This Year's Role Model

There's no way around it: if you want to understand today's teenagers, you have to discover their heroes. Or, as the philosopher Joseph Campbell has pointed out, the people we admire are a reflection of our inner selves. Which isn't to say that pinpointing today's teen heroes is a Herculean task. Years of research have produced a scientific way of obtaining people's opinions about any number of things, heroes included. Yet in preparing this report, I didn't want to go that route.

The problem with the scientific approach is that it produces predictable results. I have before me a "youth survey" conducted in 1965, the golden age of the clipboard-clutching, narrow necktied pollster. Can't you just see those guys, fanning out to sock hops and science fairs? And can't you imagine the Eddie Haskell-ish responses? Believe me, you can. The teen heroes of 25 years ago, according to this poll, included John F. Kennedy, Elvis Presley, James Dean and Martin Luther King Jr. Great men. But, you've got to admit: all the usual 1965 suspects.

I wanted something less obvious, something more real. So I took a trip. I visited a military academy in Indiana, an eighth grade in the Bronx, a girls' school in Dallas, a Midwestern high school and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, deep in the South Dakota Badlands. At every school, I passed out index cards on which I asked students to write down a few heroes, and I talked to them, in groups, about whom they admired. When I read the cards later. I got a mild shock. The most frequently mentioned figure among the kids I'd spoken to? Basketball star Michael Jordan. And after that? A mishmash, but a mishmash featuring . . . John F. Kennedy, Elvis Presley, James Dean and Martin Luther King.

What seemed predictable in 1965 now looked strange indeed. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

My tour began at the Culver Academies, in Culver, Ind. New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner went here, as did actor Hal Holbrook and George R. Roberts (of the Kohlberg Kravis Roberts investment firm). Culver is two institutions: a boys' military school founded in 1894 and a girls' academy opened in 1971. Both share a reputation for academic excellence, as well as a handsome campus with Gothic buildings and huge, sloping lawns convenient for rolling freshmen into nearby Lake Maxinkuckee. Annual cost: about $18,000.

Culver is "military" only in its discipline and uniforms; the students don't study war no more. Still, when asked for their heroes, the boys came up with Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Douglas MacArthur, Alexander the Great, Chuck Yeager, Audie Murphy and Sergeant York. Mixed in with those, though, were Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Houdini--and from Stephan Lower, a senior from Westfield, N.J.: Winnie the Pooh. The girls mentioned Lucille Ball, Margaret Thatcher, Superman, Jane Good-all--and Westfield, New Jersey's own Stephan Lower. Michael Jordan was popular with both groups, as was James Dean. Although somewhat startled at the mention of an actor now 24 years dead, I didn't think much of it, yet. Indiana was Dean's home state, after all, and these kids had a sense of history and liked to demonstrate it.

From there, it was a couple of hours' drive to Rolling Meadows High School, in Rolling Meadows, Ill. A hot topic, at the time of my visit to this big (1,600 students), clean school, located about 15 miles north of Chicago, was the date of the Turnabout Dance (girls invite boys). Should it be rescheduled because of a conflict with a state tournament basketball game? It wasn't a suspenseful debate: this is an extremely sports minded school. Michael Jordan's picture can be found on T shirts and classroom walls. With RMHS so near the Chicago Bulls' home court, that's understandable. Yet the students emphasized that it is Jordan's extracurricular activities--his charity work and anti-drug efforts--that account for his appeal. "He knows he is a role model," said Lisa Soucek, 18, of Arlington Heights. "He wouldn't do anything wrong because kids follow in his footsteps."

Just behind Jordan on the heroes list was Mike Lipnisky, the star of the RMHS basketball team. I didn't know that, though, until I read the cards. The students seemed reticent about mentioning a peer in class--but then they were a hard bunch to get talking about anything. The air at Rolling Meadows seemed thick with the kind of peer pressure that stifles expression. "Oh. some heroes must come to mind." I said at one point. "Tell me whose picture you have on your bedroom wall." Most kids remained silent. Betsy Pappas, 17, of Mt. Prospect, said she had a calendar featuring the Chippendale's dancers.

Next stop: the Hockaday School for girls in North Dallas. Founded in 1913 by Miss Ela Hockaday, a tall, reserved woman from Pecan Gap, Texas, this school, for grades pre-K through 12, now occupies 100 manicured acres. Tuition and board cost about $17,000 a year. For that you get a 50,000-volume library; a NASA-esque computer center; courses in Southern lit and Japanese history; a TV studio; 10 tennis courts and a live animal lab that, in most cities, would be a tourist attraction. Many buildings are connected by climate-controlled glass corridors--a reminder, perhaps, of the days when Dallas girls were deeply into bouffant management.

Today's Hockaday students tend to have a no nonsense attitude toward heroes. Yes, quite a few did pick Dr. King, Jordan, Superman, James Dean, Anne Frank and Sinead O'Connor ("because she's not afraid to be vulnerable"). But this was one place where the traditional definition of a hero seemed outdated. "I don't have a particular hero," said Indrani Reddy, 16, of Duncanville, Texas. "I admire different characteristics in different people." Melissa Korby, 18, of Dallas agreed. "I feel the national heroes we are offered keep falling," she said "They seem more and more corrupt." Kathleen Sealock, 17, of Dallas, said her hero was Ollie North-but only because she made $1,400 selling T shirts with his picture during the Iran-contra hearings.

