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Surviving High School
No other American institution is balanced so uneasily between dream and nightmare. This story is about two friends — why one made it through and one did not, and how you can help your children survive “the best years of their lives.”
The two boys – Eric and Curt – grew up together, dreamers on a dead-end street. Overweight and unathletic, they shied away from rough sports and played with GJ. Joes in their back yards, preferring to conduct their wars in miniature. Down the block was a clan of tough kids, and on many afternoons one of the boys would have to fight his way home from school. “Curt and I were both the same,” remembers Eric. “We lived in a fantasy world, and we both got picked on a lot. “
Photography by Ralph Daniel
In middle school, Eric became known as a “no-account,” Curt as a “geek,” and by the time the two boys enrolled in Cobb County’s George Walton Comprehensive High School, they welcomed the opportunity to redefine themselves. They lost weight and sprouted tall; they grew their hair long and donned torn jeans and black T-shirts emblazoned with the logos of rock bands – the garb of the “freak.” In the parking lot they hung around with kids on Walton’s fringe, kids hopped up on anger and rebellion and in some cases, pot and liquor and acid and coke. In time, each of the boys would make a name for himself, becoming familiar to other students as a “character,” a bundle of idiosyncrasies, a voice sounding loud over the din.
For all their similarities, however, there is one big difference between Eric Stone and Curt Hersey. One survived high school. The other did not.
From his origins as a geek, Curt grew into an image of cocksureness: a skinny, slouchy kid with black, shoulder-length hair, a penchant for ’60s rock ‘n’ roll and a voice full of pseudo-California cool. He joined Walton’s Drama Gub and starred in plays, competed in the Academic Bowl, produced his own videos. He had a pretty girlfriend and, with money from a job at Wendy’s, made the payments on a rumbling, red Camaro Z28. He could circulate in rival cliques; he did not drink, use drugs or condone casual sex. In June, he graduated from Walton and prepared to enroll in Berry College.
Eric was neither so fortunate, so smart or so strong-willed. This is his memory of himself: He first smoked pot at 13 and quickly established himself as one of the most notorious of Walton’s druggies. He let his kinky blond hair bloom into an enormous frizzball and grew conspicuous for his red eyes and wasted grin. Eric Stoned, the kids called him. Never much of a student, he flunked 10th grade and dropped out of school altogether in May 1987. “One day, I just decided I wasn’t going to go anymore,” he says. By that time, he had been introduced to the chemical pyrotechnics of LSD and would spend his weekends watching the shapes change on his TV and dinosaurs rise out of the earth. Not long after he dropped out, his parents expelled him from their home, and he took to living in the woods or breaking into churches and sleeping on the pews. On Halloween weekend he attended a Walton party and met an old girlfriend who told him what he himself suspected: “Eric, you’re dying.” The next morning, he phoned his mother, met her for breakfast and asked for help. He was admitted to Charter Peachford Hospital two weeks later and now works at a McDonald’s in Cobb County.
This is the story of how two teen-agers with such similar beginnings can come to such different ends. It is the story of Eric Stone and Curt Hersey and the millions of other adolescents stewing in the unforgiving melting pot of American high schools. It is the story of the opportunities available to stop the slide of kids like Eric and how those opportunities are too often squandered. It is the story of how parents can alert themselves to the intangibles separating the winners from the losers. It is the story of surviving high school.
High School. No other American institution is balanced so uneasily between the extremes of promise and perdition, dream and nightmare. For decades parents blithely accepted the notion that children entering the ninth grade were embarking on the best years of their lives, and the ears of sullen teen-agers rang with admonitions to enjoy these precious moments while they had the chance. Lately, with the news media rife with stories of teen-age suicide and malfeasance, the circle has broken, and parents worry that their charges are straying into gardens of corruption, vales of terror and tears.
The reality, of course, encompasses both extremes and obeys neither. High school, by definition, is a time of turmoil and transformation. It is a rite of initiation, and very few who participate in its mysteries emerge unchanged or unscathed. With their hormones in riot and the cherished purity of childhood receding like a dream, high-school students find themselves called upon to establish a stronghold in the precarious gap between innocence and experience. For a period of four years, their lives are defined and dominated by stark polarities: rebellion and obedience; anger and docility; individuality and conformity; idealism and cruelty; the desire to experiment and the need for safety. Although not a therapeutic setting, high school asks that a wild child exhibit self-control, that a passive child speak out, that a muddled child resolve his contradictions. Should the child succeed, he or she earns the right to be judged as an adult and to be held accountable by adult standards and laws.
It is an uncertain reward: the dawning of adulthood in a process as traumatic as childbirth. There are, however, no Lamaze classes for the parents of teen-agers, and while infants come into the world howling and desperate with need, adolescents pass through high school silent and wary and as secretive as Masons. They have their own clothes, customs, language, food, music and handshakes; they close their bedroom doors; they are the Mad Hatters of their own Wonderland, and they are at pains to reduce their parents to uncomprehending Alices.
Unfortunately, many parents respond to secrecy with withdrawal and to rejection with retreat. They trust themselves too little, and biology – the natural imperatives of “growing up” – too much. “At Oxford Book Store, scores of shelves in the childcare section are devoted to the rearing of children aged 1 to 13; only one is earmarked for parents with teen-agers. Psychologists, counselors and social workers tell stories of hyperactive children deprived of treatment and therapy at the magic age of 13; of kids with learning disabilities encouraged to “sink or swim”; of desperate psychological crises being written off as the inevitable “phases” of a teen-ager’s life; of parents who mistake storms of adolescent confusion for avowals of self-determination and try not to “interfere”; of parents who think they don’t have to be parents anymore.
They inevitably discover they are sadly, even tragically, mistaken. They do have to be parents; their boy’s first shave does not excuse abdication of responsibility any more than their boy’s first step. Indeed, the intricacies of adolescence test the skills of the parent – and require parenting – as thoroughly as the first days of infancy.
Suddenly the parent walks a tightrope that punishes both arrogance and indecision. Suddenly art works better than science, and mother and father must re-examine the shifting lines of their dominion: Should rebellion be crushed or encouraged? Should experimentation be treated or tolerated? That glum face, that failing grade - is it depression or self-pity, disability or simple disinclination? In the absence of ready answers, parents must rely on instinct; in the absence of unerring instinct, they must seek education.
