Transcript

150:

Kids As Adults
Transcript

Originally aired 01.21.2000

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

When Adam was a junior in high school, living in New York, he got invited to this party that he was petrified to go to. The kids not only seemed more grown-up, they talked about how grown-up they were. And when he got there, there was no dancing or goofing around. Everyone just sat around a coffee table, about a dozen kids, casually drinking beers, just talking.

Adam

I don't remember exactly what we talked about, but I just remember it was all very quiet, and people would sort of nod while you were talking.

Ira Glass

And during this very grown-up party, a party unlike any Adam had ever been to, a couple got up and left the room for a while.

Adam

At some point I realized that they were in the bedroom for quite some time.

Ira Glass

With the door closed.

Adam

With the door closed. And I mean, we were 16. I'm kind of-- you know, nobody was giggling, nobody was observing this fact, nobody was making mention of this. I mean it was just what adults do. It was just, this is what you do at a party.

Ira Glass

After a while, the boy and girl walked from the bedroom to the bathroom, and they showered together. Then, the boy, wearing a terrycloth bathrobe, rejoined the party. And as Adam went to more parties with this crowd, this would happen a lot. A couple would go off, have sex, and then return to the party, all the while everyone acting like this was no big deal at all.

Ira Glass

At that time, did you think, OK, well, this is the way that adults act?

Adam

Yeah, it was all so mysterious. I would have kind of bought anything about those things, you know? I didn't really-- it seemed to me like this is how sophisticated, cool adults were. I mean, the crucial thing was nothing was a big deal. Nothing was worth commenting on.

Ira Glass

Of course, why would you want to be prematurely blase about sex? Well, part of being a kid is wanting to be a grown-up already. And throughout childhood, from a very early age, you try on various adult behaviors for size. You rehearse being an adult long before you get the part full time. And sometimes, in these rehearsals, you just get it wrong.

Today in our program, stories of kids trying to act like adults, sometimes by their own choice, sometimes because they have no choice, and what they get right, and wrong. From WBEZ Chicago, and Public Radio International, It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

Act One of our program today, I Was a Teenage Ambulance Driver, in which we ask the question, can it be good for you as a kid to see some things that you just don't want to see? Act Two, Househusband at 12. The story of two brothers escaping Vietnam, and how one ended up doing the cooking and cleaning for the other.

Act Three, The Miseducation of Josh Frank, in which an average American 17-year-old explains why it's OK to ignore everything you're supposed to like about high school and start your career in the big city. Act Four, Angry Young Man, Times Two. What it's like to be a teenager sent to a maximum security prison, and what it's like to be an adult working with kids like that knowing it could have been you? Stay with us.

Act One. I Was A Teenage Ambulance Driver.

Ira Glass

Act one, I was a teenaged ambulance driver. Mike Paternini has this story, that takes place way back in the late 20th century.

Mike Paterniti

I was a teenage ambulance driver. In my Connecticut hometown, people thought it might be wise to put their suburban youngsters to good use. And so post '53, a youth ambulance service was established. We, the acne-plagued, gum-chewing, beer-sneaking generation-to-be thought this was remarkably wise. One day, you were bumping your back wheel over a curve, nervously trying to parallel park over at the DMV, and the next, you are commanding several tons of bucking red siren emergency love, screaming like a banshee down the interstate. And everybody, everybody, was curtsying and swerving, and pulling over to let you pass. You checking these strobes, dude? Adios, suckers.

The post was housed in an old railroad station that shook any time a Metro north train blew by on the way to Manhattan, or back to New Haven. And there we were, this secret cabal of 50 or so high school kids, girls and boys, most of us achievers of one kind or another, most of us on a path to college. Away from the post, we might drink or smoke pot, listen to Neil Young, or The Clash. On a call, there was none of that.

There were usually four of us riding in the ambulance, an EMT, a gopher, the driver, and often an adult supervisor, though occasionally, the supervisor was just a more experienced high school senior. We dressed in white button down shirts and white pants with fluorescent orange jackets. At school, we carried big clunky pagers, and sometimes we were called from class to respond to a car accident, or a stroke, or whatever else might be going wrong with a human body in our town.

The person responsible for our teenage ambulance service, the post, was a celebrated man in town named Bud Doble, who had a habit of calling each and every one of us Booby, and usually not as a term of endearment. "What the hell do you think you're doing, Booby?" he would roar. "Did anyone tell you we're dealing with human lives here?" He kept us on the straight and narrow, our very own Patton, and we, his boobies, attended endless training sessions where we learned to do our jobs with military efficiency.

Our lives revolved around this old train station, cluttered with Styrofoam coffee cups and our backpacks strewn in every corner. On duty until midnight, we'd hang out, waiting for a call, get pizza, flirt. We weren't expected to be at home, and the beauty of it was that all this pizza-eating, and flirting, and teenage goofing around was sanctioned by the selfless effort we were making on behalf of our town. There were times when you felt a little like you were getting away with something huge. Other times, you weren't so sure.

