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The 'Last Chance' Teen Dance

Senior-year pressures can produce weird results. As weird as the 'powder puff' melee.

June 10, 2003|David Anderegg | David Anderegg is a professor of psychology at Bennington College in Vermont, a child therapist in private practice and the author of "Worried All the Time: Overparenting in an Age of Anxiety and How to Stop It (Free Press, May 2003).

Ah, June! In the afternoon, the air swells with the melody of "Pomp and Circumstance," and in the evening, with the unnerving sound of high school kids retching and the terrifying sound of cars crunching against trees.

Don't you just love graduation season?

It doesn't happen to all our graduating seniors, but it always happens to some: They're ready to be launched into the world, colleges are beckoning and the future looks bright, until they do something incredibly stupid. Sometimes it involves alcohol or speeding cars or both. And sometimes it's a social-life soap opera: Kids who have been friends their whole lives stop speaking to each other two weeks before graduation, or kids who have always hated each other become best friends overnight.

The established order of high school is suddenly overthrown, as seniors contemplate the end of the regime they have lived with for so long and start to act really weird.

A recent example: the "powder-puff riot" in suburban Chicago. In case you missed the ubiquitous video footage, this unhappy event started out as an all-girl touch football game and turned into an orgy of physical abuse. A group of senior girls punched, kicked and strangled (with pig intestines, no less) a group of junior girls. It was pretty awful, but what does it signify? Permissive parenting? Too much reality TV? A new generation of super-mean girls?

The event was described as a hazing, but I think this is not quite accurate from a psychological point of view. Hazing is almost always an initiation, a ritual humiliation visited upon newbies who want to be part of a club. It is a way for the more powerful in the group to remind the less powerful of their status, in a typical dominance-hierarchy sort of way that would be familiar to chimps at a zoo. You can join, the old guard says, as long as you remember who's boss.

The powder-puff incident was ostensibly such a ritual, an annual initiation into senior year. But it was not so much a "hello" phenomenon as a "goodbye" phenomenon. It was the last chance for these senior girls to assert their superiority and teach a thing or two to their replacements.

"Last chance," in fact, is code for a lot of what happens during senior year in high school. The theme is impending loss. Seniors are about to leave behind most of their friends, most of the significant adults in their lives, the institutions that have sheltered them for years and, shortly after that, their parents. That's a lot of loss.

Consider how hard it is for adults to lose neighbors, friends and co-workers in a move to an unfamiliar job in an unfamiliar city. Now imagine what a neighborhood would be like if everyone were moving away at the same time. That's what senior year is like.

For some kids, especially those who are miserable in high school, leaving is not so bad. If you have no friends or you're tortured for being different or you simply sit invisibly eating lunch alone every day for four years, it's a liberation to move on.

But for popular kids -- and news reports tell us that the perpetrators of the powder-puff melee were the popular girls in their school -- these losses are huge.

Being successful in high school is about as close to hereditary aristocracy as many kids will ever come: They have power, teachers grant them special privileges and, after four years, their bad deeds are overlooked because they are, after all, seniors. It's not surprising that popular kids have a hard time letting go. What is surprising is how many go away as gracefully as they do.

So, while we celebrate commencements all over the country, let's also try to recognize this painful leave-taking for what it is. I am not suggesting a big intervention, one of those platoon-of-shrinks things that kids hate. But we might make space in our own families for kids to notice that they're scared and sad about losing so much. This might help prevent some of the more destructive senior-year antics.

Bad behavior needs to have consequences, of course, and the authorities in Illinois are seeing to that. But bad behavior can also be understood. If the powder-puff case signifies anything, it signifies a time-honored tradition: In June, kids have to grow up and leave home.

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