Education. For a mother who recalls suckling her son or a father who remembers romping through playgrounds with his daughter, the word must rankle, must serve as a bitter reminder of our culture’s addiction to complexity. What can anyone teach me about my child that I don’t already know? There might be someone who knows more about algebra and trigonometry, but no one knows more about my kid. For years, such attitudes bolstered the invisible boundaries of the American family and rallied the troops in times of crisis. Over the past generation, however, as the family unit has undergone a dramatic mutation, schools have followed suit, evolving so rapidly that both adolescent psychologists and students at Walton sound a common refrain: “Parents don’t know what goes on here. “
It is not a novel complaint. Since the first rush of rock ‘n’ roll signaled the advent of a full-blown youth culture, high school students have tended to succumb to their own brand of chauvinism, accusing their parents of an inability to appreciate the complexities of adolescent life. In light of the realities facing the class of 1989, however, parental ignorance no longer seems cute or cartoonish or even a matter of hip vs. square. For some families it is a matter of life vs. death. Allover Atlanta there are drug-treatment centers populated by kids who cut classes, committed crimes, ran away from home, slept on the floors of roadside rest rooms and were never asked if they were using drugs. There is the drinking condoned until the car wreck and the unnoticed depression that mounts into suicide.
“Generally, a parent does not enlist the help of a crisis-prevention program until the child’s crisis becomes the parent’s crisis,” says Babs Pirkle, past president of the Walton Parent-Teacher-Student Association. “Parents say, ‘I’m so tired of hearing about drugs and alcohol. Can’t you find something else to have our PTSA programs on?’ If we had a seminar on teen suicide tomorrow night, out of approximately 2,200 kids, there might be 10 or 20 parents here.”
Such lapses in parental vigilance may be forgiven, if not totally excused. From the blur of statistics and the bray of the media, there often spring weariness and resignation, a learned helplessness in the face of trends that are seemingly beyond individual control. Fortunately, this country has not suffered its upheavals entirely in vain, has not struggled with drugs, suicide and the dissolution of the family completely immune to insight. Over the years, from America’s vast apparatus of hospitals, treatment centers, encounter groups, counselors, social workers, social scientists and psychologists, there has emerged a profile of the child who is at risk for self-destructive behavior. It is a democratic profile. The child is neither rich nor poor. The child does not have to be scruffy, rowdy, slow or criminal. The child is simply one of the 20 percent of the American population somehow disposed – by genetics, family history or environment – to abuse food, alcohol, drugs or sex. In some treatment centers they are called “dry druggies” – addicts waiting to happen.
According to experts, parents have recourse to only one reliable mechanism, and that is education. Twenty years ago, parents seeking to educate themselves and their children about drugs might have grabbed a few pamphlets from the doctor’s office and learned the shape and smell of a marijuana joint, where to look for track marks, the side effects of LSD. Today educating a child about drugs and alcohol means undertaking a clear-eyed and coldhearted assessment of risk. Does chemical dependence run in the family? Has either parent’ struggled with addiction? Does the child exhibit emotional dependence, a fondness for medication, a bottomless self-image? If so, the child should know that he may be carrying a sometimes terminal disease – the disease that justifies the existence of all those hospitals and treatment centers ringing Atlanta, the disease that spared Curt Hersey and almost killed Eric Stone.
Eric Stone is clean now. In the manner prescribed by Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, he hit bottom, sought treatment, bounced back. These days he works in a McDonald’s not far from where he went to school, and every so often an old classmate from Walton will stop in for a burger, acknowledging him with a nod or a wink. He wears a blue tie smudged with grease, blue slacks, black motorcycle boots; in his shirt pocket he keeps a pack of unfiltered Pall Malls. He is a big, friendly kid with thick chapped lips and wavy blond hair cut to suburban standards. Every so often, when he talks about the old days, he’ll remember scoring some good Jamaican pot or some pure acid, and his face will wash over with nostalgia – his eyes will scrunch up, and his lips will erupt into a big, stoned grin.
Eric blames himself for his problems. Nothing could have stopped him, he says; he hated school, loved getting stoned, and that was that. For him to heal, he had to hit bottom, had to face death. No other way. At the hospital, he learned that once the process of addiction is started, it tends to move in a predictable and circumscribed direction: down.
But perhaps Eric was not completely responsible for all that has happened to him. From the moment he first hit the halls of Walton, Eric Stone was a walking inventory of susceptibility, the quintessential adolescent at risk. He was adopted. He says “documentation shows that his natural parents used drugs. He was slightly dyslexic and had spent most of his school days struggling with his disability. He did not get along with his adopted parents. He cut out of the house at night. He thought of himself as a nobody. In short, he was ready to fall through the cracks.
Falling through the cracks. For a cliché, the phrase is mighty versatile and descriptive, and at Walton it is part of the lingo. The kids use it – so do the teachers, counselors and administrators – to describe what happens to the loners, druggies, dropouts and suicides. They look around at the masses scarfing pizza and salads and baked potatoes in the lunchroom, and they say, “In a school this big, it is easy for kids to fall through the cracks.”
Created in 1976 to receive the overflow of students in surging East Cobb, Walton High School might have been designed to facilitate psychological free-falls. It is huge – around 2,100 kids in four grades. It is affluent – not a single student lives in an apartment, according to school officials. It is academically oriented – 90 percent of the kids go to college. It is image-obsessed and self-consciously pointed toward the future: it calls its library “the media center” and its cafeteria “the commons”; it produces an annual video yearbook to complement the standard bound edition; it does not have a school paper. It is, in fact, a glittering reflection of the thriving subdivisions that feed it, and for the most part the students verify the opinion of assistant principal Tom Higgins: “These kids buy into what America is selling.”
Unfortunately, every photo has its negative, and every gilded surface its underside. “A school of excellence” such as Walton often cannot reconcile itself to those who don’t excel. In recent years, certain incidents have exposed a darkness at the edge of Walton’s carefully constructed image: A few years ago a drunken Walton student stabbed a student from rival Wheeler High to death; two years ago a Walton student masterminded a rampage of arson and vandalism through Cobb Country businesses and schools, including Walton; last year a senior killed himself six weeks into the fall semester. The explanation, voiced by several Walton students interviewed for this article: “Well, he was new.” (By the end of the 1987-88 school year, eight students had killed themselves in Cobb County.)
