one while he lay passed out on the floor. Another avoided detection by hiding in the attic for 2-1/2 hours.

"I was scared, but it was a rush," he says.

A jock with a heart

But parties aren't the only thing that define today's teens.

Rich Hillesheim is an outside hitter on the North boys' volleyball team. It's one of the best teams in the state, and Rich is one of its stars.

He's also a peer helper in the special-ed physical-education class, which helps handicapped students get exercise. His best friend in the class is Jeff DiFiglio, a student who has been diagnosed with Down's syndrome.

After playing a game of kickball, the pair emerge from the locker room and start joking in the hall. When Jeff stumbles while spelling his last name for a reporter, the volleyball star jumps right in.

"D-I-F-I-G-L-I-O. That's a movie star's name, right buddy?" says Rich, wrapping his arm around Jeff's neck and playfully twisting.

Friends pass by in the hall, throwing Rich a wave. "Hey man, what time do we have to be here for the game tonight?" one asks.

"Six," answers Rich. With frosty blond hair, cargo pants, flip-flops, and a choker circling his neck, he's confident and cool. But under all that, he's caring.

The man who runs special-ed PE is Stan Gruska, a 33-year teaching veteran.

"The kids that come in to help are unbelievable," he says, putting away the kickballs. "They get far more out of it than those they are helping."

* Parts 1 and 2 ran April 20 and 21. Next: Parenting in a post-Columbine world.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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