TEENAGERS TALK ABOUT LIFE Violence, hopes, cops, racism, drugs, dreams, school, family, neighborhood -- nine kids from three cities tell what growing up in America is really like.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – WHAT HAPPENS when you ask seventh- and eighth-graders, awash in the formative years, what their life is like? They tell you. Sometimes they tell you about gangs and guns, or a dad that does drugs. Sometimes they tell you about dreams of flying, or of their unsinkable hope. They tell tales that paint the story of growing up in Mondrian starkness, the picket-fence white of the one square next to the Gotham City dark of the other. They are just kids, mostly 13 or 14 years old, and when you talk to two dozen of them in New York City, Albuquerque, and Kansas City, in public, private, and parochial schools, they tell it to you straight. What they tell you is that a crisis is not always black, white, or brown, that it can't crush your dreams, that it can make you cry. They said that racism is everywhere, guns and drugs too widespread. That the cops are lazy. That a good neighborhood is one with lots of playmates. Good teachers write raps. Modern-day heroes are rare. They told what it is like to be an adolescent and in-between. Adolescence, child psychologists say, is that time in life when personal values are set, decision-making is learned, and social skills are refined. It's the training ground for adulthood, when acceptance is everything, experimentation rampant. For some of America's 28 million teens, the worst part is acne or braces. For others, in trouble or on the edge, the struggles are more than adults could bear. ''There's no question adults underestimate kids' intelligence, their ability to view the world,'' says Chris Baca, chief executive officer of Youth Development Inc., an Albuquerque organization that last year served over 18,000 high-risk kids. Settle in, and hear how nine young adolescents describe their world.
DIEGO BACA ANTHONY FISHER Diego: There's too much violence. A month ago there were two shootings at a Taco Bell. Anthony: We just got a curfew here. ((Albuquerque began to enforce an 11:00 curfew for children under 15 in June.)) It's mostly around the Heights, where the gangs are. Diego: There's gangs all over. There's gangs in the desert. There's all kinds of gangs. Anthony: In the Heights there's black gangs. Up at the Movie 8, that's where all the gangs hang out. I was meeting some people over there, and the cop came over to me and started telling me off. Diego: Some of the cops jump to conclusions. Anthony: And he said to me, ''Do you want to go to the D-home?'' Diego: The juvenile detention center. Anthony: It's like a little kid's prison. Diego: I've been there because my mom's a counselor. The kids down there -- it's pretty sad -- there's cells, like a jail. It's scary. Anthony: There's fights in school. The cholos, that's the Mexicans. The Mexican gangs usually wear their socks up like this. And they wear their hats over their eyes, and they sag their pants. Diego: People join gangs for protection, to stand out, to have friends. I don't need it. I have friends, that's fine with me. I'm not going to get shot. Anthony: I know this one guy, he's really bad, he's been on TV, he's a Crip. He went to church wearing a Georgetown shirt and these big pants, and he was sagging them. I mean his butt was out. He went to church with a bandanna and everything. He got the nerve. % I think tensions got worse since what happened to Rodney King. I don't know why it can't be, why it has to be sections. Everybody's a human being. Why can't we just all stick together? Diego: People always used to tell me, when I was a little kid, that everybody's brothers and sisters. It was hard for me to follow when I was little, but as I grew up, I understood. Not literally meaning you're a brother, but that you're equal, and you shouldn't treat anybody any different. That's how it should be. Anthony: Who started gangs in the first place? Who needs them? Kids who don't get no attention at school join gangs to get attention. They start making up gangs. That's the worst thing about school, the