The words “he was new” echo through the halls of Walton almost as often as “falling through the cracks.” A lot of the school’s students are new. Although she does not keep statistics on the number of students who transfer to Walton from other school systems, Lib Newton, head of the guidance department, guesses that at least 20 percent ‘of the students come from “somewhere else” and knows that very few were born and raised in Cobb County. Newcomers often do not find Walton – like other affluent suburban high schools – an easy place in which to thrive. Neither, for that matter, do the legions of kids who are not particularly handsome, pretty, smart, rich, talented, athletic, witty or outspoken – the kids at the dead center of the bell curve. For these students high school can become a struggle for self-definition, conducted in a society as harsh and vast and unyielding as any conjured up by the naturalistic novelists of the 19th century.
“In small schools, most kids have a role because there are enough slots for everybody,” says Dr. Catherine Blusiewicz, an adolescent psychologist in DeKalb County. “In a big school, though, there’s a lot more students, but you still have only 40 kids on the football team, seven girls in homecoming court, 50 kids in the band. So there’s this large group of kids in the middle ground walking around undefined.”
Touring the halls of Walton High School, it is difficult not to be impressed by the sheer size of the students, by their physical beauty, by their flair and style. Interviews reveal their sophistication and incredible media savvy. But most startling is their awesome capability to categorize their comrades. These kids keep mental dossiers. Like employees at a large corporation, they can provide rapid-fire job descriptions of anyone within shouting distance. Jock. Bop. Twinkie. Born Again. Geek. Freak. New Wave. Skinhead. Art Snob. Pseudo Art Snob. They know the arcane secrets of each group (for instance, that “all the Born Agains work at the Chick-fil-A”), where each group sits for lunch and, most importantly, their own place. At one table a slight, pimply boy was asked if he was a jock. “No,” he said, “but I wish I was.”
“Then what are you?”
“I’m ROTC,” the boy answered.
“Where is that on the social scale?”
“Oh,” the boy answered matter-of- factly, “we’re the lowest. We’re lower than the freaks. There’s the jocks and bops, then there’s the freaks, and then there’s us.”
For most parents the term peer pressure stirs up images of other kids prodding their children to misbehave. For students at many suburban high schools, peer pressure is something different: the pressure to announce yourself, to accept a tag stating your name, rank and musical preference. Says Walton’s Angel Thomas, a garrulous girl in artfully tom jeans, “The minute you come here, you get asked, ‘What are you? What kind of music do you listen to? Do you do drugs?’ All these things you can and can’t do.”
When Eric Stone entered Walton in the ninth grade, he knew very well what he could and couldn’t do. He couldn’t excel at schoolwork. He couldn’t be a Casanova – he was too shy with girls. He couldn’t be what he calls “one of those intimidating, dominating guys with big arms pushing kids around in the halls.” And yet he wanted to be somebody at Walton – so he cast his lot with the freaks and found something he could do very well.
“If you wanted a name for yourself,” says Eric, “you either had to be real good at football, real good-looking or real fucked up. I was the third.”
They sit in the comer of the cafeteria, backs against the wall, four of them at a table usually occupied by 12. Eight have either been suspended or are cutting lunch period. An administrator walks by, and they give him a fascist salute, a mocking Sieg Heil. He does not acknowledge them. A few weeks earlier a food fight had rocked the calm of the cafeteria, a bowl of mashed potatoes had been upended on a coach’s head, and these boys with the long hair and the black heavy-metal T-shirts – these freaks - had shouldered the blame.
They do not match the image that has come to personify Walton students. They are not blond and sassy; they do not wear penny loafers or mousse their hair. Two of them have Italian surnames; one rubs a 5-o’clock shadow; one sports an earring the shape of a crucifix. They all have written messages and phone numbers on their forearms, the ink: sinking into their skin like homemade tattoos. Once the administrator stalks past their table, they begin to complain about the way they are treated: “You know, it’s like, ‘hair and black, you lose,’ ” says Chris Angelo, leader of the pack. “Just because you don’t fit in, then they [the administration] are like, ‘You don’t even exist here.’ ”
Yet despite the complaints and suspensions, 1988 has been a pretty good year for Walton’s freaks and metalheads. A few years ago a group of jocks called hard-asses – beefy kids with a grudge against those who didn’t share the Walton spirit – waged war against them. “There was fighting all the time,” Chris Angelo says. This year it has been different. This year a beautiful blond bop named Jessica Hall dumped her jock boyfriend – out of boredom, she says – and went after Chris Angelo. She dropped notes in his locker, wrote messages in his schoolbooks and, she says, “became obsessed with him.” Soon he reciprocated, and for a while the relationship might have been inspired by an early-‘6Os torch song, the young lovers ostracized by their friends for violating Walton’s social code. She was “degrading herself”; he had “sold out.” In time, though, Chris and Jessica would initiate a small-scale revolution, and now some of the freaks like to flip open their wallets and show off pictures of their boppy girlfriends.
It is hardly a new story. It is, in fact, a classic theme of high school mythology – the lure of the rebel, the bad boy, the greaser, the freak. In 1988, however, a parent whose child gravitates beyond the pale of social convention must answer a question: Is my kid’s attraction to the fringe element a manifestation of normal adolescent unrest, or is it a symptom of something dangerous? When Atlanta hospitals and treatment centers hand out information sheets describing the telltale signs of drug abuse, the flyers inevitably warn parents to watch out for a fixation on rock music and its iconography, for abrupt shifts in hairstyle and dress and, most importantly, for unexplained changes in an adolescent’s circle of friends. They tell parents, in other words, to watch out for kids like Chris Angelo.