Once, I got a beeper call to a classroom at my own school. My physics teacher, who was full of quacky bluster during the 50 minutes we spent with him each day, who took exceptional glee in scrawling a C-minus at the top of a pop quiz after you'd bombed, stood alone in his lab, trembling, his nose bleeding uncontrollably, bright red blood streaking his white turtleneck like Chinese characters.

He seemed mortified, both by what was happening to him and by who had come to help. Later, when he was back to his healthy self, lording his vast knowledge of physics over us, I would sit in the class on a particularly grueling day of him making us feel small, and flash back to that moment when he stood covered in blood. And I don't know, I'm not proud to say, it kind of helped me through.

If teenage rebellion is based on the fact that adults are dangerous, that they control you and can get you in trouble, that teachers, and cops, and even your parents , are not like you in any way, but are a different species altogether, what happens when you're put in a position where they're suddenly weak, and you suddenly have the power? Can you ever go back to being a teenager again?

Once, late on a week night, I was on another call outside a bar on the main street of our town. When we arrived, a man was down by the shoulder of the road, struggling to get up. He'd been hit by a car. He was dirty and drunk, slurring his words. He was clearly hurt, probably had some internal bleeding, though adrenalin and booze had convinced him he was fine. I remember holding a flashlight and shining it on him, and him saying, "Get that [BLEEP] light off of me. I'll be damned if I'm going to have the kiddie docs take me away."

To my surprise, he was my old swim coach, someone whose generosity and ferocity on a pool deck had shaped my early years as a swimmer. And though I hadn't seen him in a few years, he was someone I'd revered. "Coach," I said, "It's Mike Paterniti. I was one of your swimmers." "I'm not going," he said, "don't touch me." "Listen, coach, I think it would be best if you came." "I think you can go [BLEEP] yourself," he said.

"I was one of your swimmers," I said again, "and you're hurt." He tried to focus, but couldn't. My name didn't register. And why should it have? He'd been thrown headfirst into an embankment, and had a tuft of sod unwittingly stuck to his head like a sad beret. "Get away from me!" he said. "Before I make you hurt."

Make me hurt? It seemed a bizarre thing to say, but I backed off. He signed a waiver that he was refusing treatment, and we left him there, broken and beginning to sob when I turned my back on him. I remember being confused by that, by his belligerence and vulnerability, by the way he was so completely not the man I once thought he was, the man I'd pinned some hope on, and some sense of my own self. And I knew that he wasn't sobbing because he'd been hit by a car, or was drunk. Something else had led him to this moment, but I didn't even try to ponder what.

One of my brothers, Steve, was in post, too, and after I left for college, he became president, a kind of big deal at the time. Though he briefly ended up as the whitest angel, my brother was actually more of a rebel than I was in those days. Recently, I asked him what he remembered of that time. "The outfits," he said, laughing. We started trading stories about the calls we'd been on.

Steve

You know, the one I remember, that I've had recurring memories and dreams of, is this accident up by that really bad 90 degree curve, up by Weburn, you know, on Hollow Tree? With this mother who was driving in a VW Rabbit, and she had two twin boys, four years old. And they were kicking each other in the back or something, so she reached back to stop them, and drove right into a stone wall. And one of the boys was OK, and the other one was hurt really badly. He had a huge swelling in his forehead, really big, and when we came to the scene, I was the EMT.

And just this guy who had driven by stopped to see if he could help, and had grabbed the four year old, the hurt one, out of the car, which obviously you're not supposed to do, because we didn't know if he had a neck injury. And he came running over to me with this little boy. And so I had to grab the kid in my hands, in my arms, and take him into the ambulance. And his mother was a nurse, and she kept saying, just tell me, just tell me what's wrong. Just tell me, I know something, I know this is serious, I know this is serious.

Mike Paterniti

So my brother had to figure out what to do. There were no obvious broken bones or lacerations, which made the situation altogether more ominous. He suspected that there might be severe internal injuries, and so they needed to get the kid to the hospital, fast.

Steve

I remember his little fingers. He was stiff, but his hands were moving. And he would he would grab my pinkie and squeeze it tight. And that was just pretty intense, to think this is up to me, here, maybe. As it turned out, he ended up dying, of, I think, massive, massive head injuries. Brain injuries.

And I also remember, when I got to the hospital, we wheeled the stretcher off and ran him in, one of the people in the E.R. came out, and said to me, "Well, why didn't you tell us it was this kind of injury, and a head injury, we would have had the brain trauma center set up," and stuff. And I was like, at that point I was thinking, oh my god. If I didn't tell them something I should have told them, and I wasted five minutes that could have saved this kid's life, I was just devastated.

I know I told them everything that I saw, I know I said that he had a swelling over his head. Whether or not I sufficiently flagged it for them, I don't know. I mean, I don't know. I felt awful. It was pretty hard to deal with for a little while. I mean, I can deal with it now. And it's not something I think about every day. But I definitely felt guilty that maybe he wouldn't have died, or something.

