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How many times have you wondered what's going on inside your teenager's head? You know they're human beings -- though the state of their rooms might make you wonder -- but by the time they're in high school, they're speaking their own language, dressing in look-alike styles and leading, as they're quick to tell you, their own lives, which are their own business, thank you very much. We asked four teenagers to tell us their thoughts on topics ranging from the pressure to be popular to concerns about college. The teens were thoughtful, perceptive and articulate. Here's what's on their minds.
Greg Sanzone, 17 Hometown: Weston, Massachusetts School: Weston High School
There's a huge amount of pressure in my school to go to college. I'm personally not feeling it, but other kids, yes. We have a particularly high rate of kids who go to college, something like 98 percent. Mostly they go to top-tier schools -- Ivy League colleges and small liberal-arts schools in New England, like Colby or Bowdoin or Bates. Our school is pretty homogenous -- upper-middle-class white kids with more or less the same activities. We all know that there are only so many spaces in the colleges, and everyone is up against everyone else.
There's a real high level of competition. It's manifested in kids taking all honors and Advanced Placement courses, so they take on a ridiculous amount of academics and limit the fun electives they can take. I'm mostly an A-student, but I'm involved in a lot of extracurricular activities. For the past two years, I've been president of my class and was elected to be co-president this year of the student body. I play soccer and run track, I'm part of the theater company, I do the debate team, I'm co-president and co-founder of the Italian American Student Union, I do chorus. I also did a language program -- a homestay in Italy this summer.
The school organizes a lot of community-service opportunities. If you have community service on your transcript, the colleges like that. You need to do at least 24 hours of community service to graduate from high school anyway. For the past three years, my class has organized a special-needs basketball tournament. The entire school did a Habitat for Humanity project. Some kids do community service because they have to, but for the most part, they're pretty sincere.
Parents have a lot to do with the pressure to get into a good school. It's like whatever you're doing, they're not really satisfied; you have to do something bigger, better, or more of it. Most of the time, the kids comply or they just complain about it and live with it. Some parents add an extra incentive of giving $20 or $50 to go shopping if their kids get a higher grade for the quarter. There's one kid who has a special college advisor that his parents pay for. But nearly everyone in my class has an SAT tutor or has taken some kind of prep course outside of school. Me, too. I wasn't satisfied with my score on the PSAT, so I went for a little strategy refinement. Now I think my academics are solid. Like, they could be better, but I'm definitely satisfied with them. Our whole lives, we've been told that the track our life takes depends on where we go to school. If you don't go to this or that school, you will never amount to anything. No one ever stops to question it.
Morgan Denson, 17 Hometown: Tyler, Texas School: Robert E. Lee High School
Some girls are popular because of their clothes. A lot of the girls go to little boutiques and get real expensive clothes, like $100 shirts or $60 tank tops. You don't have to dress exactly alike but everyone has to know you're spending a lot of money. The most expensive thing I have is a long-sleeve shirt that's, like, $40, but it's a little bit dressy.
You can't be popular without a car. Every single one of the cool girls has a top-of-the-line SUV. They get it brand-new on their 16th birthday. I have an SUV, too, but it's my dad's old one. It's, like, a '93 model. I don't know anyone who takes the school bus. I know only of a few popular girls who apply themselves academically. I know, like, only four guys that actually try in our school. I'm sort of different -- I belong to the National Honor Society and the science and Spanish clubs, but I'm still in the in crowd.
Pretty much everyone hangs out in groups. Some people might think, Oh, they're popular because they go with a huge group of friends and party. But just because you go out and party with this group doesn't mean they're friends. A lot of people can't stand each other, but they go where the alcohol is. I think some people feel that they have to drink to be cool, but that's not real. Me, I've never taken a sip of alcohol.
Usually the girls who drink have boyfriends who drink. Girls I know feel pressured to have sex. After a while, their reputation gets out and if people hear what they do, then they're thought of differently. A guy can do stuff with a girl, but the girl gets the bad reputation. I have a boyfriend, but I'm definitely waiting to get married before I have sex.
I'm friends with every single one of the so-called popular people, but I don't necessarily go out and do things with them. A lot of them have known each other since elementary school and know everything about each other. An outsider would have a hard time being accepted no matter how she acted or dressed. I have a group of friends that I've grown up with, and we usually do things together on weekends. My boyfriend, who goes to a different school, is real friendly so he hangs out with us sometimes. Other times I hang out with his group of friends.
People are starting to put more importance on good friends, people you can count on and people you can talk to. They need to feel secure and they realize that they won't feel secure just from the clothes they wear and drinking and stuff.
Selena Lester, 17 Hometown: Renton, Washington School: Charles A. Lindbergh High School
Twice a year, at Thanksgiving and in April, I have a blanket, food and clothing drive for the homeless. My Girl Scout troop, family and friends from high school and all over the place pass out fliers telling people what we're going to collect and when we will pick it up.
I donate directly to men and women sleeping on the street. When I was a junior Scout, we took clothes to a women's abuse shelter, but I wasn't able to have one-on-one encounters with them. It made me curious, so I wanted to go out on the streets. And my parents were like, okay. The very first time, there was this fear about going out at night in a creepy area.
But after the first couple of drop-offs, it was easy for me to approach people and not worry about what they look like or how they act.
Usually, we go out at midnight. My family packs into my mom's Suburban, and we grab one of my friends and drive around. If people are asleep, I put blankets on them and food next to them. If they're awake, I offer whatever I have. I've had only one rejection so far. I've gotten to know people. Last April, I came across a guy who was living in a tent beneath a bridge. I asked if he'd like water and food, and when I peeked inside the tent, he said, "Oh, I remember you from last year."
We're going to get a nonprofit license for the project and call it Pookie's Company, after the teddy bear in the cartoon strip Garfield. I think people would be more apt to donate if they know we won't hit them up for money. It will happen early next year -- just in time for my little sister to take over. She's the same age that I was when I started the drive. People think teenagers are just a bunch of slackers. I decided to change their minds. I figure that if one person can make a difference, it will make up for those who have done wrong in the past.
Michael J. Cooper, 18 Hometown: New York City School: Martin Luther King, Jr. High School
I was born in Trinidad, and from the time I was small, my family let me know that my standards were supposed to be high. When I was 4, my parents separated; five years later my mother and younger brother and I moved to Venezuela. But when I was supposed to go into seventh grade, there was a national teachers' strike, so my brother and I missed a whole year of school. That's when my mom decided we should move to America. My uncle has a cell-phone store in Brooklyn, and my mother helps manage it.
I love my school, but sometimes the environment is not conducive to learning. There was a lot more gang violence in the past than there is now, but there still are metal detectors and security guards harassing you and barking at you. A lot of teachers don't want to be there, and when teachers don't care, the students don't care, either. Sometimes that drags me down, but I always try to remember that my family came to America to succeed. I have to make the best of opportunities.
Most of my classes are honors or specialize in business. I'm part of the investment club at school. We've been doing pretty well. The stock market has been down but we still managed to squeeze in 5 percent on our portfolio. I'm also involved in the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship. I have an internship at Morgan Stanley this fall, and I'm also going to run a Web site-design business on the side with five other friends from school. My dream is to go to the undergraduate business program at the University of Pennsylvania and then go to Wharton Business School. I'm hoping to get a scholarship. I feel that in America you can do anything. You can come here with nothing and become something if you just apply yourself. --Catherine Fredman