But the world is never as uncomplicated as pamphlets and flyers imply. Appearances deceive. Chris Angelo makes good grades and wants to go to the Air Force Academy. An English teacher who has spent time talking to “the longhairs” says, “these kids often have a lot more to say than the ones in the penny loafers and Generra [a popular and expensive brand of clothing].” According to many Walton students, the jocks and “the popular kids” indulge in as many drugs as the boys and girls in the shadows. “It turns out that the majority of kids in this school who do drugs are the kids you would never suspect,” says Robin Holman, a cheerleader and art student. “They just don’t get pegged.”
Indeed, if parents listen long enough to students, psychologists and counselors, they will reach the distressing conclusion that no one is above suspicion. No one escapes the specter of risk. On the one hand, the rebellious child is always but a step away from “acting out” – the psychological term for turning tension into trouble. On the other, the quiet, studious child may flirt with depression, the high school hero may front a dysfunctional family, and the chipper homecoming queen may maintain her figure through an eating disorder. (The anorexic, in particular, is often characterized by an aversion to open rebellion.) Rage and rebellion are the hallmarks of teen-age life, and for parent and child to survive, they must reconcile themselves to these dark forces, carefully balancing indulgence against repression.
So what is a parent to do when a child starts to dress in eccentric clothing and hang out with self-styled outcasts and misfits? Says Dr. Blusiewicz: “Find out why. When you look at your child’s friends, find out why he or she is drawn to them. Is the group organized around some kind of skill, or is it organized around failure? Some kids – especially new kids – go to fringe groups because they are the easiest to fit in with. There are no standards; they don’t have to compete. But just as the group is the easiest to get into, it’s the easiest to fall out of, and when they fall, there is no support … I’m a big believer in activities. You know, the band kids may be nerdy, but there’s 60 of them, and they get in a bus and joke around.”
“If parents stick to some basic norms, then they can be confident that their kids will be able to get past whatever phase he or she is going through,” says Ellen Singer, a family therapist in Cobb County. “Are the kids passing school? Are they drug and alcohol free? If they are following these tenets, who cares what they wear or how long they grow their hair? Is your only gripe that your daughter brings home a greaser? Then forget it. “
In ninth grade Curt Hersey joined what he now calls “the bad crowd.” He flunked two classes and glimpsed, in the fates of his potsmoking friends, what the future had in store for him. “I’m glad I hung around with some of those guys, because I saw what drugs were doing to them and didn’t want any part of that.” Although he never cut his hair and never abandoned his Led Zeppelin T-shirts, he retreated to Walton’s creative flank and stayed there until graduation, “a crowd of one.” All through high school, however, he obeyed his parents’ dictum to “care for people weaker than yourself” and brought home a succession of kids who were having trouble with their families – kids who were fighting with their parents, kids who had been kicked out of their homes.
“Curt was always picking up strays,” says his father, Les. “We welcomed everybody, and, believe me, he brought home some strange children. But they were good kids at heart, and we never had an anxious moment with Curt.”
Eric Stone, on the other hand, was more committed to a single course of action, and by the 10th grade, his dedication to altered states of consciousness had won him some of the notoriety he craved. “I wasn’t famous,” he says, “I was infamous. People used to pass me in the halls and say, ‘Look at that burnout.’ ” One of his classmates remembers him pulling a notebook off her desk, leafing through it and then saying, in a thickened, foggy voice, “Oh wow.” Although some of his friends – including Curt Hersey – implored him to clean up his act, he wouldn’t, or couldn’t. For years he had struggled in school, and his struggle had never paid off. Now he had given up the fight, and he was having fun.
“School and I never got along,” says Eric. “From the first grade on up.” The phrasing is revealing. Like many kids with learning disabilities, Eric considered himself a failure and quietly despised the institutions – elementary school, middle school, high school – that had brought him so low. In time his learning disabilities would inspire behavior disorders, and his behavior disorders would intensify his war against the classroom. “Behavior disorders and learning disabilities go hand in hand,” says Tweetie Moore, director of the New School, a special school for children with learning problems. “I have never seen an LD child who didn’t have low self-esteem and wasn’t acting out in some way. We don’t even differentiate between learning disabilities and behavior disorders here.”
At Walton Eric took courses provided by the school’s special education department. In all public schools there is, by law, a program designed for children with learning or behavioral dysfunctions; Walton’s employs seven teachers and caters to approximately 100 students. Some are dyslexic; some have difficulties with short-term memory or auditory processing; some are, in the words of special education department chairman Susan Case, “emotionally committed to failing”; some are gifted; some have behavioral problems. Once the students are tested and diagnosed as candidates for special education, they work with the department’s teachers to improve their study skills and motivation, and they attend both special-ed and “team-taught” classes – that is, classes taught by a combination of special-ed and regular faculty.
For many Walton students the department’s programs are more than sufficient; Susan Case says that about half her LD kids go on to college. For Eric Stone, however, the special education department could do virtually nothing. He would meet with his teachers; he would meet with his parents and his teachers; and then he would go out and get high. “We can provide all the help in the world,” Case says, “but if a student doesn’t want to accept it, there’s nothing we can do.”
Amazingly, Case says she never knew that Eric was using drugs. Over the past few years, various treatment centers have established satellites in the suburbs and have hired counselors to travel from school to school and alert teachers to the symptoms of drug use. In 1987 Cobb County appointed two full-time “crisis consultants” to assume part of the drug-education burden. They are not enough. Parents who think that such programs are going to root the menace of drugs from schools need only look as far ~ Eric Stone. For years he played the role of pothead; he flaunted it, reveled in it, and when nobody caught him, he regarded himself as a Ferris Bueller-type figure – wily, charmed, above the law. The only people who didn’t know he was stoned were his teachers.
It is because of students like Eric Stone that Tweetie Moore recommends a therapeutic approach for children with learning disabilities. “At a lot of public schools, these kids either get no treatment or they get a period a day,” she says. “You can’t treat pieces of kids. We get kids who for years have gone to school and just sat there. How many years can you let them sit?” At the New School both parents and students must participate in group sessions with their peers, and students work at a curriculum designed to “give them the experience of success.”
“A lot of these kids have failed so often they think you can’t do anything about failure. We try to teach them that you sure can.”
The New School also asks parents to sign a “policy statement” when they enroll their child. The policy statement reserves the school “the right to search a student, his/ her belongings and his/her vehicle . . . [and to collect urine samples for drug screenings] should student exhibit behavior that leads a staff member . . . to suspect that the student has used an illegal substance or is in possession of an illegal substance.”
