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High School Confidential : What Are Today’s Graduates Concerned About? Not Necessarily World Peace and a Cure for Cancer. A Look Inside the Diaries of the Class of ’87.

<i> Linden Gross is special features editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine. </i>

It is far and away the biggest campus in the Los Angeles Unified School District--65 acres spotted with low-slung, sand-colored buildings, a swimming pool and tennis courts. Until 1950, the tract was a quiet veterans hospital. Today it is Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, a cross-section of the city’s ethnic and economic diversity.

Lunchtime. Seniors rush to their Mercedeses, Volvos and Rabbits for a dash to nearby fast-food chains. Underclassmen haul cafeteria food to spots staked out by their cliques. Trendy fashions abound. Only a heavy dose of shorts, jeans and sweats relieves the impression of having wandered into a group of misplaced nightclubbers.

Two decades ago, Birmingham drew mostly from Van Nuys and Encino. Today, a third of its 3,000 students are bused in from outside the San Fernando Valley--about 400 through the voluntary integration program, the rest from overcrowded schools. About a third are Latino, a 10th black. One face in every 16 is Asian. What else has changed? To find out, the Magazine asked a group of Birmingham seniors to keep personal journals through the past school year.

The issues of their parents’ school years--busing, the draft, the environment--have given way to concerns about suicide, drugs and AIDS. Still, as these excerpts show, the age-old trials of relationships, identity and acceptance concern students most.

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ISSUES AT HAND

I spot a friend three aisles down. The teacher is not looking so I commando my way down to him. I sit next to him and we join the rest of the auditorium in yet another side conversation. A spokesman for the anti-drug program starts talking about drugs and their effect. He cracks a few jokes and about 50% of the audience laughs. He tells us about his family members who have OD’d on drugs and how that affected him. He cracks a few more jokes. It gets to the point that I’m hearing joke after joke. I think to myself, “What is this? Who is this guy, Richard Pryor or something? This is serious stuff here, guy.”

The man turns the program over to a student. I freeze as I see a familiar face speak about his problem, how he started, how he felt, how he’s quitting. He said he’s been sober for two months. My mind wanders off again. I remember back in eighth and ninth grade. How some of the kids used to smoke dope, and the girl who had vodka and whiskey in her locker. One of my closest friends got kicked out of school for pot. But most shocking was when he came up to me at nutrition one day to show off his latest discovery: coke. It was in a little bottle. He told me to taste it and I told him to get lost. Then another friend came up and started arguing about the purity of the coke and whether it was real or not. He said he’d know if it was real if he had some. At that point I decided I didn’t want to hang around those guys again.

I met up with them a while ago. They’re still druggies and dropouts. I’m glad I didn’t fall into the same trap they did.

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--KHASHY DOWLATSHAHI

Talk about gall. Ever since the IMPACT program on our campus, Birmingham has been obsessed with anti-drug groups. Well this time they really picked a winner.

Today this group gets on stage and starts “rapping” about how “drugs are for thugs” and how we should say no. I recognized one of them. He used to go with one of my friends. But what the fool neglected to tell the audience was how he sells drugs right on some of their streets, to some of their friends, or to some poor kid who may try “the rock” for the first and last time.

--TINA WALKER

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I found out that a young girl at my school died. She was driving in a car with her boyfriend after a party. She was going to be 16. She didn’t even have a chance to spread her wings. I’m just getting to do that. What really upsets me is that this drunk driver who killed her will probably get off with a fine.

--RICHARD LAURENCE

I started going out with this athlete. It was really neat at first, being in a new school, having someone to walk me to class and carry my books. Then he stopped trying to impress me. Sometimes he wouldn’t wait for me after my classes and I’d wonder where he was. He’d never tell me. I just figured he was ditching--everyone ditches, even me. Then one day, when I saw him coming in late, I walked over to see where he’d been. He just kissed me, and suddenly I figured it out. He had the strongest aroma of liquor on his breath. It turns out that he’d ditch a couple of classes every day, as early as first period, to go get drunk.

The whole situation put me in shock. I want to help him out. Except, how?

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--MARCY KNOPF

Knopf transferred to Grant High during the year.

I’m one of the Birmingham representatives at Camp Hess Kramer, a three-day weekend in Malibu designed to get students to come to terms with racism and sexism in today’s society.

