Teens speak up about drinking

Ever since underage drinking marred an annual teen dance in December 1999, the citizens of Wellesley, Mass., have paid closer attention to the issues of alcohol use. Thanks to efforts by both adults and teenagers, last month's Cotillion went smoothly. Still, the town has only begun to address the complexities of alcohol consumption (see main story) through study circles.

Three seniors at Wellesley High School agreed to sit down with the Monitor to talk about their participation in these discussions. Excerpts of their comments follow.

What was the value of participating in the study circles?

Larry Handerhan: I only really knew the opinions of young people and my parents. People in Wellesley have a tendency to be similar, yet there are many different groups that are looking at [the issue] with different perspectives. Every time you hear somebody's opinion, you change yours a little.

Alexei Wagner: I had a police officer in my group. It was interesting to learn the police point of view, because the only time I had spoken with the police was when they came to school for a seminar, and the chief and assistant chief were attacked with questions like "Why was my car searched when I was pulled over last week?" So it was really nice that I could share my views and feel comfortable, knowing that what I said wasn't going to leave the room.

How did your classmates view your participation?

Alexei: Some kids really like drinking, and they don't want anything that would make it harder for them to drink, but I'm comfortable with sharing my views.

Why do students like to drink?

Alexei: It's an icebreaker, a stress reliever. Some kids are really uptight and know they don't express their feelings well. If they have a couple of beers, they feel like it's an excuse to let out what they feel.

Larry: The issue is peer pressure. Not from people saying, "Oh, come on, have a couple of beers," but from freshmen looking to the seniors as role models. There's a skewed perception that everyone drinks. The more we talk about it, the more you realize that you don't have to drink, that it's a choice you make. There's a perception that 90 percent of the people at school drink. I wouldn't say that's true, though.

Alexei: Maybe 90 percent have been exposed to drinking, but a lot choose to be occasional drinkers.

After what happened at last year's dance, were students less tolerant of excessive drinking?

Rory Edwards: The whole disaster of last year had a huge effect on the success of this year's event. As sad as it is, that's how it works.

Larry: You heard about how these people got so drunk, how much they drank, and the time in which they consumed it. You put that away and said, "That's ridiculous."

Rory: There's been an increase in people knowing their limits and making a decision. Another thing I was really happy to see was more of a sense of friendship among students, of looking out for each other.

Larry: And it's not a short-term, one-evening thing. It's a habit you can build up, a sense of community you establish. If someone just told me not to drink, that would be one thing. But if my friend said, "I worry that if you drink, something will happen to you and I want you to be safe because I feel responsible for you," that's a whole different ballgame.

Are adults not looking seriously enough at their own example?

Rory: I don't know if parents know the influence they have on the decisions their kids make. My dad does not drink, and my mom will have a glass of wine at dinner. That's been so huge in my decision not to drink. Some of the dads of my friends are always having a beer. That caters to the perception that everyone drinks.

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