Joseph Feinstein has convinced teen-agers to talk about an enormous range of potentially uncomfortable subjects before television cameras: teen prostitution, drug addiction, homosexuality and incest.
But, during the five years the San Fernando Valley teacher has co-produced and hosted “Teen Talk,” there has been one subject that no teen would willingly come forward to discuss.
“The toughest show we did, surprisingly, was acne,” said Feinstein. “We simply couldn’t find any kids willing to talk about having a skin problem.”
A dermatologist eventually put Feinstein in contact with four teen-agers who had been cured of the condition.
“They are able to talk about their innermost feelings on incredibly sensitive issues, but when it comes to talking about how they look, I guess you’re hitting them where they live,” he said.
Feinstein’s rapport with and compassion for teen-agers comes from spending the last 27 years teaching at Grant High School in Van Nuys. Over the years, his off-beat courses have included “Singles Living,” which prepares teen-agers for the sometimes harsh realities of life after high school, and “Death and Living,” which examines what happens when a loved one dies or an important relationship ends.
2-Time Emmy Winner
“Teen Talk,” a two-time Emmy award-winning program that appears at 6 and 8 a.m. on Saturdays on KHJ, Channel 9, is an outgrowth of those classes and is very much what its name suggests: a forum for teen-agers to talk about the issues that affect their lives. Although many of the topics Feinstein and co-producer Betty Lou Port select to discuss each week are ones almost every teen-ager can identify with--such as peer pressure or developing self-esteem--many others are less universal. Recent programs, for example, have focused on teen prostitution, drug addiction, homosexuality and coping in the aftermath of incest.
The degree to which teen-agers on the show are able to confide in Feinstein is sometimes startling and often poignant. Take, for example, a boy talking about the years he spent as a prostitute: “It was so hard. The payoffs never equal the pain.”
Or another boy on his peers’ response to his homosexuality: “When are they going to leave me alone and just let me be me?”
Feinstein says finding teen-agers to appear on the show is generally not difficult. In most cases, psychologists, social agencies or other teachers on the lookout for articulate teens steer him to young people who are willing to talk about their personal experiences in front of the camera.
Put in Contact
For a program on child abuse, local social welfare agencies put Feinstein in contact with four teen-agers who had experienced incest and who were willing to talk about it.
“Two of those teen-agers were still living at home at the time of their appearance,” Feinstein said. In order to avoid legal ramifications, he said, parents must sign release forms allowing their children to appear on the show, and teen-agers must use their first names only.
There are times, however, when Feinstein and co-producer Port’s usual methods of getting teen-agers on the show aren’t so fruitful. In those instances, Feinstein uses a more direct approach. For a show on prostitution, Feinstein went to Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood and asked teen-agers that he said “were obviously there for that reason” if they would come on the show. The teen-agers agreed.
Finding teen-agers for a show on phobias also was difficult, Feinstein said. “I think that a girl who did agree to come onto the show said it best. She said, ‘If I let people know what I’m afraid of, then they can use it against me.’ ”
Although “Teen Talk” has been successful in its time period (the 6 a.m. show is a repeat of the previous week’s 8 a.m. show, and both appear opposite cartoons), KHJ program director Walt Baker says he does not expect to expand the program to a broader audience.
‘Not a Network Show’
“It’s not designed to be a network show. It’s intended to be a local public affairs show, and as such, I think it is one of the best.”
After seeing Feinstein discuss teen-age issues on local talk shows, Baker approached the teacher with the possibility of developing a show specifically for teen-agers. “He has rapport that is unique,” Baker said. “He’s been doing this for so long that I think it’s obvious that the teen-agers open up, trust and confide in him. Too many times, teen-agers aren’t given the opportunity to speak, or, if they do, people don’t listen. Joe does listen.”
Feinstein has also recently ventured into documentary films. In May of this year “Silent Sin,” a documentary Feinstein produced on child abuse, received an Emmy for best documentary on an independent television station. “On the Streets,” a documentary on teen-age prostitution that Feinstein produced in 1983, received an Emmy nomination.
Despite his success in and on television, Feinstein says his first love has always been--and will always be--teaching.
“A lot of things have changed in the 30 years I’ve been a teacher,” Feinstein said from an office behind his house in Sherman Oaks.
‘Lot of Changes Are Sad’
“A lot of those changes are sad. The pace is so much faster now, and so many of the kids are on drugs or simply can’t sit through a 50-minute class without wanting a station break. They truly are a TV generation. When I first started teaching at Grant, there were maybe four remedial reading classes and 20 or 30 regular English classes. Now it’s almost the other way around.”
Because of those changes, Feinstein believes, attitudes toward teaching have also shifted--in many cases, he says, for the worse.
“Sometimes I wonder how wildly and enthusiastically some rock groups would play if suddenly their audience was falling asleep in their chairs,” he mused. “It’s the same thing for teachers. A lot of times, it’s hard to stay committed when you have the feeling that the kids you’re trying to reach would rather by anywhere else than sitting in your classroom.”
A Feinstein method for getting students involved in the subject is to bring in people “from the outside” to share their experience.
In the “singles living” course, for example, students are taught about practical things such as renting an apartment, finding a job and maintaining a car, in addition to theories on development of self-esteem. Feinstein believes both are essential components to success.
Invited Author Branden
“I had finished reading Nathaniel Branden’s book, ‘The Psychology of Self-Esteem,’ and I thought that there was perhaps no better person to talk to the class on that subject than him,” he said.
After persistent phone calls from Feinstein, Branden agreed to come. “It was the first time I’d ever spoken before teen-agers,” Branden said. “I thought that what Joe was doing was very innovative, and I wanted to support that. It was also a challenge for me to see if I could take complex ideas and make them easily understood.”
When addressing the issue of drug use and addiction, teen-age members of Alcoholics Anonymous and Alateen talked to students about their personal struggles with alcohol and drugs. Other speakers in Feinstein’s classes have included Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, author of “On Death and Dying,” Henry Winkler, Morey Amsterdam, David Hartman, Bryant Gumble and Anson Williams.
Many of Feinstein’s former students stay in contact with him, and a good number remain grateful for the role the teacher has played in their lives. Mike Glickman, 27, owner of Mike Glickman Realty in Van Nuys, says he attributes his professional success to Feinstein’s encouragement and guidance during his teens.
Landed Busboy Job
Glickman was 15 and in 10th grade when he landed a “lucrative job for a teen-ager” as a busboy with a Bel Air catering company. Soon afterwards, he was asked to deliver a real estate flyer for a friend in the business. It then occurred to Glickman that setting up a delivery service for real estate brokers held financial promise. The busboy job, however, would have to go.
“It was a critical time in my life, and he (Feinstein) really was the catalyst for my entire career,” Glickman said. “My parents had mixed emotions, but Joe kept saying to me, ‘Why not become the best you can be? You’re young, and this is the time to take gambles in your life.”’
Glickman said he soon established a business that he franchised all over the United States and Canada, and sold for more than $1 million before his 21st birthday.
Ironically, Feinstein says that his relationship with his own daughter and son, aged 22 and 19, is “a source of bewilderment” to him.
“Here I’ve been close to thousand of students over the years, and with my own children there’s an atmosphere of estrangement,” he said quietly. “But I truly believe that apples do not fall far from the tree, and that they have a need to pull away from me. Right now, all I can do is be here when they choose to return.”
Feinstein had said he knows he may not be able to “touch the lives of every kid who comes into my classroom, but I sure try.” And, in some cases, he succeeds.
“He’s one of the few teachers who ever taught me about life,” Glickman said. “He taught us all to listen to what we feel, to think big, and to look far.”