Mike Paterniti

What's curious is that we never really talked about calls like that. Not in any great detail, and never to anyone outside of the post, especially our parents. And so my brother's worst calls were bottled and stored in the cellar of his psyche, only to haunt him these years later in bad dreams. In fact, until now, I had never even asked Steve about another incident that occurred when the two of us were at home, on a day near the end of the school year when I was a senior and he was a junior.

That afternoon, I was engaged in heavy combat with my youngest brother, Rich, who was eight years old at the time. Rich had uncanny hand-eye coordination, and was a merciless video game player, the supreme universal master of Asteroids. I had made a promise to myself that before graduating high school, I would find a way to beat him. And by some cosmic fluke, never to be repeated, I was. I was creaming him, and neither of us could believe it.

Which is when our next door neighbor, a woman just older than my mother, burst in. Her 75 year old father had keeled over on the lawn in cardiac arrest. I remember my first thought was, but I'm about to kick Rich's butt. And then I started outside, telling her to get Steve, who was upstairs listening to music in his room.

Steve

I mean, I could probably remember the song I was listening to if I thought. I think it was probably Bob Marley, Babylon by Bus.

Mike Paterniti

I remember running outside to our neighbor's father, and beginning CPR. I remember something happening that I didn't expect at all, his ribs separating from his sternum, and breaking easily under the weight of my palm. A muffled cracking sound.

Steve

I just remember the feel of the guy's beard on my lips. Then you have pretty normal reactions. How could I possibly think a video game is more important, or how could I possibly be angry at being pulled away from listening to a record to have to try to save someone's life? But you definitely have those-- I definitely remember having those reactions. I remember hearing that, in that sort of perfect early summer afternoon, listening to the perfect music, and just coming down the stairs and seeing her face, and knowing that something was going to happen. Or something had happened, bad. It's sort of the same feeling, almost like a little tiny bit of resentment. Well, that just blew the afternoon in a big way. And then feeling, of course, real guilty about having that feeling later.

Mike Paterniti

This was the thing about the post. It represented two totally discordant and opposite teenage impulses. On the one hand, we still wanted to act like kids, but then at the same time, we wanted to be adults. We'd accepted the ultimate adult responsibility, riding in an ambulance and being held accountable for human lives.

I would have been 17 years old at the time of my last serious call. It was spring of my senior year, and all I wanted was to hang out with my girlfriend-- just get lost, and forget every last adult thing looming on the horizon. You know, the specter of going away to college, and then after that, the requirement of finding some kind of worthy job, and the ensuing money grief, and whatever it was that adults worried about all the time.

But I was on duty, getting ready to go home, actually, when the call came in. A car accident, out on Pear Tree Point, which juts out into Long Island Sound. There are huge beautiful trees out there, and a girl not much older than me had run headlong into one of them, drunk.

It was a dark night. When we arrived, we couldn't find her at first. We were all out looking in the ditch by the road. And then suddenly, I was at the car. What had been the car, as the whole front end was flattened. I remember somehow opening the jammed front door, and seeing a trapped woman, head down on the steering wheel, her hair long and blonde, her body splattered with blood. And she was moaning, a low, sickly, almost reflexive moan.

I remember taking her head in my hands to pull traction, and lifting her back, and then almost throwing up at what I saw. I don't know how to put this gently, but she didn't have a face. That is, her nose had been driven into her head, and there was a huge gash on her forehead from which something brainy was leaking. And her jaw hung half-loose. And her eyes had rolled completely back, were just these white ghostly things reflecting nothing.

In EMT training, you're taught that once you've begun to pull traction, you can't like go. And so I can't tell you how long I sat face to face with this woman. Even after we put on a neck brace, I held her head, for hours. And she moaned, and moaned, and I, too, begin to moan quietly to myself.

The fire department was called, and other ambulances with the capability to administer drugs. And the jaws of life were used to pry her loose, finally. Bud Doble came too, as he often did to the bad ones. After several hours, after a huge crowd had gathered, we got her out and wheeled her to another ambulance. And since I'd been with her at the beginning, I stayed with her until the end.

I remember standing up on the back fender at the back door as they stripped her naked and shot her full of drugs. And I remember a stream of her blood running down the floor of that ambulance, over my white Reeboks. Bud Doble was standing next to me, shaking his head. Tough one, he said. By morning, she was dead.

When I got home that night, my dad was up waiting. And though I wanted to tell him what had happened, I didn't. Or couldn't. I don't know why. I just stood for a while, making small talk, and then I went up to bed.

But here's the thing I remember most about that night. Somehow, the girl's parents had heard about the accident, and made it to the crash site. And then they were moving toward the back of the ambulance to see their daughter, the one they'd raised and loved. Bud Doble glanced over his shoulder, knew exactly who they were, and leaped down. I remember he wrapped his arms around both of them, talked to them in a low voice, comforting them. He covered them both up, and led them straight away, the three of them in a bear hug. Here was this stranger, and they clung to him like Jesus.