Our first round of discussions came after breakfast. I knew there was going to be controversy and mixed emotions. There always is. And I was right. We were separated by our ethnic origins and asked to step outside. Then each of the remaining groups were asked to say what they thought or felt about the group that had left. It caused so much bitterness. Now everyone is so PO’d that people are on the verge of tears. There is definitely no harmless way to discuss racism or stereotype a person.

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--TINA WALKER

“Those Mexicans should learn our language if they want to live here!” screams a boy from the back.

“Us Mexicans tried to learn ‘your language’ for many years before we moved into ‘your state.’ Do you think it is easy? Boy, do I have news for you!” retorts a more sensitive person on the subject in a less-than-perfect accent.

The discussion started when one of my classmates asked our teacher how he felt about the elections. Somehow it progressed into a battle between many of the different nationalities in our classroom.

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Coming to a foreign country with a completely different language must be very scary. But, no matter how sorry we feel for these minorities, this country is a melting pot. The English language should be taught to those who wish to study in English-speaking schools, and those who wish to vote should know our language. Because no President is going to translate his speeches to make life easier for those who have it tough.

--STEPHANIE SHAPIRO

As a recipient of Supplemental Security Income, I have to go through a routine of sitting in a social worker’s office once every three years and to answer a thousand questions, so they can make sure I’m still blind and in need of the monthly checks I receive.

I had to do that this morning. I started acting helpless when I got out of the car. I had my aunt act as a sighted guide and used my cane at the same time. We went through the office like that. The first thing the social worker did when we got to her desk was ask my aunt a few questions. “Does Regina need help getting dressed, taking baths and eating?” Just to cause trouble, I had the urge to say something like, “I take showers, dummy.”

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I conducted myself like a good kid, though, and answered his questions in a way that would make him think I’m helpless and wimpy besides just being blind.

The next five or 10 questions broke down our income. I just sat there and trembled while my aunt answered. I was never so glad to leave and get in a car in my life. I wonder how the idea that in order to receive SSI a person has to be unable to care for himself got started. I’m willing to go through the reviews, though, if the extra money will help the family.

--REGINA MOORE

Religion causes so much tension in the world. People kill and hate each other just because of the religion they were brought up to believe in. A Jewish person could tend to believe more in the teachings of Buddha than in his own religion, but he was brought up to be a Jew so that’s what he is.

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I feel that parents should not involve religion in a child’s life until he is about 8 years old. At this point, the child should be introduced to many of the world’s major religions. This way the child can learn to be tolerant of other religions along with discovering which religion, if any, he would like to follow.

--ERIC GAZIN

Everywhere you turn people are talking about AIDS. Instead of trying to help, they are publicizing it as if those people afflicted don’t have enough problems of their own. It’s not fair for people to judge other people’s private lives. Not everyone that has AIDS is a homosexual.

--TINA WALKER

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FRIENDS AND LOVERS

I am sitting here at home. It’s 4:30 p.m. I just got a call from this girl. We talked for 45 minutes about school, news and life. I think I’m in love.

When I first saw her, I stopped right in my tracks and giggled. How could any woman this beautiful hide at Birmingham?

What made it even more incredible was that, at the exact moment I was staring and drooling, she looked up at me. And smiled! I almost dropped dead.

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--RICHARD LAURENCE

I’ve occasionally thought about taking out a white girl, but I never have. Maybe it’s because of what happened to my friend in 10th grade.

He had just met probably the coolest and cutest girl in the school. It turned out that she liked him, and he couldn’t help but like her. So he asked her when they could get together. All of a sudden it got quiet. “I can’t,” she told him. When he asked why, she just said, “because.”

He found out that it was her parents. You see, she’s white and he’s black and her parents are supposed to hate the idea of their little girl having a black boyfriend.

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What difference does it make? It’s not his fault that he’s black and it’s not her fault that she’s white.

--JOHN MYERS

As we entered the large waiting room of the Planned Parenthood center, my girlfriend and I didn’t even bother to glance at the other scared girls sitting in the various chairs provided by the center. We weren’t interested in their reasons for being here. We just wanted to get the birth control my friend had decided she needed and leave.

She was clinging to my hand so tight I thought she would rip it off. When the receptionist asked her different questions I had to answer because it was impossible for her to say a word.

