Think. Discuss. Act. Adolescence

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Review: A Tribe Apart

Hersch, P. (1998). A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence.


(Download A Tribe Apart overview as a PDF)

This writer and editor took time to get to know eight “ordinary” high school students in Reston, Virginia-and to hear their stories. Like South of Heaven and other such books, it shows you how much teenagers will open up to someone who takes a real interest in them and how much we can learn from their stories.

Reston is the author’s hometown, where she is a mother and writer. For several years she went to school daily, helped in classes, and got to know students. Gradually, she chose eight-she suggests they chose her-with whom to go much deeper (with their parents’ consent).

She observed the school children of her town each day after school:

Keys in hand, they open doors all over the community. Then the doors shut. It’s their world now. With the exception of a few lone outposts where adults await their return, nobody’s home but the kids. (p. 11)

As a jogger she describes and interprets the morning scene:

Day after day, month after month, year after year, I run past the kids waiting for the buses to Langston Hughes Middle School and South Lakes High School, a changing group of individuals, the same scene-a vague mass of kids growing up in a world that rushes past them until one of them steps out of the shadows and demands attention by doing something extraordinarily wonderful, troubling, outrageous, or awful. The rest of the time…the grown-up world doesn’t pay much attention. Adults, burned out by the years of day care arrangements, are happy the kids are old enough to be on their own. Besides, most believe adolescents prefer being left alone. In the calm, everybody just goes about his or her life. (p. 11)

Citing statistics from the Carnegie Council on Adolescents, Search Institute, and her own files of clipped notes from newspapers, Hersch notes a striking conundrum: studies and reports show an amazing and increasing number of kids at risk, and yet, in most of our communities, “few kids are in Real Trouble.” (p. 14) She concludes that the “way we experience kids in traditional settings may not be a true indicator of the whole fabric of their lives.” There may be a “great unexplored wilderness” (p. 15) in the lives of children and youth today. The intention of this book was to dig into the lives a very small sampling of “mainstream, regular kids.” What she found in following their lives and hearing their stories for several years led to this conclusion-and the title of her book:

America’s own adolescents have become strangers. They are a tribe apart, remote, mysterious, vaguely threatening. The tribal is so commonplace that it is hard to know whether it derives from the kids or from adults, but the result is that somewhere in the transition from twelve to thirteen, our nation’s children slip into a netherworld of adolescence that too often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of estrangement. The individual child feels lost in a world of teens, viewed mostly in the aggregate, notorious for what they do wrong, judged for their inadequacies, known by labels and statistics that frighten and put off adults. (p. 14)

As to the eight wonderful young people of this book, there are no clear conclusions. The author evidently respects them, learned from them and finds in their thoughts real wisdom and in their lives, authenticity.

Writing this book has always been a partnership. The kids always knew I needed them or my book could not exist, and in the end, they needed me. I was an extra adult for them, or sometimes the only one, always available and there to listen…

The lives of the kids in this book illustrate in subtle and not so subtle ways the need for adult presence to help them learn the new lessons of growing up. Kids need adults who bear witness to the details of their lives and count them as something. They require the watchful eyes and the community standards that provide greater stability…The kids in the book who do best are those who have a strong interactive family and a web of relationships and activities that surround them. (p. 363)

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Just from this snapshot of the book, are you more agreeing or disagreeing with the author, her approach, and her conclusions? In what specific ways?
  2. Is there more going on in the lives of many young people than any adults, and most of their peers, know? Explain.
  3. To what degree, in your opinion, do the hidden hopes and fears, anger and joy of young hearts need to be shared with a few who really care? How can this happen?
  4. What factors explain the new anger and violent eruptions, as well as the deeper convictions and goals, we find among teenagers these days?
  5. How can adults become more involved in the lives and thoughts of young people?


  1. What Patricia Hersch is saying has been echoed by experts such as David Elkind (All Grown Up and No Place to Go), Francis Ianni, (The Search for Structure: American Youth Today), Mary Pipher (Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls), and James Garbarino (Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them).
  2. Any careful study of the changes in social systems around children and youth (the family, the community, schools, the media, and peer groups) explain the general crisis and specific tragedies befalling young people.
  3. Where there is not rage, there are often significant voids in the lives of youth. In almost all cases, these voids can be filled through adult relationships and significant experiences with peers.
  4. The relationships with teenagers developed by this author and by another writer, Thomas French (South of Heaven: Welcome to High School at the End of the Twentieth Century) can be matched by any adult who cares enough to take the time. This is the challenge of youth work and youth ministry.

Dean Borgman
© 2018 CYS

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