I thought about that woman and her parents last week, when I myself was at the hospital for the birth of my first child. Already, I was imagining a life for him. His first words, his first steps, his first day of school, his first bike, his first girlfriend, his first act of rebellion. I imagined what secret worlds he might occupy one day, and whether he would ever tell his father about them. From our room at the hospital, we happened to look down on the ambulances as they came and went from the emergency room. And standing with my one day old son in my arms, I watched.

I watched the paramedics wheel in all sorts of people, and return with empty stretchers, joking with each other. I stood in the window with my son in my arms like a man on a beach, watching others bob in a distant ocean, diving on a coral reef. It was late afternoon, and the sun dropped down behind some low clouds, lighting the parking lot silver. I watched as an ambulance driver ran to his rig, flipped on his strobes, and floored it, off to some new disaster, to some broken body out there somewhere. It was an old reflex, I admit, but I turned my son from the window and raised his mouth to my ear, just to make sure I could feel his breath.

Ira Glass

Mike Paterniti lives in Portland, Maine, with family.

[MUSIC - "ALMOST GROWN" BY CHUCK BERRY]

Act Two. Househusband At 12.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Househusband at 12.

So what if you made the most important decision of your life when you were 12 years old, and for all the wrong reasons? When Anh Tuan Hoang was 12, back in 1980, living in Vietnam, his cousin was scheming up a way to escape the country by boat. It would be 36 people, hidden in a tiny craft. Anh Tuan's older brother was invited on the trip because he knew how to fix engines, which everyone figured might come in handy. And Anh Tuan was invited too. And he wanted to go, but for reasons that had very little to do with reality, and everything to do with the way that a kid sees the world.

Anh Tuan Hoang

For me, having a chance, an opportunity to travel-- because to travel in Vietnam at the time was extremely difficult. So just to have an opportunity to leave the city, maybe go to North Vietnam, because we were planning to escape from North Vietnam, I thought it would be a cool thing. And then, I thought, escaping, you'll be caught. It's not that easy.

Ira Glass

But really, you thought you would get caught and be sent back.

Anh Tuan Hoang

Yeah.

Ira Glass

You didn't actually think you were going to be leaving Vietnam?

Anh Tuan Hoang

Right. Not exactly. Like in my mind, I didn't think I would be able to. So for me, it's just like, I love my mom, I can't be separated from her, but this is not really true. This is a game. I'm going to go and enjoy the visit, and then be caught, and sent back to my family. And then my mom has a totally different idea. She's thinking, he's leaving, either he make it, I'll never see him again. I might, you know, in the late, late future. If he get caught, they might kill him. Or, you know, the chance of being dead at the sea is great, too.

So she was truly petrified. And she didn't want to let me go, because I was really young, and I was a baby. And then he has to sort of convince, and then my brother and my whole family sort of talked to my mom, and said, mom, look, you know, there's a war going on with Cambodia right now. They're drafting young men. As soon as you reach your 17th birthday, they take you. And then, plus, if I had stayed behind, I would never been able to get ahead. And I wouldn't been able to go to college, for example, or to get a decent job.

So after a lot of convincing, my mom just decided. She said, OK, you can go, it would be good for your future. But one thing I remember her telling me, she said, you can have a better future and everything, but you just never find the love that I have for you. I'm your mother. And after that, it was sort of odd, because she didn't really speak to me very much until the day I leave. It was too difficult for her. She's like, pretend that nothing is going to happen.

Ira Glass

Now, as an adult, you must know how risky it was. Is it one out of two people who would get onto a boat wouldn't survive?

Anh Tuan Hoang

Yeah, I mean, the odds of being survive is really, really small. It's either like I said, the boat is tipped over, you get caught by the government, or you being attacked by pirates.

Ira Glass

Pirates?

Anh Tuan Hoang

I mean, yeah, especially in South Vietnam.

Ira Glass

Were you scared?

Anh Tuan Hoang

I don't know if I can say I was scared. I mean, I was excited. I don't think I really got scared until I was on the boat. Then reality sort of sunk in.

Ira Glass

So what happened when you got on the boat?

Anh Tuan Hoang

I got really sick. That was the first thing. And I just got really sick. I mean, I have never been on a boat going to the ocean. I've been on river boats in Saigon, no big deal. And I remember praying to just about all the saints, whomever I know just from growing up, so that I could die. Literally, I was like, just let me die. This is just awful, I want to die.

And the first few days we did have some food that we take with us. We thought that it would take us six days to get from Hai Phong to Hong Kong. But this ended up taking us a lot longer than that because the boat broke down a lot, and also we encountered a storm.

We were stranded in an island for ten days. We had a little bit of food left for the island, but just barely. Like maybe a few handful of rice that we make very thin soup to drink. But we managed to find all kind of weird sea animals, and we ate those. I tried to eat grass, at one point, because I was so hungry. And found out that you can eat a lot of vegetation, you just can't eat grass. I don't know why. It's like it tastes horrible, you can't even swallow it.

Ira Glass

And so you had planned that it would only take 6 days. How long did it end up taking?