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In the end we left with nothing but an appointment to return the following week. As we approached the car, she began to cry, half out of relief, half out of disappointment. I held her in my arms, as she sobbed, “I just wanted to show him how much I love him.”

Love. It can do funny things to you.

--STEPHANIE SHAPIRO

On New Year’s I camped out at the Rose Parade with my boyfriend and a group of friends. It was a lot of fun. We went looking for our buddies, then returned to our campsite way at the other end of the parade route and drank beer. One guy got messed up too quickly, tossed his cookies and was out like a light. My boyfriend and I lay in our sleeping bag and right before midnight we made love under a bus-stop sign around thousands of people, while his friends took bets on us.

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It was funny at the time, but now it feels 100% scummy.

--ANONYMOUS

I’m a pretty outgoing type: friendly, sociable, talkative. Extremely talkative. But I’m often shy around new classmates. I have a hard time approaching strangers who are different from me.

At the beginning of the school year I introduced myself to a Korean girl who is now a close friend. But somehow I can’t do that with American kids. I guess I never got over not being able to communicate with them when I came to the U.S. six years ago.

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--JOANN CHANG

I want to finish high school and then go into the Marine Corps and learn a profession. But I was talking with a sergeant who told me that I need my green card to join. I can’t get one because nobody in my family is a U.S. citizen.

A few weeks later I was in my recruiter’s office and the sergeant said that if I wanted to, he could marry me for just a year. I’ve been thinking about it, but I’m not sure. Is he just doing this because he’s my friend? Or does he want a relationship?

I think that if I get married, my life would be very hard because I don’t know him very well.

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--LYDIA ANGULO

A friend of mine has been destroying her life. At first it was just cigarettes, then a little puff or two on a marijuana joint, then the ultimate, crack. She has become a walking bombshell, ready to explode at any second.

I don’t know what to do. I mean the obvious thing is to go to her parents who I’m sure have already detected some evidence of her problem. But what parent wants to hear that their 17-year-old daughter is a drug addict? Especially from another kid. A good friend would say something, I think. I really don’t know.

--TINA WALKER

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RAD TIMES

At this point in my life, I’m determined to pass for 21. When I went to Lake Tahoe last winter, I grew a beard so I could gamble no problem. Occasionally I like to have a few beers (when I’m not driving, of course), so I bought a fake ID from a passport photo store for $14.

Recently a friend and I were able to get into a 21-and-over dance club. We started walking around, observing the well-endowed scenery, when two nice-looking women (not girls) asked us to dance. Afterwards we sat down with them; they appeared quite interested. My friend and I gave each other a look like “This is easy!” Were we wrong. Eventually the question of our age came up. We said we were 20, thinking that lying by three years was plenty. The two women looked at each other and laughed. I was shocked to find out that they were 24 and 26 years old. At this point they excused themselves to go to the bathroom. We never saw them again.

--ERIC GAZIN

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Tonight is a party night! I’m stoked! I’m high! I’m excited! I’m going to see a sold-out Genesis concert, with thousands of other people smoking, drinking and yelling in my ears, screaming the songs out and off-key. I can’t wait.

--RICHARD LAURENCE

I really look forward to Fridays because of football. I’m not quite sure why, but during the games I get an overwhelming inner strength that makes me want to win more than anything else. I can’t just watch from the sideline, I need to scream and yell and get everybody going.

The afternoon before we played Reseda, I went out with a bunch of the football players. We hit the Sports Club first, a totally cool warehouse for sporting goods. Afterwards we headed to McDonald’s, then went to one of the guys’ house. I was the only girl there and I loved it. After a while I tried to follow a group of them into the bedroom, but no one would let me. I later found out they were snorting coke. Before a game, too!

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--MARCY KNOPF

One Saturday night in October, I was out with some of my friends, and we decided that I would be the person in charge. This meant that I had to remain sober all night to prevent any accidents on the way home.

It was really sort of strange. I had a much better time sober than they did drunk. We headed to the beach, and I watched them run and jump, scream and splash water all over. I never realized how stupid people act when under the influence. I came home with a clear head, and without a dreadful hangover. They went home with stomach pains, head pains and everything else. And for what?

