I recently read Debra Gwartney’s new book, Live Through This, her memoir of her years as the mother of two runaway teenagers. It’s an agonizing story. An ugly divorce and a move to a new city destabilize her family, and her two eldest daughters slowly come unraveled, full of anger and pain, and fall into the worst nightmare a parent can imagine. She watches, more helpless by the month, as her daughters begin their decline into cutting, a nearly deadly overdose, and running away from home.
After finishing the book, I listened to a “This American Life” radio segment which featured Gwartney and her now grown daughters (who are drug free, stable, and one of whom is now a parent herself). As I listened I wondered what our society could have done to prevent such a terrible decline into danger, dread, and disaster. While I know there will be some who place all the blame on Gwartney or her daughters for what happened in their family, I see it differently. We’re all part of the tragedy of teen runaways and drug abuse, even if we can’t see the role we play.
After leaving home and being gone for several months, the younger daughter, Stephanie, managed to get herself to Austin, Texas, after her older sister almost died from a bad batch of heroin in Tucson, Arizona (their mother and young sisters lived in Eugene, Oregon). In Austin, Stephanie lied about her age, got a job at a pizza restaurant, and found an apartment, where she lived with a dog she rescued — for almost 9 months. She was fourteen.
I wrote recently about John Taylor Gatto’s new book, Weapons of Mass Instruction. One of the things Gatto is most frustrated by is how our culture and our schools dumb kids down –- keeping them kids instead of letting them grow up. He tells many stories in his book about the accomplishments of our founding fathers (and others) who, as teens and even pre-teens, did remarkable things. School, Gatto thinks, infantalizes young people and perpetuates a lengthy adolescence when such energetic youth ought to be contributing and doing, instead of sitting all day following unimportant rules and being fed boring instruction. Teens, he says, are capable of so much more. Oddly, Stephanie’s survival on her own at fourteen is a reminder that Gatto is right, although he certainly doesn’t promote running away, doing illegal drugs, living on the street, and terrifying your family. While I found myself furious at Stephanie (and her sister Amanda) for their self-centered, cruel, reckless behavior that nearly destroyed their mother and terrified their younger sisters, I was also impressed by their courage, tenacity, self-reliance, and will. Imagine what could have happened had these girls had good options, where those same qualities could have made a positive difference in their and others’ lives.
When Stephanie finally returns home at fifteen, the regular public school in her town is not an option. She has lived on the streets on and off since she was twelve, and a typical high school is clearly not going to work. They find a special private school in Colorado, funded by Honda and free-of-charge, to which she applies and is accepted. Three years later, she graduates. This is a rare school for kids who can’t or won’t function in typical high schools, but the question that I keep coming back to is this: Why is it rare?
What if Debra Gwartney had had good options for her out-of-control daughters – a place like the high school Stephanie eventually went to that offered a different path for angry, fearless, reckless teens to channel some of that passion and angst into something worthwhile? What if there were good work and living options for such youth, or real apprenticeships for real tasks? What if typical high schools with their typical academic subject categories and typical bells and typical separation of issues and typical grades and tests and typical sitting in classrooms and working out of textbooks were a rare option, and a range of choices to meet teens’ passions and interests and match them with the world’s needs were offered in every city – not just at a unique boarding school here or there?
Gwartney lived through hell. I’d like to think that we as a society could have created different opportunities for her daughters when they were in such pain, offering them a path out of their own hell. We are all responsible for creating those options. Schooling as it typically happens today may work well for some and tolerably for others; but for many, it’s a recipe for irrelevance that dulls creativity, imagination, action, and true accomplishment.
Yes, this is another plea to use your own voice to promote humane education that offers youth meaning, purpose, ideas, inspiration, tools, and knowledge for contributing to a better world in their own unique way.
Image courtesy of superelvis.