Anh Tuan Hoang

Almost two months.

Ira Glass

So two months go by, and where did you end up?

Anh Tuan Hoang

Well, we end up in Hong Kong. And of course, you know, they know we were refugee. We'd looked like we were refugee. The boat was awful. So they took us into shore, into a warehouse. And basically bathed us, making sure that we were free of lice, and making sure that we had proper check-up, medical check-up. Then they take us to another camp, and the first month or so, we get some money to just get by, for the first month or so.

Ira Glass

To buy food.

Anh Tuan Hoang

To buy food. But then after the first month, you have to work. And they will try to help you find jobs, outside in Hong Kong. Of course, the job that you would be getting paid very, very little. I'm talking like, maybe $0.50 cents an hour, or something.

Ira Glass

Now, for you, you were 12 years old. Is this is the first time you had a job?

Anh Tuan Hoang

Well, I didn't have to work.

Ira Glass

You didn't have to work.

Anh Tuan Hoang

I didn't have to work. But my brother did, because he have to take care of me. And since like I said we weren't really close, we didn't interact that well, I just felt left out, in a way. But then I felt like I had a responsibility, and that is to take care of my brother, in terms of making sure he get food, he get food to take to lunch, making sure his clothes are clean.

And you're talking about having two pair of jeans, or two shirts. So you have to do them daily. You have to wash your clothes, you have to cook, go to the market. You have no refrigerator. I mean, you're talking about living in a concentration camp, again, with bunk beds. And that would be your room, two people. And you would hang pots and pans, and your clothes, everything, within that bunk bed. And at first, I was very scared. I mean, I didn't know a word of Chinese. Here, I have to go out of the camp, and say, I want a pound of beef, I want a kilo of rice. And it was hard. So I did a lot of that through pointing and hand signals.

Ira Glass

And had you ever cooked a meal before?

Anh Tuan Hoang

No. I mean, growing up, I was sort of chased away from coming into the kitchen. My mom and sister were like, go, you know, go play somewhere. So I never really learned. So when I got there, it was like, basically, I have to do it. Otherwise, we'll be hungry. We can't afford to purchase already made meal. So I would ask people in the camp. I would watch them, watch older people cook, and learn how to do it.

Ira Glass

Did you like the independence of shopping and cooking, and having this adult kind of life?

Anh Tuan Hoang

Not really, because at that point, all I wanted to do was to have fun. For me, you have to understand, Hong Kong was new. It was kind of, wow, a huge city. And you are seeing 60 story buildings, and you are seeing all the neon lights, and the airplane, huge airplane flying. You know, the camp was very close to the airport. You are curious. You wanted to go out and just check around. It didn't cost anything. You can walk, play with your friend.

Ira Glass

Do you think it was good for you to have to be such a grown up at such a young age?

Anh Tuan Hoang

You know, my friends ask me that question a lot, and I am not sure how I would answer it, exactly. I think, I guess being forced to grow up so fast sometimes is sort of-- this is how I feel. It's probably different with different people. But I feel it left you feeling kind of insecure most of the time, because you never feel adequately supported by your parents guiding you through different things, or saying don't do this, do that. And so I always feel like I'm a child, in some way. I'm like 32, and sometimes I just feel like I'm a little kid.

Ira Glass

Knowing now what happened to you once you left in the boat, would you make the same choice again?

Anh Tuan Hoang

You know, probably not. Well of course, you can never say what happens to you, but I don't know. I just feel that if I have to do it, I probably wouldn't do it.

Ira Glass

Why?

Anh Tuan Hoang

I don't know, I just think-- well, it's kind of a hard question, because I had to do it, so I did it. Just because I never get to see my mother. She passed away.

Ira Glass

She passed away after you left.

Anh Tuan Hoang

After I left. This was after the year I graduate from college. I receive news that she passed away. So I regret that. I don't think you can have everything in life. Just back to what my mother said. You know, you can achieve all of this. You can have all the wealth, life can offer you all of these good things, but then sometimes you have to sacrifice a chunk of other things, like that love that your family can give you.

Ira Glass

Ahn Tuan Hoang lives in Chicago. A Catholic charity brought him to the United States after a year and a half in Hong Kong. He's never been back to Vietnam. Coming up: anger and its uses, high school and its uses, and more. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. The Miseducation Of Josh Frank.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, stories of kids acting like adults-- some by choice, some because they're forced to. We've arrived at act three of our program. Act three, The Miseducation of Josh Frank. This is another story of a young person making a huge, life-changing decision about his own fate, while still very young. In this case, 13 years old. Hillary Frank tells the story, about her own little brother.

Hillary Frank

This is what it sounds like when I call home to talk to my parents.

[MUSIC - TRUMPET SCALES]

Whoever picks up has to go to another room, so they can hear me. It's been like this for six years. This is my 17 year old brother preparing for his future.

Josh Frank

I try and practice about five hours a day, four to five hours a day.

Hillary Frank

Mom and Dad ever have to tell you to practice trumpet?

