What are we going to do about the younger generation?

Essay by Martha Quillen

American Life – April 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Like Barbra Streisand and Tony Bennett, some things just keep coming back.

Around here, one of those things is the generation question from the Flower Drum Song. This time around, the issue arose after a Buena Vista high school student died of exposure within hailing distance of his own front door.

Ryan Moore had been out drinking with friends to celebrate his seventeenth birthday. Apparently he asked his friends to drop him off some distance from his house so he could get some fresh air and perhaps sober up. Instead he was found dead near his home the next morning.

Within days, that death led to a re-examination of the problem of teenage drinking in Buena Vista, which included a five-part series on the issue by Chris Hunt, a reporter for The Chaffee County Times.

Letters poured into the paper. Some were heart-felt pleas with teenagers to be more careful, but the majority were attempts to grapple with the problem of teen drinking. A youth council was formed. Another group was founded to discuss a teen center or other adult-sponsored entertainments to lure kids away from woodsies and alcohol.

Buena Vistans were no doubt stunned when Hunt quoted a Salida doctor’s assertion that, from his experience, Buena Vista has five times the teenage drinking problem Salida has.

But Salidans couldn’t gloat — since in January a twenty-year-old Salida man was arrested in connection with the murder of a CBI drug informant. And in February students at Salida’s high school and junior high were subjected to a forty-minute lock-up while their lockers were searched by armed police officers with a drug-sniffing dog.

Over the years, however, Salida’s young people have embraced a number of diversions that didn’t necessarily involve drugs or alcohol. Alas, few of those pastimes ever proved popular with the adult community.

There was the skate-boarding craze. Kids were everywhere, riding skateboards, flipping skateboards, hopping curbs on skateboards, even negotiating stairways on skateboards. Citizens complained to the city council, and the city moved to alleviate the problem. The kids protested, and negotiations for a city skateboard park began.

I don’t know what happened to those park plans, but the kids never got that park. That hardly mattered, however, since by the time such a park could have been completed, skateboards were pass√© and rollerblades were in.

Again there were complaints — rollerbladers on the streets and rollerbladers on the sidewalks.

Over time, there has also been controversy about too many bicyclists downtown, kids in the parks after hours, kids cruising F Street, kids with boomboxes, and kids loitering in parking lots.

IT HAS DEVELOPED into a pattern. The complaints build, the city council reacts, the police crack down on loitering, or cruising, or noise, or whatever else happens to be the problem — and the young people find some new annoying pastime.

(Except sometimes our teenagers return to some old annoying diversion, like cruising F — which actually may be brand new to them, since they are generally so young they haven’t even realized that driving around in circles isn’t getting them anywhere.)

All this might be amusing — if the consequences weren’t so serious. But rural America has never been a safe place for children. Historically, young men die here more frequently than they die in cities and suburbs. In some ways, it stands to reason. Hunting accidents, chainsaw accidents, farm-equipment accidents, and horseback-riding accidents take their toll. But alcohol has always played a tragic role in rural statistics, too.

And in the last thirty years, rural America has also acquired a drug problem. (Or maybe it’s always had a drug problem, if one includes the prevalence of patent-medicine addiction at the turn of the century, and the wide-spread abuse of prescription drugs in the fifties and sixties).

For his Times series on drinking problems, Chris Hunt purposely chose kids who drank — because that was what he was investigating. Those kids said they felt persecuted, harassed, ostracized for their clothing, and excluded by their peers. In short, they were classic examples of the sort of juvenile alienation that novelists have made into an art form.

Those kids attributed their difficulties to dressing differently and being different. But unfortunately, some of their cleaner-living peers feel the same way.

Last summer, I ran into two kids who had gone to school with my older daughter. They were both conventionally dressed honor students, who are now honor students in college. And they both said they were only home for a little while — because they couldn’t stand to be in Salida.

A parent told me, “Salida eats its children. Then wonders why they leave at eighteen — or sooner.”

In Salida, kids get ousted from parks, and rousted from sidewalks. Teenage drivers get pulled over frequently, and asked to count backwards. Young people get followed by wary shopclerks. For most teenagers, including the wholly innocent, life is full of small indignities and embarrassing incidents. But there’s not too much they can say, since teenagers really do account for more than their share of noise, accidents, and shoplifting.

This year, when Salida High School students returned from their summer vacation, instead of the usual speech on school spirit versus apathy, they got a rousing lecture about youth gangs, new disciplinary measures, and zero tolerance. By the time the day was over, many students didn’t feel like going back.

