What’s the Matter with Kids Today?
It was a unusual proposal. The magazine editor, in fact, thought it had at best, a 5 percent chance of success. But a thirty-three year old veteran writer was persuasive and convinced him it was at least worth a try.
The editor planned a series of articles for his magazine on the continuing public concern for America’s teenagers and “the problems of adolescents today.” The writer, Lyn Tornabene, thought the subject had been done to death -- journalists, sociologists, social workers, and media pundits regurgitated and recycled the same conventional wisdom casting about to find blame for the state of America’s teenagers without adding anything of substance to the national debate or deepening understanding. They focused each year on problems of drug addiction, drinking, random violence, gangs, bad test scores, suggestive music, and unwanted pregnancies. America’s youth, the critics agreed, were in danger of becoming a lost generation.
Tornabene didn’t want to add her voice to the familiar chorus of prophets and doom sayers singing that same old song. She recalled similar criticisms of her own generation when they were teens and they had, in some miraculous way, survived and turned out all right. Surely, she thought, there must be some way to alter the debate and provide new information that might reveal more realistically what was happening to America’s youth and to measure how different they were from previous generations of teenagers.
Tornabene said she didn’t want to write about troubled teens as a reporter because she found they had become quite adept at manipulating the press. They knew what reporters wanted to hear, she believed, they knew how to shock the viewing and reading public, and so they did. They had become media savvy without the media seeming to know it.
So Tornabene suggested a way to avoid that trap. She would infiltrate the world of American teens in order to find out first hand what they were thinking and doing. The writer and wife(she’d been married for ten years) wanted to turn back the clock, dress in such a way as to shed 17 years, pass as a 16 year old and enroll in the 11th grade again. Then, she proposed, she’d write her story from the inside, telling as best she could what it was really like to be a teenager -- describing what they really said and thought when they believed no adult was listening, what they dreamed and hoped for, how they behaved and, most importantly, how much they had really changed in the 14 years since Tornabene herself had been a high school student.
The editor had his doubts about Tornabene pulling off the feat. Surely, he suggested, the moment she walked in the door any school and said she wanted to enroll she’d be detected as an imposter and shown the way out. Tornabene said she’d be careful, she’d find ways to conceal her age and she’d make it through at least a few days before anyone caught on. So the editor finally gave her his blessing and told her to proceed, fully expecting to see her again in a few days.
Tornabene flew from New York to the West Coast(she does not identify the school) and moved in with a friend who agreed to be part of the deception and serve as her “guardian.” She spent $500 on the clothing she believed she’d need to fit in with teenagers, bought new glasses with thick rims to cover the telltale wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, and enrolled in eleventh grade at “Urban High School.”
When Tornabene nervously entered Urban High she was herself unconvinced of her disguise. The words of the editor haunted her and she expected a teacher or administrator at any minute to tap her on the shoulder, pull her aside and eject her from the school. But, much to her surprise and delight, that never happened.
During her first day as an 11th grader she met the school counselor and was enrolled in classes in Spanish, English, American History, Public Speaking and Physical Education.
Her fear of being uncovered gradually lifted as she noticed that neither her counselor nor any other administrator or teacher in the school of 4000 students paid any real personal attention to her. “No adult I had met looked at my face,” she said. Each, instead, focused on the papers she carried. “They looked at me the way they look at any other teenager,” she found, “which is to say, not at all.”
Students in Urban High, she saw, were seldom treated as individuals with distinct personalities and problems but rather as members of some exotic and perfectly understood and not too very bright tribe.
If the failure of the administrators and teachers to take much notice of her was surprising, her experience in the classroom was also a revelation. The teachers at Urban ranged broadly in their skills and dedication. The English, Spanish and Public Speaking Teachers, she found, were competent and lively in their efforts and held the attention of class. In English class in particular, she found, the teacher was bright and highly motivated. His introductory lectures were on Edgar Allen Poe. “They loved Poe,” Tornabene found of the students. “They had seen all his movies.”
Spanish and public speaking also provided enlightening moments for her. But American history was something else, again. It began as tranquilizing, she found, and quickly turned to numbing. “I have never seen an audience so uniformly bored.” They walked through the door yawning. When they weren’t taking notes they were doing other homework or doodling. The teacher didn’t relate to the class or the subject. He never even tried. He was most concerned with discipline, which, Tornabene concluded, could best have been maintained had his teaching skills been greater. History, she discovered, was taught in Urban High the same way it was in her high school and the same way it was in the high school of her parents and grandparents. It was completely and utterly a waste of time and provided, at best, a period in which students might sleep.