Josh Frank

No. Now, these days, they have to tell me to stop practicing. It might get to be like 11:00 or 12:00 and they want to go to bed, and they think the neighbors will be mad, so they have to tell me to stop.

Hillary Frank

Josh is training to be a professional trumpeter. He calls the incessant practicing his insurance to guarantee he'll have the skills he needs in the future. During the week, he goes to a regular public high school. But on Saturdays, he devotes 15 hours of his day to Juilliard's pre-college program. Basically, it's like cramming everything you get in one week at a conservatory into one day.

Josh is pretty obsessive about his horn. He brings it to school every day, just in case a class is canceled. When our family went on vacations, Josh was sure to have his trumpet. Then he got to a point where he told our parents he'd rather not go on vacation anymore. A week off could be better spent practicing. Five years ago, Josh gave up being a kid to play the trumpet.

Josh Frank

I can remember telling my friends what I was going to be doing. It was at the beach, and we were rollerblading, which was like the thing I did in 8th grade. We were gliding around the parking lot, and I was like, guys, guess what, I got into this pre-college program. And some of them didn't even know what Juilliard was.

Then it came, well, I guess you won't really be around on Saturdays. And I was like, I guess not. And it was difficult. The music was more important to me. And even if it does involve a sacrifice, I realized you couldn't have it both ways.

[MUSIC - TRUMPET]

Hillary Frank

In the first few years of high school, Josh used to call his friends to see what he was missing. They would tell him, oh, we just hung out until 3:00 in the morning, driving around or sitting at the diner, not very exciting. So Josh figured he wasn't missing much. When they invited him, he couldn't go. After a while, they stopped inviting him.

Eric

It wasn't until junior year that we just never saw anything of each other.

Hillary Frank

This is Eric, one of Josh's old friends. They used to play in orchestra together at school.

Eric

And then this year, I don't know. I meant to call him at the beginning of, end of summer, and I just never got around to it. And then I think we might have talked once or twice. Oh yeah, we played Frisbee at the beach a couple times. But then school started, Juilliard started, and Josh gets a little consumed. It's a relationship riddled with formalities, and there's really little substance left.

Hillary Frank

I got together with Eric and two other kids Josh has known since elementary school-- Katie and David. I wanted to know if they thought he was missing out. But like Eric, Katie and David said it was hard for them to talk about Josh. They told me they don't know him very well anymore. They all agreed. It's hard to put a label on what he's missed. All it is is a few hours of chilling time each week, when nothing really happens. But it all adds up.

Katie

Yeah, I'd say he's missing out on things, obviously, because he's not there. But if you asked, if he asked us what we did in a typical weekend, it wouldn't be a lot of great, life changing things. But I think on a whole, over a long period of time, he misses out on getting closer with friends that he could.

David

As our curfew was extended, we would stay out till 12:00 let's say. On Friday nights, he'd have to say at 10:00 or something, he'd say, OK, I'm going to Juilliard tomorrow, so I'll see you guys later. So that's two hours for us to kill without Josh, and eventually that adds up to a lot of hours to kill without Josh. Eventually that leads to, I think, it leads to Josh feeling alienated from his friends.

[MUSIC - TRUMPET]

Hillary Frank

When Josh was in 8th grade and told me what he wanted to do, I worried about him, about what he was giving up. I thought he should have a normal high school experience, even though like a lot of people, I hated high school. I hated it so much I left a year early. But somehow, the myth of high school is so powerful that even those of us who despised it think that you're missing something important if you don't go. Josh goes to the same high school I did, and the time I think it's most painful for him is at lunch.

Josh Frank

It does suck. Basically, at every lunch period, lunch is like the big social time during school. And I don't like classes. I don't like my math class. I don't like going to that stuff. But the thing I most dread is lunch, because I have to figure out what I'm going to do for that half an hour. In the past, when I have sat at lunch with people, it's really awkward for me, because they're talking about what they are doing or what they're going to do. And I never feel included, which kind of separates me. And it's really painful. So the way I deal with it is to get into music more. Like maybe I'll practice during lunch. Instead of eating, I'll eat when I get home.

[MUSIC - TRUMPET]

Hillary Frank

Today, all of Josh's close relationships are with other musicians. They connect easily, without having to explain their motivations for working so hard. And they have their own social scene, although it's not typical of kids their age.

Josh Frank

My friend often throws parties out of his apartment called sight reading parties. It's mostly string players and piano players who get together and just read music. And then when you're not reading, you just hang out and have a good time and listen to the music.

Hillary Frank

You're describing this as your favorite social experience, and it's doing exactly what you would be doing if you were working in your ideal job.

Josh Frank

Totally.

Hillary Frank

Back when he was little, Josh took violin and piano, and our mom used to set the timer in the kitchen to make sure he practiced for half an hour. He quit those instruments. It was just torture, getting him to sit for that long. But with the trumpet, it's almost as if he can't help himself.

Josh Frank

I can't explain it. It's just, it was right. It was just meant to happen.