Then someone mentioned James Dean, and I had to ask what the deal was. With out hesitation, the students explained: in the first place, Dean's hauntingly handsome face appears on posters sold in many shopping malls, and his movies, such as "Rebel Without a Cause," still pop up on TV. But what makes him rise among contemporary hunks is that he lived before we knew so much about our idols. "Being a total hero isn't possible in today's society," said Ronnetta Fagin, 18, of Richardson, Texas. "The media strips a person of the mystery, glory and honor that belong to a hero. We revel in finding that one ounce of dirt to smear on outstanding people."

Immaculate Conception School, on 151st Street in the South Bronx, is a long haul from Hockaday in many ways. Your humble correspondent got his primers education here. The neighborhood, not far from Yankee Stadium, has changed much since I graduated in 1963, mostly because the white middle class fled en masse and landlords burned down tenements when they ceased being good investments. Inside ICS, though, things seemed the same, except for the nuns' somewhat modified habits.

The kinds of people the eighth graders at ICS saw as heroes varied widely. Even within one young mind, the range was great. I asked each student to write down two heroes. Michelle Graham, 13, said fashion model Wile MacPherson and Bart Simpson ("because I wish I could get away with treating my parents that way"); Shauneille Parker, 13, picked God and Arsenio Hall, Jose Centeno, 15, chose Michelangelo and Larry Bird; Nicole Howel, 14, picked New York Mayor David Dinkins and Public Enemy. The two big heroes at ICS in the early '60s were John F. Kennedy and Mickey Mantle. Their names also came up in my informal survey, albeit once each.

I didn't know what to expect at the Red Cloud School, in Shannon County, S.D., one of the poorest counties in the nation. The alcoholism and unemployment rates among the Dakota Indians on the Pine Ridge Reservation were, I was told, both running at about 80 percent. People familiar with Native American culture also warned me to expect reticent kids who would not make eye contact. The reality, though, was somewhat different. Red Cloud, a 101-year-old Jesuit-run institution, was more like a prep school on the Great Plains. The buildings were spotless and in excellent repair. For better or worse. the students could have blended into the crowd at any shopping mall. As for shyness, I was there 20 minutes when a boy asked me how much I made. When I mentioned to principal Chuck Cuney how typical the school seemed, he shrugged and said that "things were tougher" at the federal school, a couple miles away in the town of Pine Ridge. Red Cloud tended, he said, to get the more affluent kids, who were "connected to the world through MTV."

Some of the students cited Native American heroes: Fools Crow, Chief Red Cloud and boxing champ Virgil Hill. Michael Jordan got the most votes, though, while Axl Rose ("because he just don't care"), Donald Trump and Michael Milken also earned mentions. When I asked if the boys had any female heroes, someone shouted, "Maria Maples." Everyone laughed, and I asked how they kept up with such gossip. "Maury Povich," the class chorused, referring to the host of "A Current Affair." Everyone laughed again, and one girl said, "Hey, I put Maury Povich down as my hero."

As I was leaving, I mentioned that I was headed out to see Wes Craven and asked if they knew who he was. "The guy who makes "Nightmare on Elm Street'," one boy said.

I drove back to the airport in Rapid City thinking this: if kids in the Badlands can have many of the same heroes as the girls at Hockaday, or the boys at Culver--and if many of those heroes are dead or over the hill--then heroes might be serving a different and less vital function than they used to. Thanks to TV and celebrity journalism, kids all over the country are choosing from the same menu of celebrities--and rarely with any great enthusiasm. The problem is not that fame comes, these days, to those who don't deserve it. The shortage of really inspiring heroes probably has more to do with the dearth of pure fans. So many kids today are so informed about pop culture--about who's straight and who's gay; who's cheating on their mate and who's cheating on their taxes; who's been to Betty Ford and who still hasn't--that it's as if they have one foot in the audience and one behind the scenes. Such familiarity must inevitably breed at least a little contempt.

I got to Santa Monica the next day. Craven, as virtually everyone who meets him says, does not look like Freddy Krueger's father. The villain of the "Nightmare" series is a semidecomposed ghoul who slashes people with knives that seem to grow out of his fingers. Craven, at 50, is a well-read, serene-seeming father of two grown children, 22 and 25. The only hints of a wild inner life I in his home are an Elm Street sign hanging above his kitchen sink and the autographed picture of Timothy Leary in the living room.

I sought out Craven because not only are his movies about teenagers, but they seem to move teens in a way that other films, including the superficially similar "Friday the 13th" offerings, do not. When I mentioned this to him, he said that, yes, that was true and he knew why. "Because Freddy does not perpetrate senseless violence," he said, "as many adults think. The only people who die because of him are those who don't face the truth. The characters who try to put themselves to sleep in a sense--who avoid reality by using sex, drugs, eating, TV, what have you--they are the ones he slashes and pares away mercilessly." Craven took a sip of herbal tea and then went on. "I believe we are at a fairly frightening, transitional stage of history. We tried the Ozzie-and-Harriet thing in the '50s, and that didn't work. Then we tried the hippie peace-and-love thing, and that didn't work either. Then we tried the Yuppie thing, and the world got worse. So what's next? Today, there is no clear way for teenagers to go. All they have are politicians, TV preachers and cynical heavy-metal musicians telling them things that they sense are lies. No one is offering them the truth they crave so deeply."

Does Craven have any suggestions for today's teenagers? He thinks, then sighs. "I'm a filmmaker," he says. "I make horror movies in which a character comes out of people's dreams and slashes away at anything that's bullshit. All I can tell you, I guess, is that I'm not surprised that Freddy Krueger is a teen hero."

Join the Discussion