Who's watching over today's teens, setting boundaries, intilling values, keeping them safe? Author Patricia Hersch observed real teens for three years, retuning to file a missing-parents report.

NOBODY HOME

July 08, 1998|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

RESTON, Va. -- Three years spent among the teen-agers of this idyllic upper-middle-class enclave proved to Patricia Hersch that something vital was missing from the lives of America's youth.

It wasn't sex, drugs or alcohol. She found those in abundant supply. It wasn't the threat of violence. Even in this Columbia-like planned suburb of Washington, students at a middle school seriously ponder bringing along knives for self-protection.

The missing element was parents.

In Hersch's book chronicling the lives of eight Reston teens, "A Tribe Apart. A Journey Into the Heart of American Adolescence" (Fawcett Columbine, $25), mothers and fathers are portrayed in a less-than-flattering light: often oblivious, disinterested and forgotten bit players in the drama of their children's lives.

And yet, what is the one thing her subjects all have in common? "They'd like to see more of the grown-ups," says Hersch. "They all said that in one form or another."

Hersch, 53, a free-lance writer and mother of three, found today's youth are generally no different from the teen-agers their parents once were: members of an angst-filled, unsure, restless and occasionally wild tribe.

But they also face a complex mix of challenges unique to their times: drugs, alcohol, violence, sexuality, abortion, divorce and abuse. Worse still, they face these struggles alone -- a tribe split apart from most of society.

"We need to get our heads out of the sand about what our children are doing," says Hersch. "Wake up. This is the adolescent way of life."

The eight teens Hersch discovered not far from her own cul-de-sac -- she's lived in Reston since 1976 -- run the gamut. They include athletes, high achievers, partyers and even an aspiring journalist.

The problems they confront are significant: drinking and drugs (one likable young man shockingly reveals he's a major drug dealer at his high school), teen pregnancy, rape, attempted suicide, vandalism and casual sex.

By immersing herself in their lives -- among other things, she spent a full year attending classes with them -- Hersch was rewarded by some candid revelations:

A 14-year-old girl, whose teen-age sister has a baby, decides whether to have sex. An African-American lacrosse player struggles with his identity, racism and the distance between his middle class sensibilities and urban-oriented black culture. A young Hispanic must deal with depression, an overprotective father with a narrow view of women's roles in society and a mother who walked away from the family. A clean-cut, good-looking sophomore discovers the joys of spray-painting graffiti.

"These aren't flukes. These are eight regular kids," says Hersch during an interview at her home. "Take me where you live, reader, and I assure you if I picked eight kids, the overall parameters would be the same."

She believes teens feel isolated most often because they are. The well-kept, four-bedroom houses on their tree-lined streets sit unoccupied during the day -- emptied by divorce and the reality of the two-working-parent family.

Some parents seem to lose interest in their offspring once they reach their high school years; others display a laissez-faire attitude. One peculiar father inexplicably volunteers to go get extra beer while his teen-age son and friends party in his basement. A mother opens up her townhouse to marijuana-toting teens as long as they don't smoke -- tobacco.

Perhaps emboldened by their parents' failure to set boundaries, most of the adolescents she quotes feel no guilt about lying to their parents. They lie frequently, sometimes for the slightest of reasons.

"I was surprised by that. Even the good kids will lie just to clear their space," she says.

Hersch, the wife of a former Peace Corps volunteer (they met while graduate students at Johns Hopkins University in 1969), thinks the indifference is partly due to the parents' '60s sensibilities and the inability of some to instill core values in their children.

"At least when we challenged boundaries we knew where they were," she says. "We knew what our parents thought about things."

This is Hersch's first book and it's gotten widespread attention. The New York Times called it "instructive" and noted its "intimacy and intensity." Many of the teens from the book (with the help of pseudonyms) support the author's concluding plea for more parental attention.

"There are things going on underneath the surface and they need to be looked at," says Jennifer Johnson, 18, identified as "Jessica Jones" in the book and now an aspiring doctor entering her sophomore year at the College of William and Mary.

"Too many adults aren't interested in what's going on underneath the clothes and the music."

Larry Ward, who has taught at Reston's South Lakes High School for eight years, says that while "adolescence is a tough time for any generation" he agrees with Hersch that teens today have it worse because they have such a tenuous connection to family, school and even friends.

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