“We’re very up-front with what we expect from our kids and what we expect from our parents,” says Moore.
Walton High School has four guidance counselors for its 2,100 students. Cobb County has 15 school psychologists for all its 78 schools. It has two crisis consultants who educate faculty, intervene in the aftermath of suicides and work to connect troubled kids with treatment centers and hospitals. They are federally funded, and when the funding runs out, they may not have jobs. Susan Case says a school is in the business of education, not therapy. Parents with a child like Eric Stone cannot depend on the school system to stop his fall. They have to rely on themselves.
“It doesn’t matter where children fit in,” says Liz Jones, one of Cobb’s crisis consultants, “as long as their family offers the proper love and support.”
Eric, however, says that from the onset of his school years, he did not get along with his adopted parents. In elementary school, he says, “there was always a lot of friction because I was never good in school and that was my dad’s big thing.” In middle school tests identified Eric’s dyslexia, but no one could prod him to apply himself to schoolwork. He ran away from home for the first time just before the release of final report cards in eighth grade. A pattern was established: “Sometimes my mom would throw me out and sometimes I would just leave.
Most of the time I stayed with friends; sometimes I just wandered around.” By the time Eric reached 10th grade, Frank and Aloma Stone had lost control of their son, and out of desperation Mrs. Stone attended a ToughLove meeting. She never went back.
“ToughLove was for kids on drugs. I didn’t think that was a problem we had with Eric,” she said.
Mrs. Stone was not quite accurate in her assessment.
Often an organization of last resort, ToughLove was created to give parents power – to provide them with enough peer support to “take a stand” with their children. According to Rod Revels, representative for ToughLove in Georgia, the group encourages confrontation and teaches that “kids are responsible for their own actions.” Not a quick fix, ToughLove works with parents who over the years have ceded control to their children and now want it back. Predictably, the children often rebel against the challenge to their authority, and the parent has to call in other ToughLove parents for a show of force.
Although ToughLove’s methods have not met with universal approval, the organization’s very existence – and popularity within the psychotherapeutic community – signals a turnabout in the nation’s attitudes toward parenting. Teachers at Walton, and the counselors and psychologists treating the kids who have gone astray, repeatedly condemn the parents who “look to the schools to raise their children,” who “need acceptance from their kids,” who “have lost confidence in setting limits,” who “want to be kids more than they want to be parents.” Once considered the vanguard of a permissive society, psychologists now lead the call for parents to reassert their traditional dominion.
“Families become dysfunctional when the rules change a lot,” says Scott Andersen, program director of Brawner Psychiatric Institute’s adolescent units. “When kids get into trouble, they’re begging for someone to say no, they’re begging for limits. Parents need to understand that their job is to say no. Kids don’t want their parents to be friends. They want them to be Mom and Dad.”
Yet once again the inevitable contradictions of raising children muddle the consensus. According to Andersen, if a child is having a crisis, “the most important thing that a parent can do is tell him you are going to fix it. You don’t have to know how; you just have to know that you’re going to do it, and the kid has to know that you’re going to do it. That’s half the battle.”
At the same time, however, many therapists call upon parents to “quit rescuing their children from the consequences of their actions.” Says Ellen Singer: “Consequences are still the best teacher. Sometimes you just have to say, ‘OK, young man, here it is: This is your life.’
“You can let them learn from failure,” adds Singer, “unless alcohol and drugs are involved. Because then a disease has been introduced, and free will has been taken away.”
In the summer after he dropped out of Walton, Eric Stone left home for the last time. Asked to relinquish the keys to his motorcycle, he argued with his father, and soon the argument turned violent. “Some weapons were involved,” Eric says, preferring not to give details. “The cops were called, and I headed out.” By this time he had an appointment with the Bottom. He moved into a friend’s house, and then into a friend’s car, and then, when the car was impounded, into a lean-to in the woods, a former home for hoboes. During the day, he wandered the streets, and as October blew in, he started to shiver. Finally, on Halloween, his former girlfriend told him
to look at himself, and at last somebody got through to him. He looked at himself, didn’t like what he saw, and phoned home. “My mother said I could come home if I went into rehab.” He dropped acid one more time, at a Pink Floyd concert, and then checked into Charter Peachford, he says.
For kids like Eric Stone, the treatment centers and the hospitals are often the last stop before death. To pass through the locked doors of Brawner Psychiatric Institute’s adolescent units, for example, is to intrude upon a village of the prematurely damned. Yes, the kids look wholesome enough in their acid-washed jeans and oversized sweat shirts, and the halls echo with the clatter of air hockey and the whisper of teen-age gossip. When asked where they would be if they didn’t get treatment, however, almost all volunteer the same answer. The 13-year-old boy, still wearing the T-shirt of his elementary school, addicted to “huffing gasoline and hairspray” . . . the girl whose father broke her fingers as a form of discipline. . . the boy who skipped school for two years without anyone taking notice … the pint-size dealer who carried a gun to school. . . . They all say the same thing. They say they would be dead.
For the most part, they are addicts and alcoholics, given to outrageous benders, and they ably demonstrate the intimacy of drugs and depression, the faint line between chemical dependence and emotional collapse. Indeed, while many therapists insist that addiction masks a deeper unrest, a growing contingent holds that chemical dependence is a primary disease, sneaking out of the genes and nervous systems of the unlucky. Addicts, in this formulation, are both born and made. “With the kids we see, the constant variable is chemical dependency,” says Dr. Mike Carpenter, a Cobb crisis consultant. “Either in themselves or somewhere in their family.”
The case of Toby Otterburn reveals the difficulty of deciding whether chemicals are the cause or the effect. A patient at Straight, a treatment center in Marietta, Toby says he started smoking and dealing pot in sixth grade. As his dependence mounted, he flunked his classes, switched schools, stole money, pilfered drugs from his father’s veterinary practice, and eventually forced his parents to buy a safe for their cash and belongings. He shaved the sides of his head and let his red bangs grow to his chin. He could not, he says, “look a single person in the eye.” To help him, his parents took him to the man who was supposedly “the best psychiatrist in North Carolina.” The psychiatrist never asked if he was using drugs.
