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Jewish World Review /Dec. 7,1998 /18 Kislev 5759

Mona Charen

Mona Charen

Stranger in a strange land

FOR THREE YEARS, journalist Patricia Hersch immersed herself in the lives of eight Virginia teenagers. The result is "A Tribe Apart," a rare peek into the scary, unsupervised and threatening world we have created for adolescents in America.

Hersch, a writer for The Washington Post who lives in Reston, the town she writes about, begins by noticing that this comfortable, planned community is essentially empty of families from morning to evening.

"By 8:30 a.m., neighborhoods stand still and silent, hollow monuments to family life." At 3:00, the school busses pull up and discharge their cargo of teenagers (the younger children are in after-school day care).

"Keys in hand, they open doors all over the community. Then, the doors shut. It's their world now. With the exception of a few lone outposts where adults await their return, nobody's home but the kids."

Parents imagine that teenagers prefer to be left alone. The "generation gap" immortalized during the late 1960s has achieved conventional wisdom status, and most adults simply expect that adolescence will be a time when their children shudder to be seen with them.

Hersch doesn't buy it. The eight kids she followed for three years are not a scientific sample, but they seem to be a cross section of families in Reston, Va. There are children of divorce and remarriage, wholesome kids who are lucky enough to have involved, affectionate moms and dads, and fringe kids, who look normal on the outside but are engaged in highly destructive behaviors.

The absence of parents from the lives of many of these children has an effect even on those who come from solid, intact homes. Jessica, a happy 13-year-old, befriends Rachel and rapidly discovers that Rachel's parents are really cool. They allow their daughter to smoke pot or at least seem amused when they discover that she is high. And they buy her birth control pills. Jessica's mother, who thinks a nice outing for the girls would be ice skating followed by hot chocolate, lacks the self-confidence to judge Rachel's parents harshly.

Though a good student and happy participant in church activities, Jessica, like all teenagers, is eager to be older. The illicit world of adolescence exerts a powerful attraction. She finds that among her school friends, there are parents of 15-year-olds who make "beer runs" for their kids -- presumably on the assumption that they are preventing drunk and underage driving. She finds that those who graduate from eighth grade are pretty much expected to indulge in heavy drinking and drug taking as a normal form of "fun."

The parties these kids attend sound like something out of the debaucheries of ancient Rome.

Thirteen and 14-year-olds get so drunk that they vomit everywhere. Alcohol so loosens inhibitions that pairs grope one another in full view. Meanwhile, other drunk young girls are raped in spare bedrooms.

Where are the parents?

There are some tales of livid adults returning the next morning to find their homes trashed. But the party circuit simply continues somewhere else.

Violence and senseless destruction are themes that run through adolescent life like a red thread in a white garment. Every now and then, all of the kids, not just those from "dysfunctional" homes, will rampage through a school, breaking windows, smashing computers and upending tables. Even the honor students destroy.

A few of the parents got a glimpse of the amoral world they've bequeathed their kids when they showed up at Ethical Decision Making Day at the high school. For the first time, many of the adults learned, to their horror, that most of the high school kids have no use for honor, honesty or even the sanctity of human life (though they are quite tender toward animals). They cloak as realism what is otherwise known as selfishness and immorality. A survey in the school paper found that 90 percent of students admitted cheating on tests. This is consistent, Hersch notes, with national surveys.

Reston is a lovely, quiet suburban town ---- on the outside. What Hersch has revealed, and not just about Reston but about America, is that the job of civilizing our youngsters has not been contracted out ---- it has been abandoned.


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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.