07 Dec


Eileen and I hosted another little social gathering this past Sunday night. At some point, the conversation turned toward adolescence. Bill, who is from Colorado, relayed stories about how abusive his high school environment was. There were major hazings on the athletic teams; in one incident, the students suran-wrapped some kid and hung him upside down from a goal post and then kicked soccer balls at him. They actually broke his nose. Columbine was even worse, he explained. And his theory is that the environment of abuse, power, and status was what lead to the shootings.

Here in Ecuador, I’ve observed a very different social dynamic among teenagers. In the US, when you’re in high school, your friends are your life. You forego family outings for socializing with friends. Here, teenagers don’t socialize tons with their peers on the weekends. Mireya, the 16 year-old daughter, who is, admittedly a little socially awkward, doesn’t do things with friends much at all. And I have a few teenagers in my night class who will hang out with the 20 and 30-somethings after class, even on a Friday night. Preeti, who grew up in Nepal, added that her adolescent experience was similar. In school, everyone got along. They were all good friends, but they didn’t see much of each other outside of school. She’d occasionally have some friends over to her house, but the social life was nothing like the die-hard socializing of American adolescents. Carla, who is teaching at a pretty upper class high school here outside of Quito, relayed a story about a really nerdy, awkward kid in her class who gave a presentation on Homer’s Odyssey. He looked up at the ceiling most of the time and didn’t say much other than “Homer, I don’t know, I just like him.” He got a few chuckles, but after class, they were still walking arm in arm with him. He was included, not ostracized.

Someone in our group pointed out that Ecuador is a community-based society. The US is an individualist society. And this difference might account for the difference in adolescent culture. Why? Because in America, you struggle to find yourself as a unique person. You see this with young kids. First and second-graders are great. But in third grade, kids start to gain a sense of themselves as individuals. They become self-conscious. A class of third graders (and of course it’s even worse in fourth and fifth grade) will be somewhat afraid to talk in class. They’ll be worried that what they say will be judged as stupid by the cool kids.

Really, when you think about it, the whole concept of cool is one that is based on being an individual. And it’s also very closely tied up with status. Think about middle school (the “low point of all humanity” as I too often say): it’s all about popularity. To a certain extent, the American educational system uses this idea of status to it advantage. Carla’s students here in Ecuador are pretty apathetic, low achieving students. There are probably a variety of reasons, but one of my theories is that they aren’t motivated by status. In the US, when you get a test back, you don’t want other people to see it. Or after they take a test, students will say, “I did horrible; I probably failed,” even though they probably got a B. Here, when I hand back a test, students look at each other’s but they don’t really make fun of those who do worse. Or if they do, it’s fleeting and forgotten-about by the next day. They love competition here, yes, but often times, after the competition is over, there is no lasting status label. Someone won; someone lost. But no one is a winner or loser.
In the US, we use grades as motivation, and those grades often define a person to a certain extent: “he’s a C student.” Students get labeled by grade point averages and test scores.

Westra, who attended a very small, private high school, voiced her wonder over whether in a larger high school, such a system is necessary. Back in Wisconsin, at West, where we have 2300 students, I think it is necessary to a certain extent. But you can also combat the numbered anonymity by offering a wide variety of electives and extracurriculars. Bill said that he thought part of the solution was to have some good arts programs, not just athletic teams. His girlfriend’s high school had far fewer problems, and their arts programs were great.

Carla, who is a school counselor back in the states, pointed out that the biggest problems are in white, upper-middle class schools. We tried to figure out why. The high school suicide cliché is this: the kid was captain of the fill-in-the-blank team, got good grades, was popular, had everything. My theory is that for those kids, their status is their identity. They define themselves by grades, by captainships, by popularity. The non-popular kids, in contrast, define themselves by interests. If you’re a nerd, you kinda accept that and you get together with other nerds and, like Bill did in high school, you decode the runes from Lord of the Rings.

It’s interesting. When I see an unknown Gringo here, I feel ambivalence. I want to eavesdrop on their English and know their story, but I also want to yell at their too-loud talking or tell them how stupid it is to have their money belt showing. I start judging them right away – unfairly judging them. Is my reaction to my countrymen is a product of our culture?

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