Apparently, this tactic is part of a “scared straight” approach. But in Salida it is applied uniformly to shy kids, honor students, wallflowers, athletes, cheerleaders, et al.

Last month, when police officers searched their school, nobody told the students why, and nobody told them if anything was found.

OUR CURRENT PREVENTION PROGRAMS start at the lowest grade levels, so we can reach kids before they have problems with drugs and alcohol. There is no evidence that such tactics work, but we keep trying to cure the adult ills of addiction, alcoholism, and irresponsible sex by aggressively treating six-year-olds. In doing so, we rob our youngsters of their childhoods — by insisting that they worry about AIDS and addicts, when they should be worried about nothing more weighty than learning to tie their shoes.

If we were purposely trying to alienate our children, I’m not sure we could find a better way.

Recently, I heard someone say that teenagers wear baggy clothes to conceal weapons. If that’s true, I can see why people are upset — since some of these kids could be concealing tanks under all of that cloth.

But in all probability, the baggy clothes are just a trend. And baggy clothes certainly aren’t any more shocking than the styles youth donned in the twenties. That’s when hemlines hiked from ankle to knee-cap almost overnight. To make matters worse, women bobbed hair that had previously been considered biblically ordained to remain uncut. Young men wore long fur coats, and snazzy hats, and white suits, and two-toned shoes.

BACK TO 1995 — the teenagers Hunt interviewed want a pool hall, a place like a bar, without alcohol. But Salida has such a pool hall, and it attracts a lot of criticism.

Although our pool hall almost certainly keeps a few kids out of the hills and off the winding roads, kids loiter nearby, smoking and looking disreputable. And parents worry about their twelve- and thirteen-year-olds hanging out there. In the long run, a privately run pool hall might be a boon to Buena Vista. But a community sponsored pool hall probably isn’t advisable.

I hope Buena Vista can find something to offer teenagers who feel excluded and unwelcome. But I also wonder if we might be looking at too small a picture.

Throughout this century, Americans have been prone to generational feuding. Long before grunge, there were flappers, beatniks, and hippies.

Originally, generational conflicts may have developed because a public school system was established in the late 1800s, and in the early part of this century, education became mandatory — thereby unintentionally segregating children and adults.

Over the years, without even thinking about the consequences, we eliminated barn dances, and town softball teams that didn’t discriminate by age, and the old sewing circles that passed on traditional skills, and the apprenticeship system of learning a trade. In their place, we offered school sports, home economics classes, proms, and shop classes — all of them age-segregated.

Our transformation into an age-segregated society wasn’t complete, however, until after World War II, when America became a suburban, rather than a rural, nation. Most children no longer worked side-by-side with their elders on family farms. And that old-fashioned appellation,”& SONS” faded from hardware stores and groceries all over America.

IN THIS ERA of affirmative action, activists discuss whether ethnic groups should blend like soup in a pot, or merely mingle like salad fixings. But few of them seem to note that our old and young mix like oil and water.

Yet I suspect that teenagers aren’t going to behave more like adults — unless we arrange things so that teenagers spend more time around adults.

So this time, as we discuss what to do about the younger generation, maybe we should consider including them in our lives.

Teenagers could be encouraged to participate at school board meetings, and city council meetings. And they could, and almost certainly should, be consulted far more often than they are now, about changes in school policies, curriculum, city ordinances, and other matters that directly concern them.

Perhaps church groups, service organizations, and civic clubs could help by consciously sponsoring events where teens are not only welcome to attend, but are encouraged to contribute their time and energy toward making the event possible. There are actually a lot of activities that might appeal to everyone, things like folk fests, talent shows, art shows, pet shows, community picnics, film festivals and vaudeville shows.

When President Clinton promised America 100,000 new police officers, he talked about user-friendly “beat” cops.

But the president didn’t give us instructions for making police officers into “beat” cops. Thus, our police officers are not people the kids know by name. And they’re not people our kids shoot hoops with down at the park, either. For the most part, our police officers are armed strangers.

But they don’t have to be. In this respect, Chaffee County actually has a large advantage. Our sheriff, Ron Bergmann, used to work at Salida High School, and the kids like him. In the last election, my kids and their friends insisted that I vote for him, and I did.

Now, I can only hope that I made the right choice. And that we all make the right choices in the future, even though it’s sometimes hard when the boomboxes are thrumming, and the children are asking, “please, please, please can we just stay out for one extra hour.”

But when it comes to the problem of what we should do about the younger generation, there is always one consolation. In twenty years, these kids will be right where we are now — wondering what to do about the next generation.

— Martha Quillen