“I used to go to his office stoned,” Toby says. “It baffled me: ‘This guy’s supposed to be the best, and it’s never crossed his mind that I’m a druggie.’ I tried to get better, but I always got worse. I knew I was messing up. I had no family relationships, no friends, and I felt like crap about myself. But I couldn’t admit it was drugs. I thought everything else was a mess, but the drugs were OK. I protected my habit. Be that’s all I had; I was living for drugs, and if you took them away, what would be left? What was I going to do without them? Play Putt-Putt?”
The jets from Dobbins Air Force Base shriek overhead, and the mud-streaked Camaros and Firebirds fill the parking lot of Oakwood, Cobb County’s alternative high school. The boys and girls empty out of the cars, stamp out their cigarettes, and head for the full-length mirrors by the entrance to the school. The boys, by and large, sport scruffy, unconventional hairstyles, and the girls wear tight jeans and high heels. Yet when they get to the mirrors, they look at themselves, and they preen and laugh. Carla Northcutt laughs, too.
The mirrors, after all, were Northcutt’s idea. As principal of Oakwood, she had come to the belief that these kids had been “dragged through the crap vat of life,” and she wanted to give them an opportunity to strut. From allover Cobb County, they had come to her, most of them failures in one way or another at their home schools, and she had given them another chance. In the halls they throw their arms around her shoulders and call her “Mama.” Once she leaves them, though, and heads back to her office, she smiles no longer. For years she has seen the dark side of Cobb County’s affluence – the kids damaged by broken families, undue expectations, and the rigid social categorization of other schools – and now she reaches an unsettling conclusion about American high schools.
“Society is sick, and that’s reflected in its institutions. High school is just another piece of the pie. It’s made of the same ingredients as the society at large. If the pie burns, so does high school.”
Right now, according to Northcutt and other professionals who work with troubled kids, the pie is already smoking. There is a consensus: in order to stop kids like Toby Otterburn from using drugs, society can’t just ask them to say no or send them off to play Putt-Putt. It has to give them something else. Says Iris Bolton, director of the Link, a counseling center with a highly regarded teen-suicide program: “A lot of kids don’t have meaning and purpose. They’re under pressure to get good grades, to go to a good college, to get a good job and make money. Then they look at their parents and see that none of this stuff guarantees happiness. The best way to teach a child is by example, and parents have to look at what their own lives are saying to their children.”
Children do not necessarily thrive in ease and comfort. “Parents have to give their children a role,” says Catherine Blusiewicz. “A lot of children today don’t even have chores. They don’t feel important to their parents. Often they don’t feel necessary in any area of their life. When I went to school, there were a lot of working-class kids whose jobs were absolutely critical to their families. High school is a very limited world. Parents have to broaden that world into something beyond what is dictated by the child’s peers. Children have to know that regardless of what their peers say, they always have a role in the family.” “A person who is going to survive life is going to survive high school,” says Carla Northcutt. “But high school doesn’t teach those skills. Those skills are spiritual. Those skills are from your parents and your family.”
Although Eric Stone did not survive high school, he is, so far, surviving life. He touched bottom and somehow found strength and the will to live. He is lucky. For some people, he says, “the only bottom is death.” Now as he looks back over his ordeal, he just shakes his head. “As young as I am, I’ve had it pretty rough – and it’s all my fault.”
Occasionally, Curt Hersey drops by Eric’s house, and the two boys play pool like they did in the old days. Curt is the high school survivor – the nonconformist who managed to get by on his own terms. But apparently he did not survive without strain.
Two days after he graduated from Walton, Curt went to his doctor with stomach cramps. The doctors initially diagnosed an ulcer and then changed their minds. To this day, as Curt prepares to go to college, they can’t figure out the source of the problem.
When ATLANTA Magazine asked counselors, psychologists and social workers to identify the symptons of teenagers in trouble, they answered:
1. An overwhelming desire for isolation. Troubled teens sequester themselves from the family and do not share in the family’s emotional life. The televsion or the stereo is always on.
2. The abandonment of old friends. Often, troubled teens will not want to introduce their new friends to their parents.
3. A change in attitudes. “A lot of times, the thought changes before the behavior,” says Barry Lockenbach, a counselor at Straight. “There is a change in the clothing they wear and a change in their hygiene. They use more slang and profanity, and they show less respect for authority. Often, they turn away from their spiritual beliefs.”
4. Running away or sneaking out of theh ouse in the middle of the night.
5. Frequent automobile accidents.
6. Dropping grades, dwindling interest in sports and extracurricular activities. “Just by looking at a kid’s record, you can usually tell when he began smoking pot,” says Carla Northcutt, principal of Oakwood High School.
7. Trouble holding a job.
8. Stealing money from parents.
9. Inability to follow home rule.
10. “The children to watch out for,” says Dr. Catherine Blusiewicz, “are the ones with no hope or interests — the ones who are always bored and show a lack of joy or enthusiasm and don’t participate in any activites.” —T.J.
Dealing with Teen-Age Sexuality
“Sex is not really a taboo type of thing,” says one Walton High School student and honor student. “It’s everybody. Personally, I don’t think you should only have sex when you’re married.”
Such a casual attitude — almost 60 percent of high school students polled by People magazine in 1987 were not virgins — can make even sophisticated ’80s parents feel frightened and helpless. Family psychologist Catherine Blusiewicz offers parents tips for dealing with their child’s sexuality.
“Encourage communcation about sex,” Blusiewicz recommends. “If sexuality is characterized as taboo — something that no one can even allude to — it becomes a source of rebellion. Teen-agers naturally think: ‘There must be something to it if it’s such a secret at home.’ ”
Give teen-agers specific guidelines for acceptable behavior — no matter how sophisticated the teen-ager may seem. That may include curfews, limits on the number of nights they can go out, restrictions about the kinds of places they may go. Adult places, such as nightclubs, encourage adult behavior, which includes sex, Blusiewicz says. Make sure adult chaperones will be present at parties your child is invited to. These restrictions certainly won’t always be welcomed, but secretly most kids are relieved at not having to make their own choices, she says.