gangs. Things could be a lot better. When you take those basic skills tests . . . Diego: You could do a lot better if you didn't have to worry about getting shot when you're taking those tests. You could worry about your test, not about somebody walking in the hall and stabbing you. See, sometimes the bad shadows the good too much. People used to think my school was a bad school, and then it started getting better. It's a lot better now. People ask me where I go, and I tell them and they say, ''Oh, that's a decent school.'' No, it's not a decent school, it's a good school. I think all schools are good, it just depends on the kids. It's a matter of how much they want to learn. Anthony: The Mexicans, they come up to you and tell you jokes about being black. All those Rodney King jokes and stuff. One guy was doing that to me and I just couldn't take it, so I popped him. This kid deserved it. I just hit him three times. And he was screaming, just screaming, yelling for his friends to help him. And his friends were right there, and they wouldn't help him. 'Cause they're in a gang and, ''Oh yeah, we're going to help you, we're on your side,'' and his friends don't even help him. So that shows you how gangs stick together. They say they are going to help each other, and they never do. Racism is everywhere. And it's not always blacks and whites. Diego: The Chinese, Asians. In L.A., a lot of the whites, the blacks, the Hispanics, were getting mad because the Asians and stuff were taking what should have been their businesses. Anthony: Yeah, but I mean the blacks -- I'm black, and I can say that -- the blacks shouldn't even be mad because a lot of the blacks in the ghetto in L.A. didn't go to school or anything and these Chinese people did. Diego: They worked for it. Anthony: So the ones who are saying it are the ones who really don't deserve it. Diego: When I grow up I want to do professional sports, baseball and football. A lot of professional teams are starting to look in New Mexico. My mom's my hero. She's really tops. I worry about her every day. And nuclear war. Anthony: I want to play basketball. I practice every day. If I don't make it in basketball, I want to be a lawyer. I don't want to get married. I can't do it. I'm a big flirt. My heroes are my parents, 'cause they teach me how to do things and they stick with me. People say Michael Jordan's their idol, but what did he ever do for you? He never did anything for you. Your parents brought you into this world. They should be your idol. Your parents changed your diapers, brought you food, washed your clothes. All he ever did for you was play basketball for you on TV.
ANNE MCDONOUGH I want to write a book. I'd write about my experiences growing up. I'd write about now, going to school and stuff. There's a lot of stuff going on there, even if it doesn't seem like a lot. I think hunger is a big problem. I think it's strange that there's a lot of stuff being thrown away. But I think it's getting a lot better. More people are going to soup kitchens and stuff. I helped out at a soup kitchen on Sundays this year. There was this fantastic pianist. He never took lessons. He just didn't seem like somebody who would be homeless. There are four homeless people who live outside the supermarket I go to. You get to know them a little bit. I don't give them any money, but I talk to them. My mom goes out and buys them food. But she won't give them money. We came from this soup kitchen once and they had a lot of food left over. We went to this guy and said, ''Do you want this food?'' And he said, ''No, I want money.'' She could tell he didn't want it for food, maybe for drugs or something. I think that most of them are drug addicts or too lazy to work, but not all of them. I was mugged when I was 8. I was going to the store to buy bread. I had a very short haircut, and when I came out of the store this man said to me, ''Little boy, you shouldn't be carrying so much money around.'' And he took it. I was so scared. He saw me getting money back from the cashier and followed me out. He followed me up my stairs and blocked me. I saw him again the next day. I just crossed the street.
