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A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence

A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence

3.7 4
by Patricia Hersch

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For three fascinating, disturbing years, writer Patricia Hersch journeyed inside a world that is as familiar as our own children and yet as alien as some exotic culture--the world of adolescence. As a silent, attentive partner, she followed eight teenagers in the typically American town of Reston, Virginia, listening to their stories, observing their rituals, watching


For three fascinating, disturbing years, writer Patricia Hersch journeyed inside a world that is as familiar as our own children and yet as alien as some exotic culture--the world of adolescence. As a silent, attentive partner, she followed eight teenagers in the typically American town of Reston, Virginia, listening to their stories, observing their rituals, watching them fulfill their dreams and enact their tragedies. What she found was that America's teens have fashioned a fully defined culture that adults neither see nor imagine--a culture of unprecedented freedom and baffling complexity, a culture with rules but no structure, values but no clear morality, codes but no consistency.

Is it society itself that has created this separate teen community? Resigned to the attitude that adolescents simply live in "a tribe apart," adults have pulled away, relinquishing responsibility and supervision, allowing the unhealthy behaviors of teens to flourish. Ultimately, this rift between adults and teenagers robs both generations of meaningful connections. For everyone's world is made richer and more challenging by having adolescents in it.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A contemporary masterpiece."
--The Philadelphia Inquirer

"[A] BREAKTHROUGH PORTRAIT OF ADOLESCENT CULTURE . . . It is here--not in the pages of dry psychology books--where parents and educators will find the secret, painful truths hidden by modern-day adolescents."
--Boston Herald

"SPLENDID AND POWERFUL . . . [Hersch] doesn't preach and doesn't sugar-coat. But boy, does she shake us awake."
--Chicago Sun-Times

"AN INSIGHTFUL, MOVING AND STRIKINGLY HONEST LOOK AT TODAY'S ADOLESCENTS . . . Hersch has allowed the teenagers themselves to tell their stories. . . . While A Tribe Apart should be required reading for all parents and educators, it is also a must-read for anyone who desires a greater understanding of a generation standing on the brink of adulthood."
--San Diego Union-Tribune

Library Journal
The "generation gap" of the 1960s has widened into a much deeper chasm in the 1990s, according to Hersch, former contributing editor to Psychology Today and the mother of three adolescents. This reflects no simple youthful rebellion but an extreme estrangement between adults and teenagers owing to the rise of dual careers, divorce, and violent social change. Part anthology, part soap opera, this work by participant-observer Hersch provides case studies of eight teens from her own suburb near Washington, DC. The study covers events from the seventh through the 12th grades (1992-95). These are "regular" kids, a group balanced for race, gender, and ethnicity, yet their flirtations with promiscuity, drugs, and suicidal behavior could and did turn some lives tragic. Lots of details are reported, many ultimately unverifiable. However, the essence of the short descriptive chapters rings true. A powerful sense that issues are more complex for today's youth is well conveyed. Timely, well written, even enthralling though suggesting few solutions to the problems raised, this book is highly recommended for public libraries and education collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/97.]Antoinette Brinkman, SW Indiana Mental Health Ctr. Lib., Evansville
Kirkus Reviews
On any given day across America, an editor somewhere is offering a rookie reporter this basic advice: Don't tell me, show me. Hersch, a former contributing editor to Psychology Today, illustrates the breathtaking impact this kind of reporting can have through her remarkable fly-on-the-wall chronicle of teenage life today. A mother of three adolescents, Hersch spent three years following eight teens of middle- and high-school age in her Virginia suburb. She went to their schools, took them out to eat, and above all listened as they gradually trusted her enough to share their worries, their fears, their stories. The result is an astonishingly candid, poignant, and at times disturbing portrait of life for today's average teens. Interspersed with the tales are a few statistics from various reports. For the most part, however, Hersch lets the teens make her pointthat America has become a society in which far too many adults have reneged on their responsibilities to children. "What kids need from adults is not just rides, pizza, chaperones, and discipline," Hersch writes. "They need the telling of stories, the close ongoing contact so that they can learn and be accepted. If nobody is there to talk to, it is difficult to get the lessons of your own life so that you are adequately prepared to do the next thing." As a sad consequence, far too many teens have becomeas the title suggestsa tribe apart at the precise moment they most need adult leadership to help them make sense of the chaos they inhabit as they struggle to define themselves and the world they live in. A poignant look into a critical period in a young life, and a powerful exhortation to adults to start paying attention.