--TINA WALKER

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I got into an argument with my girlfriend. She’s upset because I’m not taking her to the prom, I’m taking my ex-girlfriend. I don’t blame her for being mad, but I just don’t want to take her. It’s my prom and I want to have the best time I can possibly have and I know I’ll have more fun with my ex-girl. If I don’t have a good time I will be incensed, irate. That would be just what I get for trying to be a player and take someone else.

--JOHN MYERS

Myers took his current girlfriend to the prom. “It was cool.”

CLASS ACTS

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I have dedicated my life to beating the system. Taking shortcuts wherever possible. Trying to get around rules that, of course, are made for other people. For sold-out movies, I buy a ticket for another theater and walk into the movie I want to see. Sporting events and concerts are my specialty. I take a friend with me, buy the cheapest tickets and end up in the best seats in the house.

I also foolishly try to beat the school system. Though it often gets me into trouble, I consider it a personal challenge to see how well I can do on a test compared to how little I’ve studied. This works only occasionally. I’ve formed incredibly bad homework and study habits that now I can’t seem to break. Once I even took a research paper I’d done for one class, ripped off the cover and turned it in to another. I got a better grade the second time.

--ERIC GAZIN

I got a dirt-bag grade on my five-week progress report--a D/F in Government. I haven’t been able to sleep, and I’m afraid to show my face on the school campus. This is one of those times when I would like more than ever to get a hold of something sharp. But I’m trapped because whenever I get that idea, I have to reason out the inevitable fact that suicide is against God’s laws.

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--ANONYMOUS

My first day of classes in the United States was one of the worst of my entire life. All those people, and I didn’t know anyone. I think I arrived between classes, because everybody was running. I thought, “What am I going to do in this place?” My counselor gave me my classes, but I was so confused that I didn’t know what they were about. During nutrition and lunch I saw all the people talking to each other, but I was alone. I felt so bad. The only thing I wanted to do was to go back to my Honduras.

Then the next day something unexpected happened. I was in my first-period class when suddenly I saw a guy I hadn’t seen since elementary school. The chances of running into him in this large country were one in a million.

Now I know a lot of new people, especially since I started to work. Because of that, I can practice my English. I think I’m learning at least one new word a day.

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--JESSICA RAUDALES

Right now my life is going terrible. I got suspended for changing a grade on my report card and forging my teacher’s signature. My grades had been better and I thought my mother might get me a car, but the fail in geometry would have screwed my chances. It seemed like the perfect thing to do at the time.

Now I have to go through a week without the phone and no going out. Do you know how it feels to be cooped up in a house for seven days like a little kid? But I guess I deserve it. I watch TV, listen to the radio, do homework and play the piano. I managed to make up about four songs, but by the end of the week I only remembered two--one fast and one slow.

--JOHN MYERS

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There is so much pressure at school. What are you going to do with your life? What college do you want to go to? You’d better have good grades if you’re going to do anything with your life.

I’m scared of the future. I don’t know what I want to be. I can’t decide--there are too many things to choose from. What happens if I choose something that I’m not happy with? I guess that’s why I stopped going to school. I didn’t actually stop, I just went every other day.

--MARIBETH ALL

Nowhere to turn to. The doors are closed, the walls are up. Compressed feelings unable to express, just left to expand and build up.

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For several days now, I have let frustration and depression get the best of me. Frustration buildup comes from college, high school, the pressure and my parents. I guess that comes as a package deal. I honestly can’t understand how insecure teen-agers can be exposed to all these pressures without considering suicide. Dealing with the competition and the innate desire to please oneself as well as one’s parents is just an impossible task. How can I satisfy everyone?

--DANI LEVINE

I’ve been trying to get into one of the UC schools. Or I was. I found out that with my GPA currently 3.08, I need about a 1300 on the SAT to get in, which is the same as impossible. My mind is obsessed with the SAT. I’ve got to get it up--how can my whole life depend on four hours spent on one particular Saturday morning?

--MARCY KNOPF

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High school is like a big baby-sitting area. I don’t feel compelled to mature or act like an adult because I’m not even tempted to be an adult. Tardy sweeps. Notes for absences. Excuses here and there. And all of the teachers having it out with the management. We, the students, see all the red tape the teachers go through and wonder who really needs an education. I can’t wait to go to college.