LA TANYA HARRY Most of my friends live with both their parents. Sometimes I envy them. But I know that my parents don't mix, like water and oil. When I was younger I used to dream about them getting together, but as I got older I knew it wouldn't really work out. I wonder if I'll end up like my parents did. But I try to think positive. First, I want to get my career off the ground, then get married. Acting is a career I've always wanted. It was a dream I always had. Jesse Owens is my hero. I like the fact that he was the fastest man in the world. It was the title that he had. It always stuck. Even though he was poor, he made it as a track star. It's like with me and acting. If I do like he did and really put my mind to it, I can make it as an actress. When I get an acting job, it really makes me happy. And good grades. If I get something in the 80s, I cry. I want in the 90s. Sometimes I wonder why people drop out. When you see what's out there as a result -- see, this is what you could become -- I don't see why people do it. It's not cool, it's not hip. What do you do with yourself if you don't have an education! I would rate my neighborhood a negative five, anything below zero. When you come home, there is no place to walk. Walk down the street, and all these people are there, sunbathing, throwing bottles around, and playing craps in the street. It reminds me of a bottle, you know, like the bottles of fruit flies in science class. There are so many people in there, they begin to climb on each other. I think of the neighborhood like that. You can't get out, and when you try to get out, everyone's pulling you back in. There's just no space to breathe in, you can't feel comfortable. In my neighborhood there's a store, and people deal drugs. They just talk people into doing drugs. I mean, it's not hip! I don't know why people are doing it! It's scary just to look at it. Even if you know you aren't going to do drugs, there's nothing positive to see. A lot of people I know, they see drugs on the street, and even if they are really good at doing something they'll say, ''Jesus, will I end up this way?'' People just do it in front of kids. There was two guys and a woman in front of this ice-cream truck, and they were fighting over a needle. They were arguing over drugs in front of this little girl, and they didn't care. They didn't care. It's annoying when people say we have to live in these kinds of neighborhoods because, you know, the white man put us here. I don't believe that. And what about the police officers who are supposed to be walking the beats in our area? When I walk home at 9 P.M., you'll see drug city right in front of you. Who needs to see New Jack City when you can see that down there? They just ride around in their cars and look at you. Like, ''What are you doing in my face? I'm going into the coffee shop to get a doughnut, you take care of this crack yourself.'' This guy was beating his wife up in the streets, and the cops came by and said, ''Oh, have a nice day,'' and kept on going. I guess you can't blame it only on the cops. If people wanted to do something, they would try to help their society. They'd rather sit around and talk about the problem than actually get it resolved. When I was younger, I used to go outside to play. Now when I go outside I have to look around to see, my God, is someone shooting or what? Two days ago I was outside and all these people came running and there was this guy, he was shooting out of a window for fun. He was looking at people and saying, ''Got you,'' bang. I couldn't play outside, because I had to watch to see if I was going to get shot. I like Wall Street. I like the way it's set up. It's really preppy. It seems like they always have control of what's going on. Wall Street is the only place where it seems to me it's free from racial prejudice. Wall Street deals with stocks, which are just pieces of paper. No discrimination against it. You lose, you lose.
DOUGLAS PERKOWSKI I grew up in New Jersey and went to a public school. The public school system where we lived sorta went down. And my parents didn't want that so they bought an apartment here in New York City, and now I go to a private school. But I want to move to the country. I don't like the city. When I think of school, I think of talking to my friends. I don't think of going to class. I have about two hours of homework every night. I used to think it was pretty hard, but now I sorta got the swing of things. I know a lot of kids, their parents are on them constantly, they check their assignments, but it still doesn't help much. You have to be willing to work. I think suicide's stupid. I know a lot of kids who have thought about it. They seem real serious, and the next day they're fine. I'm sure a lot of the people that jump off the building, the next day, they'd feel better. Whenever I'm in a bad mood, I try to realize it and not let it take control. After school one day, I was walking down the street and there were a lot of groups of people, just troublemakers. Bunch of 20-year-olds, and one of them came up to bump me, just to start something. I sort of dodged him, and the next one bumped me and I just kept walking, and then they were all talking behind me and I looked back and they started walking towards me, and then I just ran. A lot, a lot of things like that have happened to me, kids just trying to make trouble, kids hassling me. But I think a lot of times you can avoid it, and I think that's why the tourists think New York is so bad, because they don't know how to avoid trouble. There have been other times when I've seen guys walking down the street, you know, looking posse, hats backwards. From now on, when I see anyone suspicious, I'm not going to get scared off, I'll just cross the street. The tourists think it's so bad, because they get mugged. Where life is simple, there is more love. That's why I want to live in the country.
RALPH OBERHUBER I live with my mom and my dad and my two sisters and my brother. I've always lived here, except for three years in Puerto Rico when I was younger. I'm the oldest. I like it. I'm responsible for my sisters and my brother. I tell them what to do and they listen. I take them everywhere I go. School's all right. I like science and math, I could become an astronaut. I don't have homework. If I get good grades, I'm happy. Kids who drop out of school, they're dumb. They ain't gonna get an education, no jobs, no future. Sometimes people drop out because of their parents. My parents care, they tell me to be good, get good grades -- parent talk. I've seen drugs in school. Kids sell them. The police are scared. They don't want to go out in the streets and get shot. I want to be an officer so the little kids can play in the park. Narcotics. I want to take bad people off the street. I'd try to arrest all the crackheads. Love, hate, the world's like a scale. Some people are good, some people are bad. When I think about dying, it gives me the chills. I'm afraid. I want to die peacefully, not to have someone shoot me. I believe in God. I go to church every Sunday. I think God feels the same way we do about war and stuff. The whole world, just peace, that would be perfect.