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Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

    In a cozy rambler set on a heavily treed lot on a quiet cul de sac, an alarm clock rings and eleven-year-old Chris Hughes rolls out of bed almost fully dressed. It is a trick he came up with the year before to save time. He showers at night and puts on his shirt and underwear for the next day. If it were cold, he'd put his pants on too. The hardest part is keeping his head straight on the pillow when he lies down so that his hair won't dry weirdly. If it does, he has to wet it under the faucet in the morning. His father thinks this is hilarious and teases him when he comes in to kiss him good night. In fact, his father gives him a hard time about his crew cut. But Chris has grown up hating his naturally curly hair. As soon as he had a choice, he'd had those curls shorn and now he watches for the little turning over of the ends that means it is time for a new buzz cut.

    Chris is a no-nonsense young man. He does his homework right after he comes home from school. He makes sure his mom or dad signs any forms from school immediately. He packs his backpack at night and lays it on the floor by his bed. In the morning, his mom always has the same lunch, packed in a brown paper bag, waiting on the kitchen table: smooth peanut butter and grape jelly on wheat bread, a boxed drink, a small bag of raisins, and dessert. He likes things that way. Dependable.

    Seven-thirty, right on the button, he walks through the kitchen door wearing his favorite short-sleeved Buffalo Bills T-shirt (which, in the style of the season, hangs down to his knees), gray sweatpants, white Reebok pump basketball shoes worn permanently untied (although,unlike many kids, he actually leaves the laces in them) over scrunched white tube socks. Short-sleeved shirts worn year-round are de rigueur for a fashionable sixth-grade boy, and Chris has a collection reflecting all the major sports. He stops to pet the dogs now jumping up and down to get his attention, and absentmindedly hugs his mom good morning. She's in her usual seat with her customary cup of coffee. Most days he likes this private time with his mom after his brother Jim has left for high school. It is a comforting routine even when they hardly talk. But not today.

    He'd like to tell his mom he isn't hungry, but then he'd have to hear the breakfast-is-the-most-important-meal-of-the-day lecture. So he rummages through the cereal cabinet and spreads the thinnest possible layer of Crispy Wheats and Raisins in the bottom of his bowl, splashes in some milk, pours himself a glass of orange juice, and sits down at the table hardly paying any attention to his favorite morning rituals: watching G.I. Joe cartoons and reading the sports section of The Washington Post.

    His blue eyes stare into space as he pushes his cereal around. He thinks he has a stomachache, he tells his mom. She knows what this is about: today his sixth-grade class is visiting Langston Hughes Middle School.

    It's just a visit, he tells himself. It isn't like he is going to stay there. But who's he kidding? The Real Thing--seventh grade--will happen soon enough.

    He just realized the other day that he's spent his whole life at Forest Edge Elementary. He could walk around it in his sleep he'd been there so long. The teachers are nice, and recess is always fun.

    It is the best being in sixth grade. You have all the power. He can look at the little kids and realize how grown-up he's become. Chris, a "school patrol" since fourth grade, is now a "bus patrol," which is "the coolest because you can sort of arrest people" if they don't follow the rules. In fact, with his friends Brad, Tony, Jeff, Gene, and a few others all volunteering for this position, there are almost as many enforcement officials on Chris's bus as riders. He has a great bunch of friends, most of whom he's known forever. Even if they aren't in each other's classes each year, they always get together at lunch and on the playground. They are wildly competitive in the classroom and on the playing field, all striving for excellence. They have challenged each other in soccer, football, and basketball since they were little boys. They try to write longer stories than each other, get more As, win more awards, but all in good humor. They've competed on Atari, Nintendo, and now Sega Genesis. T
hat's how long they've been friends. Chris looks forward to meeting new people--but what if he gets into classes without any of his old buddies?