Hillary Frank

But I'm going to press you on this a little bit more. Why, what was so different about it? There had to be some difference. Was it because you were using your mouth, or?

Josh Frank

I think it was the sound. Just the sound that the trumpet made, I always thought was really beautiful. It sounds really warm, and you can really sing on it. You can be the soprano, or you can be in the orchestra, and be the biggest pig, and when you're playing Wagner, just play really loud and really brilliantly. Just to be a part of something like that is really special.

[MUSIC - TRUMPET]

Hillary Frank

It's amazing to adults when a 13 year old announces he or she has made a major life decision, and then sticks with it. One of the most adult things you can do is make a choice. Give up something fun in favor of something else. Though Josh says he won't really feel like an adult until he's doing his own laundry, getting his own groceries, ironing his own dress shirt before performances, living on his own.

Come on Josh, it's time to go to bed. That's enough. It's late.

Ira Glass

Hilary Frank is an art student living in New York City.

[MUSIC - "I AM A CHILD" BY NEIL YOUNG]

Act Four. Angry Young Man, Times Two.

Ira Glass

Act 4, Angry Young Man, Times Two. This is the story of two people, one in his late teens, one in his late 50's. And we'll start with the older man. Willie Ross grew up in Arkansas in the 1940's, picked cotton from the time he was eight. He was a big strong kid.

Willie Ross

And we're going to field. I was going out there with my mother at five, six, seven years old. And I had fast hands, I noticed, and because watching her, you had to gather cotton real fast, because how great a cotton picker she was. And when I got 12, I was the only kid was picking 250 pound at 12 years old.

Ira Glass

When Willie Ross was 13, his stepfather died, and just months later, his mother died too, of spinal meningitis. And after the funeral, Willie Ross headed back to the family's house in Helena, Arkansas.

Willie Ross

When I caught the bus and went back to Helena, when I got to my address, which was 1136 Pecan Street, I looked there and the house was empty. There was no furniture, there was nothing.

Ira Glass

One of his sisters, who was pregnant and in the 12th grade, had taken all the furniture and went to live with her boyfriend.

Willie Ross

They had moved away, and no one took me in. I mean, I didn't know anything, and they had their own life. And I guess they was telling me about steel mills. Some of my family figured that I could get a job. I was big for my age, but I did not want that.

Ira Glass

Here's how he made it on his own, as a freshman in high school. His sister's boyfriend helped him rent a room in town, another sister, he says, sent him $24 a month. Of that, 12 covered his rent. He learned to budget, he washed his own clothes, made his own meals. People from church looked out for him. Boy Scouts was a big part of his life all through school. He played sports. He turned to God. And he supported himself with a series of jobs that relied on raw physical strength. He worked on an ice truck, on a beer truck, on a soda truck, carrying heavy crates of bottles. And he boxed.

Willie Ross

At 5'11", I didn't have the arm reach, but I was powerful, and I was quick. So what I did, I found that people would notice me, and give me hugs, if I'd be good in sports. Beating people up. I mean, I thought it was crazy. I said, here I am, nobody knows me as a person. But they love me as a violent animal. And I thought it was crazy, but you know, unfortunately, that's where I got my love, because everybody's attention came to me in sports. And I had a lot of hurt in my heart, because when your mother die, you are angry. And you wonder why other people got mothers, and you couldn't. I couldn't understand that. And so boxing, I just enjoyed beating them up.

Ira Glass

So you were pretty angry as a teenager. When did that turn?

Willie Ross

I don't think it turned. I'm still fighting it. You know, every day I think about it.

Ira Glass

He played football in high school, and was just as violent a football player as he was a boxer, he says. He went to college on a football scholarship, played pro ball for the Buffalo Bills, winning two championships on a team led by Jack Kemp. After that, he became a cop, and finally ended up an assistant superintendent at the Audi Home, a juvenile detention center in Chicago. Which is, as far as anybody seems to know, the largest juvenile lockup in the world. Sometimes as many as 600 kids behind bars, many of them full of anger. And full of anger for justifiable reasons, understandable reasons. Like Mr. Ross, back when he was their age.

Willie Ross

I really was angry, and I really hurt, because I couldn't understand why none of my people took me in. And I was a good kid. And I see these kids, it's happening to them.

Ira Glass

These kids here.

Willie Ross

These kids who locked up here in juvenile detention center. It happened to them. And I stress them, it happened to me. But I've told them this. Set a goal. Get an education.

Ira Glass

One of the many kids Mr. Ross told his stories to was Terence Golden. Terence describes his own life this way. Until he was nine, he says, he did well in school, things were fine. And then it all fell apart, when his father died of cancer.

Terence Golden

From there, that's like where the problems begin, you know, it's been hard since then. He died, my brother got killed, my cousin died, my grandmother died, so it's been a lot of trials and tribulations.

Ira Glass

And then what happened in your life after that? How did things change for you?

Terence Golden

I started to change mentally, you know? Go about things the wrong way, don't express myself, hold in anger, and there's a build up. It's like, when it's ready to go, it's like a volcano blow.

