Teens Not As Bad As Some Suspect


At my high school graduation 26 years ago, John Fox, the president of the private school I attended, told my class that we were the worst he had ever encountered in his 40-year career.

I don't remember his exact words, but the gist of the message was that we were rebellious, independent, disrespectful, troublesome, provocative and always testing the limits.

Our offenses were numerous: We published an underground newspaper that criticized school administrators, mocked some teachers, belittled student government and poked fun at some of the pompous athletic coaches.

We tested the school's dress code, trying to see how long the boys could grow their hair and how short the girls would wear their skirts.

We constantly challenged teachers and conventional wisdom.

We also had more National Merit Scholars than any previous class and, on average, very high Scholastic Aptitude Tests scores. Dozens of us were accepted at elite colleges and universities.

By those measures we were great successes. But those were not highlighted by the school president. Instead, we were dTC lectured about our supposed transgressions.

Memories of my high school years came flooding back after I heard and read a number of derogatory comments about the Carroll high school seniors who just graduated.

Granted, most of these nasty comments came from people who probably don't personally know any high school students, but they reflect a feeling that today's youth don't measure up to some predetermined standard of behavior and achievement.

Fact is, today's crop of high schools students is no better or worse than ever. Sure, there are some bad actors, but their presence shouldn't cloud our perceptions of the rest of the graduates.

The majority of the Carroll students who completed their high school educations this spring are no different from my classmates. In a number of instances, in fact, these students have demonstrated more genuine concern and maturity than my peers, as I recall.

The class of 1993 at Westminster High School, which has been unfairly maligned as being vain and self-indulgent for spending $25,000 on its prom and, even worse, holding it in Baltimore, has demonstrated a level of charity and concern that the rest of Carroll County ought to follow.

After the class paid for all of its prom expenses and a class gift, a substantial surplus of about $5,000 remained. Instead of squandering it, the class leadership voted to donate it to the incoming freshman class so it can get a head start on the money it will need for its senior prom four years from now.

The class also showed a level of maturity by recognizing the untimely death of classmate Steve Schaefer, five days before graduation.

Suffering from muscular dystrophy, Steve showed tremendous spirit and determination by attending school even as his body wasted away. His classmates appreciated his courage. Even though the schoolcommunity knew his condition was worsening, the students hoped he would live long enough to graduate with the class.

Without prompting from adults, the students, in his memory, raised about $700 and donated it to the Muscular Dystrophy Association in Steve's name.

At the Westminster commencement ceremony, Eric Gayo, another handicapped classmate who overcame some tremendous obstacles to graduate, received an extended ovation from his peers when he received his diploma.

Yes, these students may have watched hundreds of hours of MTV, spent some of their parents' hard-earned money on frivolous clothes, records and makeup, but they apparently have their values in proper order.

They are, said Kent W. Kreamer, a Westminster High assistant principal, "some of the most tolerant and understanding" students.

"If you take them individual by individual, I don't know whether they are different from other classes, but as a group they have been exceptional," he said.

When the students were freshmen, they held a basketball game and raised money for charity. "Most classes are preoccupied about raising enough money for their proms. These kids had other concerns," Mr. Kreamer said.

And the graduating class at Westminster was not unique.

At Liberty High School, students eagerly participated in community service activities, according to Principal Robert Bastress. They staged two blood drives for the American Red Cross, collecting about 100 pints each time.

Mr. Bastress said one of the more successful projects involved six high school students who became "big brothers" to six fifth-graders at Freedom Elementary School who were struggling with school and developing bad attitudes. The high school boys provided positive images to the younger students.

"These students are finding out that you get as much out of community service as you put in," the principal said.

The tragedy is that adult society is too often too quick to write off today's teens as failures.

We tell them repeatedly that we don't expect much from them. Should we then be so surprised that some of them fulfill our low expectations?

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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