Patricia Hersch had the wisdom and courage to do what few adults have ever done — she entered the world of the adolescent. Not for one, not for two, but for three years. By the time her book A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence was completed, she had spent six years on the subject.In order to best understand the teen world, Patricia lived in it. This included going to high school for an entire year, attending their classes, their assemblies, and their events.
She speaks of her own intimidation as she walked through the doors of the high school that first day.
My first morning of school, I was scared. I had no idea what would result, who would be my subjects of study. Suddenly, it didn’t matter that I’d been writing about adolescent issues for years. This was different. I felt like a kid myself, nervous, wondering if I’d fit in, be able to pull it off. I wasn’t even sure what to wear — a professional looking pants suit, blue jeans like the kids, something arty like a writer. I decided on chinos and a black T-shirt with funky jewelry — a combination of all three. I grabbed my briefcase and ran out the door, afraid to be late to my first day.
Although Patricia would interview countless teens throughout her years living with them, eight became the main focus of her book. She felt their unique styles and stories embodied all of American adolescence: Jonathan, the 17-year-old senior who embarked on a solo wilderness trip in the pursuit of manhood; Chris, the 11-year-old entering junior high; Jess, the 13-year-old girl from a strong religious family, coming out of the recent crisis of the middle daughter getting pregnant; 17-year-old Ann, scheduling an abortion for her friend Sallie; Brendon, the 14-year-old hooked on drugs and booze; and 14-year-old Courtney, wondering if she should have sex with her boyfriend.
Patricia did not just write about these teens, she walked with them as they made agonizing life decisions about drugs, sex, and what to do with the rest of their lives. She listened as they wrestled with their parents over curfews and friends and she was there when those friends back-stabbed and betrayed. She was a sounding board for those who were riding an adolescent high that life was great and she was arms when death looked like a better option.
In her three years among teenagers, Patricia asked the questions that begged to be asked and she listened when they were answered. As the teens realized she wanted to listen without judgment, without lectures, without drama, they began to talk. They shared their fears and their hopes. They vented to her about what made them angry and they broke down over what made them cry. They tested and they trusted. They spoke like adults coming into their own, but they still clung tightly to the childhood that they didn’t want to let go of.
In all of it, Patricia discovered that teenagers are a tribe apart. They have their own culture — a culture few adults are aware of, much less care to get to know. While her research took place during the 1990′s, the fundamental lesson that stood out to Patricia is still relevant ten year after the launch of her book. She says it best herself:
Every adolescent needs a mentor, not just the ‘deprived’ children of the inner city. Kids need adults to listen to them and serve as role models. Grown-ups, who by their availability and presence, convey a sense of safety and control…
She goes on to state the we as adults look at teens as out-of-control creatures for which there is no hope until they hit adulthood and begin to make rational choices. Instead, Patricia argues, we need to realize that teens are individuals who are “trying the best they can in the present world.” Although many of their acts look mindless or immoral, they are usually actions based on careful consideration and deliberation. The rationale may be wrong, but they did think it all through first. Looking at the journey of adolescence is just as important as noticing their destination, Patricia advises. And surprisingly, teens want someone to notice their journey.
The question is, is there an adult willing to do so? Reading A Tribe Apart would be a great place to start.