--RICHARD LAURENCE

With a trembling hand, I opened the letter addressed to me. In the top left-hand corner there stood, in big, bold, black letters, the words: Office of Admissions, University of California, Irvine. I was almost sure that behind the sealed envelope the letter would start with the words, “We are sorry to inform you. . . .”

The house was empty, and I prayed someone would walk in so they could open it for me. As I started to take it out, I remember thinking, “Hmm, this is an awfully thick rejection letter.”

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I clenched my fists on the paper, then read, “It is a privilege to inform you. . . .” I couldn’t believe it! I started to scream, and tears began to roll down my face. My dog danced around the room with me. “I’m now a college girl, baby!” I yelled.

--STEPHANIE SHAPIRO

FAMILY TIES

It’s really hard to keep a good relationship with parents. Mine is good, but I find it difficult to talk to them about things like school problems. I know that my mother and father love me, and that they try to understand and help me, but they are a bit old-fashioned. They follow Korean tradition and don’t understand Western customs much. I can’t discuss guy-girl relationships because they don’t believe in dating until after graduation from college. But I respect their opinions and try to follow them as much as I can because they’re my parents, and I’m Korean even though I live in the United States.

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--JOANN CHANG

Parents push their kids into too much, and then wonder why they can’t handle it. They want their children to be responsible, and to work hard--mentally and physically. They want grades and no late curfews, even on weekends. Why put so much effort out to please someone who’ll never be satisfied?

Parents always refer to their youth, but we’re far more independent than they were at that age. They want you to be responsible, intelligent and have integrity. But will they let you stand on your own even after you prove time and time again that they’ve raised a respectable adult?

--IAN HAHM

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My Christmas vacation wasn’t as good as it could have been, thanks to my mother. She knows how much I wanted a car. I did good in school and brought home the best report card in all my years in high school. There was no reason for me to not get a car this time.

All vacation she treated me like I was lucky to get what I got for Christmas. She seems to act as if I have everything, and when I ask for anything it’s like I don’t deserve it and I’m lucky to be getting it. I don’t even ask for much, only my money every week and that’s it. I just don’t understand what I’ve done to deserve this.

--JOHN MYERS

My father is just about the most important person in my life. I may not act so appreciative of him all the time, but I really am. I can confide in him completely and tell him things not too many teen-agers can tell their parents. Not long ago, I deceived him but then told him about it later. The hard part was letting him know that I had lied and let him down. He was calm about it, but I know he was upset inside, because I’ll always be his little girl.

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--MARCY KNOPF

I woke up feeling pretty good both mentally and physically. But that was to change. Just like every other Saturday, I got up and started my duties in the kitchen. Then I heard one of my cousins shout, “Logan’s here.”

I hadn’t seen my brother in several months. My aunt asked him what he had been doing with himself lately. Logan said that he was going to Florida because he was “getting sick of Sunland and Tujunga, man.” He was going off to start right.

I didn’t hug him when he left, since I would only go through more pain realizing that he was going away and I would have to unlock my embrace. I just stood in the kitchen determined not to shed a tear.

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--REGINA MOORE

I never thought my life would be like this. Now I have to choose between my family and staying here. My Mom is going back to Mexico this month and I don’t want to go. I want to finish my education in California, study business administration, and have a great profession. I want to continue to speak English. It cost me too much to learn it, and I don’t want to forget.

I’ve started looking for an apartment. I know staying here alone will be hard, but I want to try. My mother can’t understand my decision. I feel bad about hurting her feelings, but I can’t find a better solution.

--LYDIA ANGULO

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By the end of the school year, Angulo had decided to return to Mexico with her mother.

GROWING UP IS HARD TO DO

I just went to my closest friend’s new house. After I left I drove by her old house and found myself crying. Why is everything and everyone around me changing? When things change, nothing seems real. When I lose friends, it’s like I never had them. Some people say that your teen-age years are the most unstable. I hope that’s true ‘cause if things don’t get better, I don’t know what I’m going to do.

--DANI LEVINE

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It’s hard for me to accept change, good or bad, because I get comfortable in a certain situation and when it changes, I feel insecure. I guess that’s why my stupid head was telling me everything was OK while I was flunking out of school and not getting along with my family.