ANDREA AND ADRIANNE CLAYTON Andrea: I think the problem is, people aren't dedicated to the goals they've set. Most people that you see on the streets, when they were in school they wanted to become doctors or nurses or lawyers, but when they get in school then they hang out with other groups and then it seems like their goals just fall. They gotta learn how to set goals and put them up on a brick wall so nobody can get them down. I mean, if you don't have a goal for yourself, there's really no real use for living and being in this world. You have to have some reason to wake up in the morning and go to school. Adrianne: I try to learn something new every day. I think the problem is a lack of self-confidence. Most of the people -- and you can pick them out, too -- the teacher will say, ''Do this,'' and they'll say, ''I can't.'' The teacher at my cousin's school will say, ''Show me a can,'' and the girl went to get her a can, and she said, ''Show me a can't.'' And she couldn't show her a can't because there is no such thing as can't. I want to be a commercial artist. Mostly I want to go to CMU, that's Central Missouri University. My mother was trying to tell me to figure out exactly what I wanted to do in life. I was thinking about being an architect, but then I started really looking at the things they did and I wasn't interested. So my next guess was an artist. My mother said I'd probably have to take something else. So one guy said to me, ''Why don't you try to go one step higher and work for yourself?'' So I'm taking business too. The first thing I'd do with a lot of money is save up for college in case I don't get a scholarship. I'd also give some to my family, just to spread it around, or I'd get a big house and just let everyone move in. I believe in giving lots of money to charities because I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have anywhere to sleep.
Andrea: The first thing I'd do is go out in the streets and pick up a family, take them in, give them a house, clothing, help get the kids in school. My grandmother, we have a food pantry in the church, and this woman came down there with a baby in the stroller and this kid that wasn't walking right and she was asking for food. They've got all this food in there, doughnuts and orange juice, but they said they weren't open. And I had $5 I was going to give her, but she left. That really made me feel bad that day. Adrianne: Our neighborhood's okay. It's boring because the old people don't like you to turn up the music, but the only time there's any action is on ; Sunday evening. That's when all the kids come outside and we play football. Andrea: Sometimes there's shoot-outs. Don't forget that. You hear guns, say, every two nights. Adrianne: I don't have any heroes. I look up to famous artists. Maybe my picture will be on the wall some day. Andrea: I have a whole bunch. One is my writing teacher, who never wants to hear you say can't, because can't means won't. My other hero is Langston Hughes. I don't know that much about him, but I love the way he writes. ''Mother to Son'' is my favorite poem. It begins, ''Well, son, I'll tell you: Life for me ain't been no crystal stair. It's had tacks in it, and splinters . . .'' She was mostly talking about all that time, back in slavery, she's been fighting and she's kept working. She's been out picking cotton and working to the bone, but she still has to tell him don't sit down on the steps 'cause you can find something hard. She's still going and she's still climbing and life for her ain't been no crystal stair.
BERNADETTE HALL The neighborhood I'm in is like the Brady Bunch. You look around and there's lots of kids. School's okay. Nobody likes the uniforms, but it's really small and safe and everybody's nice. Our math teacher's great. When we were doing integers, he would sing this song: ''Change the sign of the subtrehend and add, add, add.'' The subtrehend is the number on the bottom. And he told jokes.
I've never seen any guns or drugs. I've seen water guns. Heroes? I don't have any. You hear about Superman, but he's so fake. Sometimes I think you can be anything you want to if you have enough determination. I'm not trying to sound like one of the people that's a feminist. It's just if people will accept you as that. I've heard about a woman and man having the same job, and the woman is paid less. I don't know what the real reason for that is. But I think if you can prove yourself you can be anything you want to be.