Overt sexual promiscuity in teen-agers — especially girls — is often a sign of depression, Blusiewicz says. Girls in this state of mind may dress too provocatively and wear too much makeup. She notes that teen-age sexual rebelliousness is common in families where parents are either too restrictive or too liberal about sex. “Parents need to strive for the middle ground,” she advises.
If parent-child communications stagnate, allow the child to seek advice about sex from another family member or adult friend of the family. If that doesn’t work, Blusiewicz says, professional counseling may be in order. —Melissa Harris
Mom, Dad … I’m a Geek
Not fitting in can be the most devastating experience of a teen-ager’s life. According to psychologists, it can provide a child with a negative self-image that often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
How can a parent help a child who does not fit in, who is branded a “geek”? Unfortunately, while there may be a lot to say, there is not an awful lot to do. “There’s no way a parent can make a child feel better,” says Ellen Singer, a counselor with a practice in Cobb County. “The parent can love and encourage the child to be his or her own person, but if a child is suffering in school, there is no way a parent can change that child’s feelings.”
Some tips: “Look around for ways the kid can be special. Whatever the child’s gift, look for a class or a club or some kind of evening program that bring it out. There are also wilderness programs — an outdoor camping or survival situation – that can force the child to use his gifts. All parents tell their kids how special they are; sometimes an experience outside the home can back up what the parent has been saying.
“Encourage the child to bring somebody over to the house to spend the weekend; don’t let him fall into the trap of isolation. If the parent has ever had any similar experiences, it’s very important to look back and share that with. the child. A kid looks at a parent as someone who has it all together; it is sometimes very comforting to know that has not always been the case.
. .. Most importantly, the parent should not pontificate or preach or try to cajole the kid away from his feelings. Empathy is the key. You give him a big hug and then cross your fingers.” —T.J.
Diseases of Obediance
Anorexia nervosa is a disease of obedience of the A student, the daddy’s girl, the overachiever. A few years ago, Dr. Nyda Williams Brown, a psychiatrist at Brawner Psychiatric Institute and one of Atlanta’s foremost authorities on anorexia and bulimia, had four patients from one Cobb County high school — three cheerleaders and one member of the homecoming court. Overall, about half of Dr. Brown’s patients are high school girls.
“Anorexics don’t rebel except by not eating,” says Brown. “Part of my job is to teach them more healthy ways to rebel and to tell parents that if their daughter skips school, that doesn’t mean that she is a moral degenerate. The parents have to be willing not to crush them. One of my patients was a 12- year-old girl who started going to school with her shirt on backwards. That was her rebellion, and that was OK.”
Anorexics are easy to spot. Bulimics are harder, especially as their compulsion progresses and they become expert in the art of vomiting. Dr. Brown’s tip: If you suspect your daughter is bulimic, try to catch her early, before she has learned how to hide it. Look, especially, for signs of vomit under the rim of the toilet. —T.J.
High School by the Numbers
- Fifty-seven percent of high school students have lost their virginity; by age 19, eight in 10 males and seven in 10 females will have had intercourse. The average age for first-time sex is 16.9 years old.
- One-third of students have sex at least monthly. Thirty-nine percent of these use birth control when having sex; most wait at least nine months after their first sexual encounter before seeking contraceptive advice.
- Three thousand American high school girls become pregnant daily; more than 500,000 will have abortions. Only half of all teen mothers finish high school.
- Ninety-six percent of sexually active high school students know AIDS can be spread heterosexually; 26 percent say they have changed their behavior because of AIDS.
- Forty-nine percent of parents say they talk to their teen-agers about sex at least every two months; only 22 percent of kids say they are honest with their parents when discussing sex.
- Slightly more than 23 percent of high school students smoked pot in 1987; in Georgia, that figure was 18 percent.
- Over 42,000 senior high school students in Georgia smoked pot in 1987; nearly 3,000 seniors tried cocaine.
- Sixty-four percent of Georgia’s high school seniors drank wine coolers in 1987; 61 percent drank beer.
- The freshman year of high school, when students are 14-15 years old, is the age when more Cobb County students first tried beer, wine coolers, liquor, pot, uppers, downers, inhalants and hallucinogens. Of the 5.7 percent of Cobb County high school students who have used cocaine, most had their first experience with it between the ages of 14 and 17. Most teenagers’ beer drinking — 38.3 percent — is done at a “friend’s house,” Cobb students say. Almost 21 percent reported drinking beer at home.
- Georgia ranked 48th in the United States (tied with Louisiana) last year in producing high school graduates, a drop from 39th in 1982.
- Teen-aged suicide increased significantly in 1987 in several greater Atlanta counties. Cobb County, for example, had seven teen suicides during 1987, up from two in 1986. DeKalb County had four teen-age suicides in 1985, three in 1986, and six in 1987. Fulton County had seven teen-age suicides in 1985, four in 1986, and eight in 1987.
- Approximately 80 percent of all teen suicides were using chemicals at the time of death. Sixty percent were chemically dependent. —M.H.
ATLANTA Magazine asked psychologists, counselors, teachers and parents for tips on howto help your kids survive high school. This is what we heard:
“Contracts work wonders. If your kid wants the car, make him agree to clean his room every day, or come home every night exactly at 10. If he signs a contract, then you have a piece of paper to fall back on. And if you set a cutfew; stick to it.” (Scott Andersen, Brawner Psychiatric Institute)
“Listen to what your kids are saying. Some of it might sound ridiculous, but some of it will always make sense, and that’s what you should try to develop.”(Catherine Bluslewicz, adolescent psychologist)
“Turn off the damn TV and converse.” (Will Rumbaugh, Walton English teacher) .