My friends, my family and my boyfriend tried to help me see what I was doing, but I really didn’t care. I liked sitting in my own self-pity. It’s easier to be a failure than a success. People accept it. And when you’re a failure, you attract other failures because you’re one of them.

Then someone gave me this book to read. He told me it would change my life. After a couple weeks of procrastinating (I got really good at that), I picked it up. Boy am I glad I did. One saying that really got to me was, “I had the blues because I had no shoes . . . until upon the street I met a man with no feet.” That hit home really hard. I was completely feeling sorry for myself when there were other people out there 100% worse off.

I knew it was time for me to change. I hated what I had become--a flake. There were times when I wanted to die. But now I’m on my way back up.

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Wednesday before school I was sitting on the corner with a group of friends. They all decided that today just wasn’t a good day to go to school--that it would be a lot more fun to get stoned, watch a movie and order in pizza. As they all started piling in the car, my head was contemplating, “Should I go with them?” They left the car door open for me. Totally zoning out, I remembered how I wanted to improve and not go back to my old life. I said, “No thank you, I’m going to school.” As they drove off one way and I walked the other way, the feeling of accomplishment filled my body. With every step I took toward school I felt strong that I was going to do something with my life, that I was going to be somebody. Just take one day at a time and I’ll get toward where I want to go. Wherever that is.

--MARIBETH ALL

You try to determine your priorities such as family, school and work. But it seems that after they all fall into place--or don’t in some cases--they’re in that order to benefit yourself the most. Is this the way it is for everyone? If so, than why is it always considered the teen-ager’s problem. All over the globe parents reprimand their teen-age sons and daughters, telling them: “The only person you care about is yourself. You never think of anyone else.” But if you order all your priorities while thinking of other people, then you must plan on being a priest or a nun for the rest of your life. Some people devote their lives to helping other people, but they get satisfaction out of doing this, so they are actually thinking of themselves.

--IAN HAHM

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This year has been the most difficult of my life. I still haven’t decided what I’m going to do with my future, and graduation is just three months away. I always wanted to go to the university, so that’s what I’m going to do. But I no longer want to study pharmacy, which is what I had planned to do when I lived in Honduras. It’s as if the place you live changes your way of being and thinking. Now I think I am going to study computers instead.

Sometimes I think of going back to my country. But I must stay here and finish college first. I know how important university diplomas from the U.S. are.

--JESSICA RAUDALES

The meeting usually begins in complete silence. She sits in her designated chair, and I take the seat on the far right of the soft beige sofa. The sofa is next to a small table with a plant, lamp and tissues placed on it. I usually play with the burnt tipped leaves for at least 45 minutes of the hour.

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As I sit looking down at the floor, I feel her eyes bore into me. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, because I know that she’ll analyze my silence as some bizarre behavior pattern.

Slowly but surely, we start talking about how the previous week has been. We’ll usually discuss the hardships and struggles first. Annoyances such as a fight with someone I care a lot about, or being completely ignored by someone that I am attracted to. And after we’ve discussed every aspect of how I felt at each particular moment, we’ll go on to the better parts of my week. Like being asked out on a date, or losing weight, or just having a good day.

She usually knows exactly what I’m talking about and feeling. It never ceases to amaze me how much she actually knows about life.

--STEPHANIE SHAPIRO

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Before he left to return to Hawaii, my boyfriend and I stayed up all night talking. He told me he wanted me to go to the University of Hawaii and live with him and eventually marry him. Shock of my life. He told me he’s never felt this way about a woman before. But I don’t even see myself as a woman. How can I? I’m only 17.

--MARCY KNOPF

I’m 18! Really incredible. I can sign everything myself, and I can get early leaves whenever I want. Very tempting. Funny thing: I’m beginning to refer to some girls, in private, as “jail bait.”

But now the responsibilities pile on, including registering for the draft. I don’t agree with it, but it’s the law.

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It’s scary to think that I’ll be out on my own in the real world very soon. I am just a kid trying to survive in high school, get good grades, have fun and still stay a gentleman. I’ve got problems just like the next person, and I don’t expect all of my questions to be answered. But lately I’ve started looking at myself differently, thinking about myself more, and caring more about the man I am becoming. I realize that I’ve made mistakes, hurt people, lied and acted in a horrid manner to the people I love. I can only say, “I’m sorry, but I’m still growing up.”

--RICHARD LAURENCE


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