One very surprising development for Tornabene came in Spanish class. When she was called upon to give an oral recitation and she became extremely nervous about speaking in front of the other students. She did not do well. And when a surprise quiz was given in the class, Tornabene cheated! “Without a moment of rational thought I tried to see the paper on the desk of the girl on my left and copy what was on it,” she wrote. “Furthermore, I succeeded. I cheated. Me, the married woman with a home and responsibilities.....It hadn’t been a year since the last time I tsk-tsk’d over newspaper reports of mass cheating in schools in various parts of the country, and there I was, being a startling statistic.....I felt more pressure to succeed the second time I went to high school than the first,” she said. “And that’s unthinkable.”
Surprisingly, Tornabene, along with other students, developed a fear of administrators and when she was called to the principals office on an administrative matter she became deeply afraid. The fear of authority, developed, she found, because of power relationship between students and administrators. The administrators had all the power, the students had none. Any student who fought the system was marked a trouble maker and might be administratively exiled to special classes or another school.
Tornabene also feared some of the girl gangs in and around the school who dealt, primarily, in petty extortion from other students. “You don’t get caught alone near them,” she was told and she followed that advice. When a gang fight and a stabbing took place at a nearby school Tornabene read about it in the newspaper but found that the students weren’t that deeply concerned with the matter. It happened to someone else far away, the students seemed to feel.
She also found herself starting to spend a lot of time on the telephone talking with girl friends from school. She provides several pages of converation between herself and her classmates in which absolutely nothing is said. In this regard, she found, things had changed little from her own years in high school when she spent as much as 80 percent of her waking hours, at home, on the telephone.
The world teenager inhabited, Tornabene concluded, was not the world of the evening news. It was not one in which they focused on world or national issues. “I didn’t know or care if the bomb had been dropped,” she wrote after spending several weeks with her new girl friends. “I didn’t think about anything but girl friends, teachers, classes, and, well, boys --or my lack of appeal to them. I was worrying about whether or not I was homely, and I was spending more hours than I care to enumerate staring in mirrors.”
After one semester, Tornabene said goodbye to her friends at Urban High and returned to New York to write her article and a book entitled “I Passed as a Teenager.” Her conclusions are instructive.
As to how different kids were from 17 years earlier when she was in school she found that in some ways they were very different but in others they were not much changed at all.
One disturbing change was the gap that had widened, she found, between the haves and the have notes. The differences between the affluent teens and others, once a fine social line, had become, she felt, a cavern. The affluent lived in orderly and safe suburbs in big homes, they drove their own cars, had their own credit cards, traveled in the summers and were “tall, tanned, silky haired and cool.” And they knew it.
She also found something many journalists and adolescent watchers forget --teenagers are still children in many regards -- “shallow, incomplete, boring.” They knew more about sex than she did at their age, Tornabene found. But they didn’t necessarily have it more. She observed, “Suppose their morality has changed. Suppose they do know more about sex than we knew. Is that necessarily bad? What makes us think we did so well in our day, in our way? It we’re so all-fired sound, what is our generation doing lying on analysts’ couches, retching up conflicts of its early years.”
What worried her most, she said, was that “when you’re a teenager, nobody looks at your face. That happened to me in school. I am worried about the kinds of teachers they are exposed to, the kind of environment they go into when they leave home in the morning.”
At the end of each day as a 16 year old, she found, she felt anger and exhaustion. She felt put down. “They are always being put down. STOP THREATENING ME!” She pleads for teenagers. “That’s what I wanted to shout in my classrooms.” Teenager should be allowed, in school and out, to make mistakes and to learn from mistakes. They should be allowed, even encouraged, to break some rules and to learn from mistakes. The adults structure and manipulate their world too much, she found.
“What I’ve really learned from this episode, “ she concluded, “is that we should stop trying to understand them. The way I figure it, by the time we do, they will be us, and we’ll bind ourselves with a firm grip on our own tails. By that time, too, they will have their own younger generation to cluck over, and so on and so on. You don’t have to take my word on this, however. Ask your mother.”
But the biggest surprise of all concerning Lyn Tornabene’s experience is that her book was published in the summer of 1967 -- nearly 45 years ago! The 16 and 17 year olds among whom she lived in 1966 are now nearing retirement. Following their graduation from high school some went off to Vietnam(the average age of an American soldier in Vietnam was 19) and some had their lives cut short in Southeast Asia. Today their names are in the black Vietnam Memorial in Washington. Others went on to college and careers, entered the job market in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many, no doubt, prospered in the 70s and 80s, had children of their own guided them through adolescence. Now those children are college graduates and parents and the generation described by Tornabene, the ones everyone worried about, are grandparents or about to become grandparents.
Think about that and about this book the next time someone starts on the litany of lamentations about today’s teens that stretches back beyond the sixties and further and further and further.
Tornabene concludes, “What really puzzles me is not them, but us. I don’t understand how we got so old so soon. I can’t fathom what turns us into crotchety fuddy-duddies tsk-tsking over the young -- so soon. I think it’s quite possible, though, that I’ve learned the precise moment one can technically be called old; it’s the first time one starts complaining about the sinful behavior of the young.”