    The panic is rising. He has been told tales of Sevey-Bip Day, a one-day free-for-all in which the eighth graders hit the seventh graders at will in a sort of middle school initiation rite. Seventh graders he knows this year have already been giving ominous warnings. His mom tries to reassure him that the event will be forbidden by the school administration. But parents don't know what happens in the school. The kids do it, he has heard, when teachers are not looking.

     His teachers keep making a big deal about how his class is the first to have "middle school" within the elementary school. The sixth graders have been moved to an isolated corner of Forest Edge so that they feel a bit separate from the younger kids. It's set up in three homerooms, and the classes move among the teachers for science, social studies, math, and language arts. Volunteers have come into the school to allow the students brief forays into electives like photography, computers, and creative writing, although this part fizzled when not enough volunteers could be found. Forest Edge, like schools everywhere, has found that the always dependable stream of volunteers has slowed to a trickle as most parents work, and other demands take precedence.

    Chris doesn't know it, but his class represents the leading edge of a nationwide movement to restructure the education of early adolescents, which was first outlined in Turning Points, the study by the Carnegie Council for Adolescent Development. The idea is that a team of teachers, teaching their specific subjects, will have shared responsibility for a group of youngsters, and that this will allow ongoing communication among the teachers, collaborative teaching projects, and a community feeling that has been missing in anonymous junior high schools. "Junior high" is out and "middle school" is in, in recognition that early adolescence is a particularly vulnerable time for developing at-risk behaviors, and that youngsters need greater support and nurturing than junior high schools traditionally have given them.

    Chris's class was one of the first in Fairfax County to institute the change that will combine sixth through eighth grades in separate middle schools over a period of several years. The principal of Forest Edge, Frank Bensinger, is impressed. "We found that with the middle school model, discipline went down a ton," he says. "It made an incredible difference because in sixth grade, kids' eyes are beginning to open up. They are beginning to look at that movement out of the neighborhood as a grown-up thing. There was an elevation of self-esteem--`We are not being looked at as little kids'--and the school was recognizing that. The adults knew they were only changing classes in a tiny little sixth-grade area, but that little piece made the kids feel bigger. We decided to let them all go to lunch at the same time and you would have thought we set them free!"

    Yeah, yeah, yeah, thinks Chris. He'd heard the middle school spiel. It was definitely cool at Forest Edge. But who are they kidding? Next year is Big Time.

    At 8:15, Chris leaves his house to wait for the bus. It is so dumb to have to ride to school when he lives less than a quarter mile away. In fact, for most of his years at Forest Edge he walked. Reston, designed with pedestrians in mind, links each elementary school to the surrounding neighborhood by a labyrinth of paths and underpasses that keep walkers off the main intersections. On the way to Forest Edge, Chris used to stroll along a small creek and through a wooded area adjacent to the school. A kid could daydream on such walks, crunch leaves in the fall, stomp footprints in the snow, watch bugs. If your best friend lived nearby, you could share morning secrets. Often big brothers and sisters were seen with younger siblings in tow. Now only those across the street from the school walk daily, and for the rest, the battalion of county school buses, the vans from child care centers, and a growing fleet of parents' minivans safely deliver the children of Reston to their respective schools.
This is one of the subtle changes eroding this family-oriented community. The buses for elementary school kids living less than one mile from the school had been added because of some "incidents"--nothing horrible, but definitely frightening for young children intimidated by older kids out earlier from the middle and high schools, or by strangers on paths in the mornings. The official explanation was that it was just as easy for buses traveling back to school to pick up more kids.