Ira Glass

Were you really close to your dad?

Terence Golden

I was the closest person in my family I've ever been close to. I was closer to him than my mother. When he died, my mother tried to bring me closer. But I really didn't want to grow closer. I wanted my father. And she was trying to tell me, she told me all the right things. But in my own little world, I thought it was wrong.

Ira Glass

Terence started doing badly in school, didn't listen to anybody, got it all sorts of trouble, and finally was arrested at the age of 14 for murder. A gang shooting with three other guys.

And once he was behind bars, he started to think about things, and calm down. And he seemed to change. He befriended some adults, wrote and acted in some plays with the theater group, plays in which he and other teenagers contemplated the consequences of their crimes. He stayed at the Audi Home for two years as his case worked its way through the courts.

Finally, a verdict came down. He was found guilty of murder. But he made enough of an impression on the adults in the lockup that several who rarely testify on behalf of any kids chose to testify for Terence at a sentencing hearing, hoping to convince the judge that he was worth taking a chance on.

One of these adults was Meade Palidofsky, of the theater group Music Theater Workshop, who'd spent months working closely with Terence. Over ten years, out of hundreds of kids she's worked with behind bars, she's only testified for four or five. She says Terence was a natural leader, worked hard, had a sense of humor, got along with everybody.

Meade Palidofsky

Terence grieved in a way that I don't often see kids. And my criteria, basically, is whether I think the kid has something to offer, whether they have remorse, whether if they went back out into the world-- I mean, the basic question I ask myself is, would I invite this child to stay at my house? Would I bring them into my house, would I offer them a job, would I help them out?

And if the answer is yes, then I'll go to court. Because there are some kids that I really like who I wouldn't. Because I think that although I like very much, if they went out on the street, they'd be right back into it. But for Terence, there was a lot of us that really believed in him.

Ira Glass

Terence also asked Willie Ross to testify on his behalf. Mr. Ross turned him down. Liberals tend to think about cases like this one way, conservatives think about them another. Willie Ross's thinking takes in both sides. He'll give you the liberal line. He'll tell you that the only difference between him and Terence is that sports programs, church programs, and other positive community activities were there for Mr. Ross. And that's what saved him. That's what Terence never had.

And he'll give you the conservative line. That any 14 year old or 12 year old who shoots somebody knows exactly what he's doing, and should serve an adult punishment. Which, in Mr. Ross's point of view, should be the death penalty.

Willie Ross

And this kid, and everybody, Mr. Ross, and he asked me to go to court. I would not go to court with him. I do not go to court for a murder. Period. For some things, you know, but not violent crime. I found him, and he found me too late. It's sad, but it happened. One of the things I tell the kids, I believe in the death penalty.

Ira Glass

Even for a 12, 13, 14 year old kid who shoots somebody?

Willie Ross

Yes. I believe that. Because I was 12, 13, and I knew better. I had a rifle at nine years old. And yet, still, I had more judgement than pull the trigger, and with all the anger I had.

Ira Glass

For years now, states have been cracking down on juvenile crime, sentencing teenagers and even preteens as adults in some places. We expect young people who face adversity now to master their emotions and overcome it. Terence was tried as an adult, and sentenced as an adult to 40 years. One year ago this week, at the age of 17, he entered a maximum security prison in Joliet, Illinois. It's not like the Audi Home, where there are counselors and classes and activities, and acknowledgement that these are kids that might be rehabilitatable.

Terence Golden

Oh, it's a lot different. The officers, they different.

Ira Glass

How are they different?

Terence Golden

They more aggressive. A lot of them ain't out to help you. You might catch a few that's out to help you. But there ain't too many out there for you. The inmate's different. See there, it's more laid back. See, here, you got to watch, you know? Watch continuously what's around you.

Ira Glass

Did you feel safe at the Audi Home?

Terence Golden

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Do you feel safe here?

Terence Golden

It's all in the mind. It's a mind game. I can make myself feel safe. I don't talk to nobody, really. I stay to myself, so I feel safe.

Ira Glass

He's been going to church in prison. He says it's hard to stay on the straight and narrow. If he doesn't get into trouble, he'll serve 20 years of his 40 year sentence.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Blue Chevigny and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Susan Burton, Julie Snyder, and Starlee Kine. Contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margie Rochlin, Alix Spiegel, Nancy Updike, and consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Todd Bachmann.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

To buy a cassette of this or any of our programs, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago. 312-832-3380. Or you know, you can listen to most of our programs for free on the internet, at our website at www.thislife.org where we include all sorts of stuff we can't fit on the radio show. Thanks to Elizabeth Meister who runs the site. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. Funding for our program is provided by Amazon.com. The books and music on This American Life are available on Amazon.com. [FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who just popped in, just popped his head in the door with this question,

Mike Paterniti

"What the hell do you think you're doing, booby?"

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week, with more stories of This American Life.

Mike Paterniti

"Did anyone tell you we're dealing with human lives here?"

Announcer

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