The principal of the high school where I teach recently asked me for the inside scoop on the notoriously widespread teenage party scene in Santa Fe. "You grew up here," he told me. "What's the deal?"
Reminding myself I was 15 years past any danger of being grounded or sent to the counselor, I spilled the beans. I told him about the Friday night ragers at parentless homes, the bonfire keggers in the piñons, the parking lot bong hits before first period. I described how super scholars, football players, chess geniuses and punks would come together weekly to get wasted, how—get this—our speech and debate team was famous for filling hotel room bathtubs with Miller at overnight meets.
Drunken high school nights were such a normal part of my high school experience, I didn't realize there were places in this country where the teenage social scene was not steeped in drugs and alcohol until I went to college back East, and met a well-adjusted young woman from Washington, DC, who'd never been drunk and didn't have much interest in experimenting until she turned 21.
The principal shook his head. "What is it," he wanted to know, "about this little high desert town that drives so many kids to drink?"
Good question. It's tempting to go with the easy City Hall answers—boredom, peer pressure, broken homes, etc. But the fact that 70 percent of high schoolers in Santa Fe County reported taking a drink in a recent 30-day period, well above the national average of 45 percent, makes me think there's an explanation more specific to the teenager different. And though I hate to bite the hand that feeds me, my hunch is it has something to do with our schools.
Arguably, the city of Santa Fe strives to maintain a sense of community. We're an asylum for immigrants, a haven for gays and lesbians, a Disneyland ride of Spanish and Indian heritage. Thousands of us pack into a baseball field every year to throw our collective bad thoughts at a 40-foot doll. True, there's plenty of bad blood between newcomers and old but, compared to, say, Jena, La., we're generally getting along.
But while our city's trying to send the message that everyone counts, the message conveyed by our public schools is not quite so inclusive. In my case, I was lucky enough to attend a public elementary school with everyone from Oñate descendants to botanically-baptized hippie kids (no offense, Yarrow and Juniper) but by the time I hit Santa Fe High, I'd been diverted into "honors" classes, where my classmates looked, talked and dressed like me.
Senior year, I remember counting the kids with Hispanic surnames in one of my Advanced Placement classes: Two.
I didn't have much of a political analysis at the time, but I could smell bullshit. Why should I be in challenging college prep classes while my buddies from Carlos Gilbert Elementary slept through textbook recitations?
It felt wrong, contrary to the Santa Fe way. Which is why it felt so right to go to parties on the weekends and play drinking games with a Chicano kid from the wrestling team whom I hadn't spoken to once in four years, or watch the haughty valedictorian candidate collapse, laughing hysterically, into a snowbank. Pot and alcohol reduced us to the lowest common denominator, forced us to remember that we were all nothing more or less than people, regardless of GPAs or college acceptances. When we returned to our places in the adult-ordered world on Monday morning, we did so with the secret knowledge that we had something our stiff parents and teachers did not.
We had community.
The problem was that we also had hangovers, a habit of lying to our parents and, in extreme cases, black eyes, broken hearts and appointments with juvenile probation officers. And all our "community-building" didn't have much impact on the sober world of school, where the successful and the unsuccessful continued along their paths. Still, implausible as it may seem, I submit that many of Santa Fe's teenagers, in my day as now, don't necessarily party for all the wrong reasons. Some of them might be hitting the bottle in a noble, though misguided, pursuit of community.
If my hunch is correct, then we educators should consider easing up on the threatening hallway posters and expensive hip-hop speakers, and instead consider taking on the hard task of building community ourselves. It won't raise any standardized test scores, but carving time out of the school day to teach kids how to connect to each other through dialogue and conversation may be one step toward curbing their default habit of connecting though alcohol and pot.
Last May, the small charter school where I work—a public school, with kids from all walks of life—took each of our grade levels on camping trips. On the second night, we gathered around the campfire, 41 rising seniors and four adults, to reflect on the past year. We couldn't see each other in the black of the night, but the kids' voices rose one by one, recalling stories and highlights, sharing hopes for the future.
And then one young man, who'd been involved in a racist name-calling incident against a group of Mexican classmates the year before, cleared his throat, and apologized, by name, to the three students. The group caught its breath. From the darkness came the voice of one of the students he'd offended: Thank you.
I don't know if any of the students snuck off into the woods and got drunk that night—when we teachers crawled into our own tents, they all seemed fast asleep—but I do know that for those two hours around the campfire, 45 sober Santafereños—sipping nothing stronger than hot chocolate, inhaling nothing but crisp mountain air—managed to cut through the bullshit and connect.
Seth Biderman, a graduate of Santa Fe Public Schools, teaches at a public high school in Santa Fe.