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From Perspective

Lessons learned - as a writer and a parent

By THOMAS FRENCH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 8, 2003

Two weeks ago, the St. Petersburg Times finished publishing 13: Life at the Edge of Everything, a six-part series following a handful of seventh-graders in Tampa. Since then, many readers have asked me and the two other reporters - Monique Fields and Dong-Phuong Nguyen - why we chose to write in such detail about such a difficult age. What was it like hanging out with 13-year-olds at school and at their slumber parties? How did we get them to talk about their lives? More to the point, why did we care so much about what they had to say?

For me, the answers begin at home, with my children. Even before I became a father, I always loved kids and was drawn to writing about them. Over the past 15 years, I've covered preschool, first grade, fourth grade, even a year inside a high school. But when anyone suggested I write about middle school, I would shudder and say no thanks.

"Kids at that age are such a mess," I'd tell them. "I don't think I could bear to hang out with them for that long."

Then my two sons, Nat and Sam, grew a little older, and I began to see the age in a different light. As they moved toward middle school, I watched my boys beginning to negotiate the terrain between childhood and adulthood, trying to figure out who they were, who they wanted to become, how to act. They were already thinking about high school and college and careers; they were making their first tentative attempts at romance. They seemed to be changing by the minute, morphing from boys into rough approximations of men.

As the oldest, Nat led the way. In the fall of 2001, when he turned 13 and entered seventh grade at John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg, Nat was like an impatient colt, all elbows and jutting legs, moody and sensitive, sometimes downright sullen. If I asked him anything, even the smallest question about his day, he shut down. The most I got from him came in the mornings when I dropped him off at Hopkins. Nat would look toward the school doors and let out a dramatic sigh.

"It's getting to be more like a prison every day," he'd say, then step out to vanish into the crowd of kids on the sidewalk. This from a boy who was making straight As and had tons of friends.

In many ways, my son had become a mystery to me. I longed to know something, anything, about his life. As a writer, the solution was obvious. Early in 2002, I got permission from my editors to work with Monique and Phuong on a project about seventh-graders. Our idea was simple: Find out what it's like to be 13 years old, right now.

With the permission of school officials, we visited six middle schools in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, searching for a home base for our story. For weeks we wandered various lunchrooms - in middle school, the lunchroom is the heart of everything - and talked to hundreds of students, asking about their families, their hopes, the things they worried about. The kids answered every question; turns out they tell you a lot more when you are not their mom or dad.

Choosing between the schools was tough. Each was compelling; each was different. But in the end Phuong and Monique and I voted for Booker T. Washington Middle, a magnet school for international studies in Tampa. We liked the feel of the school, the openness of the students and their teachers; furthermore, we were interested in the social lives of the kids, and Washington had a spring dance on the schedule. Also, during our initial visit to the school, we'd met the Pink Dinos, a seventh-grade punk and ska band rehearsing for their first concert. They were a great group of boys: funny, smart and basking in the adoration of a growing number of female fans. If we wanted some fun and joy in the story, the Pink Dinos were more than promising.

Just before spring break, Phuong and Monique and I started roaming Washington, looking for specific students to follow. Although we knew some middle-school students are experimenting with sex, we had decided it would be difficult to write about such kids with their names and photos; too young, too vulnerable, too easily hurt by our coverage. Instead we looked for kids who were more in the middle range of behaviors for seventh-grade. With their permission, and the permission of their parents, we thought it would be possible to give an honest account of their lives without causing damage.

We found the students to be surprisingly candid. They talked about their ups and downs, allowed us to read their notes and instant messages, told us all sorts of tiny details they normally wouldn't share with an adult. The key, I think, was we made every effort to avoid lecturing them or imposing our perspective on whatever they were doing. We weren't their parents or their teachers; our job was not to judge them or guide them, but to do our best to see the world through their eyes.

After the initial novelty of the project wore off, many kids quickly grew weary of having us around too frequently. How could they feel otherwise? We learned we needed to zoom in and zoom out. We'd spend an hour or two with them, then leave them alone. Often, we would show up at the school only to find that our subjects just weren't in the mood; on days like that, we would simply disappear. We had no desire to be a burden or to interfere. As much as possible, we wanted to stay out of their way.

It helped that we'd picked kids whose lives were solid enough that they were moving along well-defined and relatively predictable paths. Even so, if any of them had gone into a tailspin, we would have immediately removed ourselves from the equation and found someone else to write about.

Fortunately, this was never an issue. The kids we followed were, without exception, wonderful choices. They had attentive parents and loyal friends; whatever issues they had, they were facing them with grace and humor and deep reserves of support. Phuong and Monique and I grew not just to admire the kids, but to love everything about them, even their problems. We felt it was a privilege to be allowed into their lives.

Along the way we saw some things that gave us pause, especially from a parent's point of view. Although the kids we chose to profile were generally doing well, other students were clearly struggling with more troubling issues. During our months at Washington, at least one girl became pregnant; other students we met seemed to be growing up on their own without much parental supervision. One boy I interviewed at another school told me his biggest worry was his mother's safety; she had an abusive man in her life, and her son felt helpless at seeing her repeatedly beaten up.

As we wrote the story, we did our best to show that the students we were writing about in the most detail did not necessarily speak for every seventh-grader. We quoted from notes where kids talked in shocking terms about sex; without using names, we described a moment where one of the teachers counseled the pregnant girl. However, these experiences were the extremes. Although we wanted 13 to reflect such realities, we were more interested in chronicling the norm, describing the kinds of questions and problems confronting most of the students we met.

During the year we worked on the project, Phuong and Monique and I were struck by the creativity and strength of the students. The transition they were making away from childhood was painful and difficult, yet they were moving forward. Their lives were full of upheaval and melodrama, yes, but these were the signs of a profound and necessary transformation. To us, the kids were heroic.

In the end, I learned a great deal about my sons, especially Nat. I discovered the things Nat was struggling with were completely normal; having spent so much time with others his age, it was easier to see what an astonishing kid he was, even on days when he was withdrawn and sullen. I appreciated him all the more; I understood why, so often, he needed to push me away and figure things out on his own.

When 13 came out, Nat read every word. One night, in the middle of the series, we were at the drugstore when he turned to me with a question.

"Hey, Dad," he said, "how come you didn't come to my school and write about me and my friends?"

"Because you would have killed me."

"Good point," he said, and walked away.

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