    When his brothers were little, Chris's mom and dad thought nothing about their walking to school alone. Not only did it give the boys a great feeling of being on their own, but it also harkened back to the parents' memories of growing up--the walk to school, the bike ride to the candy store, an afternoon movie alone with friends. In those times, there was a cadence to the process of growing up, a socially agreed-upon sequence of age-appropriate behaviors that have now been replaced by a developmental free-for-all with great unsupervised leaps of freedom counterpoised with tight new restraints.

    In a jolting generational flip-flop, the fabric of growing up has been altered. It is no longer a matter of parents recalling, "When I was your age ..." Instead, a compressed history is lived out within one set of siblings, where one brother shakes his head in disbelief at the changes affecting the life of another only a few years younger. Not that Chris and his peers recognize anything different. This is, after all, their "normal" world. They take for granted the scene of young teens smoking and drinking in the woods after school. They shrug with an air of resignation when they hear that the weekly movies shown at neighborhood pools in the summer are canceled because of rowdy behavior by teens. They do not seem to notice that the underpass near school, once decorated by Chris's older brother's day camp group with brightly colored dinosaur murals, is now desecrated with gang graffiti. Above the words I LOVE JEN D. are spray-painted X-PLICIT CRIPZ and SUCK MY DICK.

    Chris remembers his brothers having lots of friends around, but accepts the fact that even though his mom and dad work at home, he cannot easily go to many of his friends' houses after school because they are alone, and they can't come to his house because they must care for younger siblings. The heady freedom to play in groups after school is now curtailed as parents tell their latchkey kids to stay inside until they come home from work. So even though Chris can go outside to play, even though his folks could drive him anywhere, he often gets stuck alone in front of the television, just as his friends are glued to theirs.

    The school has changed too, as have many others in Fairfax County. Forest Edge is fighting for funds as Fairfax County becomes increasingly the home of families without children. Such voters make the passage of school bonds more difficult, precisely at the same time that more immigrants, often with large families, are moving into the area. The D.C. suburbs have always been cosmopolitan, easily incorporating many cultures. But the immigration stream is less from the educated middle class and more from the poor fleeing areas affected by war and political turmoil, people who have received little or no schooling in their native lands. Between 1987 and the present, the English as a Second Language program has more than doubled to accommodate immigrants from over 150 countries representing 75 languages.

    Forest Edge, built in 1969 as a school on the leading edge of innovation, illustrates the wild swings of educational theory within a brief span of a generation: the elementary school lives of the Hughes children. Oldest brother Mark began kindergarten in 1976 in a setting of open classrooms; Jim barely got there and the walls went back up; and by the time Chris arrived in 1985, there was a hard-line return to basic, more traditional education. In Mark and Jim's days, there were no "Drug Free Zone" signs, no visitor passes, no permanent necklace IDs for personnel, no walkie talkies. "Self-esteem" was the buzzword, not "literacy testing."

    Things are tougher at school for Chris and his peers. Yet at the same time a hard line is instituted on elevating standards to compete in the age of technology, the school faces erosion from within--frustrated teachers who are not compensated adequately, overworked parents who lack time to be involved in their children's education, and a host of cultural problems now played out in the classroom. By Chris's sixth-grade year, Forest Edge had become a school of 57 percent ESL students--a proportion taxing the efforts of classroom teachers and special services in a time of decreasing funds. All this in what is considered one of the nation's finest school systems.

    As the bright red front doors of the school swing open on this cool, gray March morning in 1992, the feeling is sunny. The high-pitched sounds of children's voices fill the air. There are hugs and kisses from parents in jogging suits and business suits who drop their youngsters at the door. Mr. Bensinger is there to dispense kind personal words to students. A comforting throwback, he is everyone's favorite principal, portly and bespectacled, in rumpled suit and tie slightly askew. A genuinely warm smile lifts his whisk-broom mustache. In a testament to how schoolchildren are part of their parents' commuter society, a "Kiss and Ride" sign directs parents to the spot for dropping off their kids. This being a year or two before teacher molestation hit the media, the teachers of Forest Edge often give a hug or squeeze hello, something needed and always appreciated by the children.

