Student view: The clothes don't make the teen

Naperville North students say they're tired of being labeled by adults and the media

A skateboarder grinds and kickflips off a rail in the alley where he practices his passion every day. A grandmother walks by, grimacing at his baggy pants and the ring in his eyebrow.

Dumb-blonde jokes circulate in the locker room among the chuckling jocks, punching one another to test stomach strength. But deep inside, they don't really understand what is so funny.

The determined geek walks into the library every day with a No. 2 pencil behind her ear and a week's workload of books under her arm. She's focused on only one thing: the need not to fail.

The skateboarder. The dumb jock. The geek. These are just some of the labels given to today's teens. Although individual teenagers may perpetuate these stereotypes, they are hardly characteristic of all American youth.

The media, however, do play on such labels. In an age when teens represent one of the biggest markets for movies and television, young people are often depicted in one-dimensional ways that sell, rather than in ways that reflect the complexities of young adulthood.

Take, for example, last year's "American Pie" and "American Beauty." These films showed teenagers in sexually explicit scenarios. Slasher films like "Scream" portray them as carefree and not necessarily intelligent.

"Some people see teenagers as the stereotypical rowdy teenager," says Sara Majewski, a senior at Naperville North. "Not everyone is a part of that group."

Matt Kearney, one of the junior-class presidents, thinks the media put teenagers in a box. "Like many other groups, there is an extreme variety of teenagers, and the media does not look at all groups."

But the recent film "Never Been Kissed" and the now-canceled TV series "Freaks and Geeks" looked at typically beat-upon groups - less popular and less attractive people - in a new light. "Never Been Kissed" focused "on these not-so-popular kids and made them look just as good, if not better, than the popular kids," says Sara. "That isn't something you see often in movies."

What the media do not necessarily show is that, even though every teen wants to be part of a group that shares the same interests, teens are all different.

Take baggy pants and pierced eyebrows. Students with these are often seen as troublemakers, getting bad grades and using drugs. Such students, though, often excel in class and in other areas of school. "Those judgments need to be broken," says senior Isaac Sherman. "I skate and am active in drug-free clubs. Not all of us fit into the negative clich."

Consider also the dumb jock, seen as good at nothing but throwing a football or hitting a home run. "In all the sports I've played in this school, the coaches have always stressed that we should be student athletes," says freshman Peter Norris, a football and baseball player. "Education comes first."

No matter how individual all teens may be, adults do not always separate the individual from the label. "We are judged by how we look. I could walk out of the school without any trouble because I'm a 'good girl,' " says Jessica Hwang, a junior.

Amanda Fezzy, a softball player, agrees. "Some teachers treat me better because I'm in sports," she says.

Still, some adults are working to look beyond the cliques and capris. "I try not to judge students on what they wear," says North Principal John "Jack" Lorenz. "I try to see who's behind the baggy pants and oversized shirts."

Knowing how easy it is to be stereotyped only adds to stress levels of teens, whose lives are already squeezed by hours of homework, part-time jobs, and other responsibilities. "Kids today are running a race," says Mr. Lorenz. "They are afraid to turn around because they think they'll fall behind."

As teens grow up, they only run into more problems: violence, drugs, sex, and crime.

"My message to teenagers everywhere is to not grow up too fast," says John Westlove, a Naperville youth investigator. "They need to realize their negative actions are affecting other people around them."

The vexing question is, though, where do these "negative actions" come from? Some authorities believe it all starts in the home. "The biggest problem I see with teens today is the parents," says Rich Wistaki, a Naperville police detective who works the juvenile cases. "If they just become more aware and make sacrifices for their kids, then children ... will be a lot better off."

Last year, 277 youths ran away from Naperville homes. Often, these teens flee only to find more trouble elsewhere.

Of course, not all teens break rules or commit crimes. Most are involved in school activities and are tired of being viewed as the bad seeds. "Those kids set the negative stereotypes for teenagers," says junior Evelyn Lambrou.

Stereotypes exist not only for youth but also for authority figures. "We are looked at as the bad guys," says Mark Ksiazek, also a juvenile detective. "At times we can be stereotypical, but teens set us up to think that way."

Both sides agree what's needed is mutual respect.

"If we just remember to treat others as we want to be treated, then life would be a much better place for all of us," says Russel Wolf, youth investigator.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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