When Tyrone H.* was a teenager, he insisted on wearing the in-vogue baggy jeans all his friends were wearing. His mother, Natalie, was equally insistent that he wear a belt with the jeans; “You never know when you’re going to have to run, and run fast,” she told him, adding, “I didn’t want his pants to be down around his ankles if he had to run.” That was not the first time, and certainly not the last time Natalie had to give Tyrone some necessary tools to get him through his troubled teenage years.
Tyrone was born and raised in western Queens. He never used drugs or drank alcohol. But he dropped out of high school, and out of society in general. In a ruse not hard to pull off, he skipped school for two years, played video games, and became severely depressed.
His mother tried many avenues to help her son, but she knew she had to go further. “I wasn’t able to take the reigns until Tyrone had reached bottom. No matter what I tried, he pushed me away. He said he didn’t need help. He kept putting up a strong front, but I knew he needed help, and I couldn’t reach him.”
Natalie sent Tyrone to a therapeutic boarding school, the Academy at Swift River, in Western Massachusetts. His experiences, and those of three other teens, are profiled in the new book, What It Takes to Pull Me Through: Why Teenagers Get in Trouble and How Four of Them Got Out (Houghton Mifflin, $13.95), by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David L. Marcus.
In this book, Marcus set out to answer three questions: Why had kids gotten into so much trouble at home and at school even as their friends and siblings thrived? How could their families have helped earlier? And, what lessons can the rest of us — parents, teachers, religious leaders, lawmakers — draw from a 14-month program that most people can’t afford?
Marcus actually spent 14 months at Swift River, living with a group of 16 young adults. From those 16 teens, he focused on four — Bianca*, Mary Alice*, D.J.*, and Tyrone. His book dissects the family situations and dynamics, the traumas that influenced the teens, and their chosen paths. And although these adolescents come from different economic, racial, and educational backgrounds, they all chose dangerous lifestyles, leading to their parents all seeking the help of the professionals at Swift River.
Swift River begins with a wilderness program and ends with a service project in Costa Rica. Students study academics, meet with counselors, write letters to themselves and their families, and have mandatory meetings with their parents. The parents are an integral part of their children’s recovery, and they must be willing and able to live up to the Academy’s expectations of them.
Natalie knows that what happened with Tyrone, and what happens in other families, is an illness that attacks the whole family. She realizes that parents have to play a huge part in “fixing” their children. Recently, Tyrone finished his studies at a local business school and he has become “babysitter extraordinaire” to his young nephew. He lives with his mother who continues to counsel him on job choices and career possibilities.
“It is so important for the parent to realize how they are the nickel in this quarter. We have to be part of this process. All parents. Not just the parents I met at Swift River. And please, keep talking to your kids,” Natalie urges. “You might not think they are listening, but they are. It’s like putting something in the bank. They might not need the advice now, but they will call it up at a later
Author Marcus is a great defender of our teenage generation. “Our society is dealing with what I call ‘age apartheid’. If you don’t have teenage kids, your dealings are likely limited to seeing them as a clerk in your local store. We have to work on mixing generations. We have to see teenagers as individuals, not labels. You can’t make a snap judgment on how someone is dressed, which is what happens too often. Kids are so much more complicated than that. If you take the time to get to know them, you will find that so many of them are sensitive and caring people. Don’t let them lurk in the shadows. Don’t box them in.”
Marcus also offers some tantalizing insight into the lives of urban families versus suburban life.
“In many ways, I think city kids are better off. Living in the city offers a real fabric of the place. People are home earlier in the day. There is always something going on. In the suburbs, no one is home before 7pm. That environment can be toxic for some kids.”
Marcus’s book ends with a “Memo to Parents” where he advises turning away from our materialistic society.
“The four most dangerous words in our society are ‘Everybody else has it.’ Not everyone else has ‘it’. We have to rid ourselves of that mentality. Kids need family time. Between soccer practice, homework and the enticement of TV and video games, we have to find time to be with our families.”
*Not their real names.