April 1998

Talk about travel!

By Patricia Hersch
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Journalist Patricia Hersch goes no farther than the corner high school, yet reading her book is like visiting a location that's utterly foreign, fascinating, and more than a little bit scary. For three years Hersch followed eight teens attending their classes, interviewing them extensively, shadowing them to events and on outings. The mother of three adolescents, Hersch knew something of the teen world, its rituals, pressures, and demands; but the story she uncovered was even more complex and challenging than she had expected. More dangerous, too. Adolescents create and sustain an underground culture, she tells us, that adults (even the kids' own parents) never imagine.

A Tribe Apart is made up of interwoven stories in which kids do everything from succeed in sports and go to church to skip school, party all night, and attempt suicide. These narratives run the gamut from elation to despair. They are, as the kids would say, "so unboring." Hersch tells us that really getting to know adolescents "will decimate every long-held stereotype an adult has ever had about teens." The kids she reveals to us certainly do. They are complicated in the extreme, seeming bundles of contradiction.

There's Brandon, the spiritual, artistic Boy Scout and drug dealer. And there's Joan, who at one point is prone to violence, and at another becomes an earth-child environmentalist. "Even the regular kids," a teacher is quoted as saying, "are getting more irregular." Time and again, Hersch captures the high drama of adolescence, its hopeful beginnings and tragic endings. Conspicuous by their very absence in these stories are the adults of the community where these children live. Hersch shows us a generation of kids growing up with very little adult guidance or intervention, kids left to figure out life on their own. Hence, her title, A Tribe Apart. This essential and critical abandonment comes sharply into focus in a chapter describing a one-day seminar on ethics. The kids in the seminar struggle to understand what the adults are talking about. They actually have to struggle to think ethically because the adults in their lives are generally too preoccupied with their own stresses to give them meaningful time and teach them values. The result, and Hersch illustrates this vividly, is a striking lack of conscience among teens. In the few instances where adults do get close, there are positive results. When they approach kids nonjudgementally and honestly, the kids respond. We see caring parents who really listen, a journalism teacher who shares his life with the kids and has a tremendous influence, and a priest who creates a safe and caring space. These adults actually make a difference there just aren't enough of them.

Hersch herself sets a powerful example. More than journalist, she is a caring adult who becomes a friend. Through her eyes, we glimpse the timid artist inside the skate-boarding graffiti king, the talented writer within the girl with multiple piercings. We look at kids less disparagingly and with more understanding. At a time when many adults react to adolescent culture with withdrawal and fear, Hersch shows us simply and powerfully how to connect making this a worthy book indeed.

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