“Confront your children! I see so many kids who say, ‘I come home stoned. My parents know it, and they ignore me.’ Keep asking questions. Keep trying to communicate. If that fails, then it might be time to see a counselor.” (Charles P. Stewart, Charter Peachford)
“Kids have a problem sitting down and talking when you say, ‘Let’s have a talk.’ If you want to seriously talk to your kids, do the things you normally do, but do it with them. Say, ‘Hey, I have to go to the hardware store. Why don’t you come along?’ Then talk to them.” (Scott Andersen)
“Instill a mind-set where the kid knows the family history and knows his risks for addiction. How many times do you hear of people basing their decision whether to drink on their family history? Unfortunately, not too often.” (Mike Carpenter, Cobb County Crisis Consultant)
“Accept their quirks [such as unconventional hairstyles and clothing]. Acceptance takes the power from them.” (Ellen Singer, counselor)
“Parents shouldn’t say, ‘It’s only high school.’ They say, ‘Oh, forget it, you’re just upset because you have all these little things to do.’ They don’t realize that when you’re 17, school is your life; it’s your job. Of course it’s important.” (Angel Thomas, ’88 Walton graduate)
“I tell my kids, ‘You’re having trouble being a teen-ager? Remember, I’m having trouble being the mom of a teen-ager. Help me be a good teen-age mother.’ “(Carol Hale, teacher at Dunwoody High, mother of a teen-ager) —T.J.
When it came time for Walton High School’s 1988 prom, senior Larry Ritter wanted to make it something special. “Quite frankly, I was going to try to outdo everybody,” Ritter admits. “I was going to charter a helicopter, which actually would have been cheaper than a limousine. That would have been a nice entrance.”
So what was the problem?
“We had to eat,” Ritter explains, “and I figured out it would be tough going to dinner before the prom in a helicopter.”
In the end Ritter and his date had to settle for a plain old limousine. Some Walton kids were taking limos to school dances back when they were eighth-graders at Dickerson Middle School. By no means do Walton’s well accessoried adolescents hold a monopoly on materialism. Some public schools around the country have begun instating school uniforms to counteract what they call “fashion wars” – even at the elementary school level. “Their materialism is tied into the basic insecurity most teen-agers feel,” says one high school counselor. “All these things are the props that make them feel more accepted.”
Those props range from pricey sound systems to BMWs for graduation gifts. But the one occasion when everybody takes a shot at stealing the show is prom night. Most kids spend at least $200 or $300 apiece on prom night – and that’s expectation, not the exception. One Walton teacher likens it to Academy Awards night.
Prom dresses at Bonnie’s Boutiqlle, a popular shop for Walton girls, range from $100 to $475. The majority of Walton girls have their dresses custom-made, says designer Roy Jordan. Senior girls often want full-length sequin dresses, he says. Matching shoes, purses and lingerie can run into $100 or more.
For boys there are tuxedos, which rent for around $50. “The prom students tend to go with more expensive tuxedos, Pierre Cardin coats and such,” says an employee of Gingiss Formalwear.
Flowers for her – rose wrist corsages – begin at about $15. A stretch limo can rent for more than $60 an hour. (Couples usually “economize” here by sharing the cost.) Dinner must be at one of the city’s ritziest establishments. One Walton student says his dinner tab – which included chateaubriand – at Pano’s and Paul’s came to about $100. After the prom, which is little more than a quick stop for having photographs made, it is standard to proceed to a nearby hotel, where a few couples usually go in together on a room for unchaperoned partying. Add another $30 per person to the total. —M.H.
Suicide Threats: Danger or Manipulation
Most parents know that suicide has become a major topic of high school life. Most parents also know that their children are expert manipulators and will not be above intimating self-destruction if they think such talk will further their ends. One parent said her daughter went through a phase of saying, “Do you want me to commit suicide?” whenever she was being punished.
Parents who wonder what they· should do when faced by such threats should know that four out of five suicides talk about it first.
“In this day and age, it’s unethical for a parent to minimize talk about suicide,” says Dr. Charles P. Stewart, medical director of adolescent services for Charter Peachford Hospital.
“Parents should require the child early on to differentiate between a serious threat and manipulation. The parent should say: ‘If you are genuinely suicidal, we will go for help right now.” Make it clear that you will not tolerate that kind of manipulation, Pin them downright about it, and be prepared to follow through.” —T.J.
How many times should students take the ACT (American College Testing Assessment) or the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), and how should they prepare for these college admission tests?
- Research shows that of the students taking the SAT a second time, 65 percent receive higher scores and 35 percent receive lower scores. The higher the initial score, the more likely the second score will be lower and vice versa.
- About 20 to 25 percent of students take the ACT a second time. Of those who do, 55 percent score higher, 27 percent score lower and 18 percent retain the Same score. The average score gain is less than one point.
- The College Board, which administers the SAT, says a four-year college preparatory curriculum and the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (pSAT) are the best means of preparation for the SAT. The PSAT is a shorter, practice version of the SAT.
- Students should take the PSAT in the fall of their sophomore or junior year ~ usually the junior year. The SAT should be taken in the spring of a student’s 11th-grade year. It is offered seven times a year in Georgia.
- Students can ask their counselors for Taking the SAT, the free practice book given out by the College Board. Some schools have software computer programs to help students prepare for both the PSAT and SAT. Additionally, booklets of retired tests, such as Ten SATs, are sold in bookstores.
- The, College Board suggests students and parents find out what free help is available in the high school and what the student can do individually to improve his score before paying for a commercially offered SAT-readiness course.
- The ACT is usually taken in the spring of the 11th grade or during the 12th grade. The test is offered five times a year.
- P-ACT+ is the practice for the ACT, usually taken in October of the student’s 10th-grade year. Students are advised to pick up Preparing for the ACT assessment, the program’s official practice book. Some high schools offer ACT preparation courses. The American College Testing Program does not officially endorse any commercial test preparation.
An irony of suburban high schools: Although black students are a tiny minority in a sea of white faces, they are insulated from some of the anxieties bedeviling their white classmates.
“When black students come here, they immediately know they have a group to hang with,” says one black student at Walton.
Another says, “We are able to fit in with all groups because we’re immediately classified as blacks, and not as ‘geeks’ or anything like that.”
Indeed, as they sit together at one cafeteria table, Walton’s black students broadcast a message that could be a universal tonic for kids with the high school blues: “We stick together and find strength in ourselves.”
“When someone commits suicide, we can’t sympathize, because none of us ever think about it,” says a black student. “The white kids aren’t as individually adjusted as we are. A white kid will say, ‘Omigod, this person doesn’t like me.’ We’re like, ‘We don’t care, because we never expected them to like us in the first place.’ We go on with it.” —T.J.