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Author Describes Adolescents' Culture

Adolescents are spiraling in a world of their own, because adults are too busy to be good parents, an expert says.

Patricia Hersch, Reston author of "A Tribe Apart," said teenagers are surprised when she takes the time to talk to and listen to them. "This is startling to teens who have lived in time bites and rush," she said. "Adults and youths have lived expressing themselves on the run."

"A Tribe Apart" explores the lives of eight adolescents and shows how teens have fashioned a complex culture of their own.

HERSCH SPOKE last week to a group of 40 community leaders involved in the Loudoun Youth Initiative, which is exploring ways to keep teens away from drugs, violence and gangs. "Their aloneness is stunning," she said. "We have abandoned this age group, mostly by circumstances of modern life."

She said one teenager told her that he and his peers basically have a life of their own. "We’re kind of like adults," he said.

Teenagers have become their own teachers, advisors, challengers, nurturers and sometimes, their own destroyers, Hersch said. The generational threads that used to weave their way into teens’ lives are missing. "They are threadbare," she said.

Disconnected teens depend on one another to fulfill their need to belong to a community, she said. They have become very good at comforting each other.

Hours of homework and extra-curricular activities are increasing their stress. "They said they party like crazy to alleviate the pressure. … ‘Regular kids are becoming more irregular,’ quipped one teacher," she said.

Hersch said the message from adults is that exceptional grades and excelling in sports are what truly matters. "The truth is kids crave adult contact," she said. "I believe all children are at risk when there is an absence of adults. Hillary [Clinton] is right. It takes a village to raise a child. … Communities need to develop a consciousness that all children are ours."

SHE SAID PARENTS get down on their knees and play with toddlers. They would never leave anything dangerous out during those early years. "Yet we leave a teenager alone all night," she said.

She described a 12th-grade talent show that she attended at South Lakes High School in Reston. She had trouble finagling an invitation to it, because the show was for the seniors only. "I watched spellbound," she recalled. "Kids jumped out of their seats … sang, danced. The auditorium rocked."

One set of lyrics best described the teens’ passion that night: "A safe place for all the pieces that scattered."

"Memories of it have persistently given me a heavy heart," she said. "It was a moment in time that disappeared as quickly as it appeared."

She called on the Youth Initiative to create the teen centers that adolescents asked for in focus groups this summer and fall. "Taxes may go up, but adolescents are the citizens of tomorrow," she said. "It is a wide issue for everybody."

Hersch said teenagers need outlets, connections and boundaries.

SHE RECOMMENDED that the Youth Initiative tap businesses for assistance. She recalled a woman who said her company had a policy that compensated employees for their volunteer hours, but hardly anyone used it. Another woman said her company had a similar benefit if the employee volunteered in Washington, D.C. She decided to see if she could expand it to the greater metropolitan area.

Hersch suggested a teen Web site and T-shirt competition. "The kids would be so dazzled," she said.

The roads that our teenagers are taking are important, she said. "Here in Northern Virginia we pay a lot of attention to our roads, because they really, really matter to us. … We have to invest in our children. That’s what it is all about."

THE LOUDOUN YOUTH Initiative began in June with a forum on the positive and negative factors affecting the county’s teenagers. Adults interviewed 500 middle- and high-school youth during the summer and fall. A list of needs was compiled and presented at a "Step Up" youth summit two weeks ago. Participants generated a wide range of solutions. The Youth Initiative committee met last week to begin examining which solutions were achievable.

Delbert White, a member of the steering committee and president of the Parent Teacher Organization at Seneca Ridge Middle School, recommended developing a five-year plan.

Supervisor Stephen Snow (R-Dulles) agreed, but pushed the group to carry out five initiatives by the end of the year. "We need five quick hits … something that shows immediate results," he said.

He called for a written plan and a supporting budget by the end of January.

One of the five initiatives would be a youth Web site that provides a list of ongoing activities, transportation resources, progress on the Youth Initiative and other information.

Carol Kost, chairwoman of the county’s Advisory Commission on Youth, said the middle- and high-school students have made it clear they want a teen center of their own. With Loudoun so widespread, more than one teen center would be needed, she added.

Scott York, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said a new building at Claude Moore Park could be used as a teen center, at least on Friday and Saturdays. It would serve as a center for the community, not just the teens. "We can’t get everything we want," he said.

Hersch responded by defining York’s proposal as a "hard dose of economic reality."

Snow interjected, "I don’t care about the damn money," he said. "I’m concerned about energizing and electrifying the community to make something happen."