Meet the Author

A former contributing editor to Psychology Today, Patricia Hersch has been published in The Washington Post, McCall's, Family Therapy Networker, The Baltimore Sun, New Age Journal, and other newspapers and magazines. She was the editor of the "Women in Development  newsletter for the United Nations and conducted an ethnographic study of homeless adolescents in San Francisco and New York for the National Institute of Drug Abuse and Georgetown University Child Development Center. Ms. Hersch lives in Reston, Virginia, with her husband and has three adolescents.

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A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
A fence separates adolescents from adults, even from society at large. The teenage years have long been a time of awkwardness and self-discovery. Seeking to bridge the chasm that separates youth from adulthood, teenagers have historically turned to peers, social groups, and behavior that is deemed taboo, as a catalyst for the necessary leap. To worsen the ongoing struggle, it appears that modern adolescents are facing a larger variety of choices carrying greater significances than ever before. Add to that the statistical fact that couples divorce more and sooner than ever before, and that families are torn apart more now than in previous decades, the disaster becomes evident. Activities that were shunned by society in the past, are now commonplace, and become ever-growing concerns to watchful parents. Any casual observer will be forced into the elusive question of Why? What has caused this apparent disparity between generations? Why are teens becoming more isolated from adult culture? How big of a problem is it? What can be done to remedy this isolation and open the doors of communication? In her book, A Tribe Apart, Patricia Hersch presents undeniable evidence that something is different, if not, wrong with the current methods of handling adolescents. She provides a glimpse into the lives of 8 students as she takes reader into their world of confusion, lack of direction, and above all their unspoken desire to be loved. It is impossible to take a genuine look into the lives presented in these pages, and not be moved. By taking an admittedly journalistic approach, Hersch is able to present the lives of her subjects without having too large an impact on their behavior. Her goal was to provide an accurate, unbiased, and non-moralizing view of reality to her readers. She describes her careful efforts to limit her influence and gain rapport with students by not instructing behavior and by regularly observing without giving advice. In this way she was able to allow the students to open up to her as they would to a friend. The result is an honest view into the minds, lives, and social dynamic of today¿s teens. At times the reader is left to make their own conclusions of the problem and possible solutions. I believe such an interpretation by the reader was the design of Hersch. By following the scope of the situation and allowing the reader to make sense of it all, she is making the statement that we all must have a part in changing the problem. If she were to give her opinion with every piece of fact, the reader would not be forced to think critically and would therefore become passive. The diversity of the decisions and actions of modern teenagers becomes clear in the beginning of the book. From deciding what items mainstream culture finds acceptable to whether or not 13 is too young to have sex, adolescents struggle daily with complex issues. Often, dilemmas that could be considered innocent are found right along with those that carry long-term significance. It is obvious that they do not share the same hierarchy of norms, values, and morals that adults have. For many, it seems that loyalty to peers ranks far above loyalty to school, teachers, and parents. Hersch outlines these struggles in a meaningful way. As the book progressed, I felt very much attached to the lives of the individual students. Each chapter reveals another facet of adolescent dealings and emphasizes the humanity behind otherwise inhumane circumstances. Examples of this can be found throughout, but one in particular stands out. Brendon is an average high-school student. His family life is less from ideal but his parents are still there for him. Despite the external appearances, Brendon is member of a graffiti underworld who consider themselves artists. Hersch relates this story in an endearing manner. Rather than writing off the graffiti as a criminal activity, she reveals the thoughts of the ¿criminal¿. Brendon finds the lack of color in the world disturb
Guest More than 1 year ago
i am 15 myself and once i read this book it made me relize that some of the things my friends do are pretty dumb. it does get challenging to follow the charecters from time to time but over all a good book
Guest More than 1 year ago
Seven years ago I was the same age as a lot of the teenagers profiled in this book. I found this to be very interesting and it really made me think back to the days when many of these issues were very real and important to me. I liked the book but found it hard at times to follow all of the people from chapter to chapter. All parents should read this book. I don't care if your kid is 8 years old or 18 years old, there is much to be learned from the teenagers in this story