For Main Line teens, talking back trumps silence

Students from the Youth Advisory Council answer questions from the audience at the "Talking Back" panel at the Haverford School. (Photo courtesy of the Coalition for Youth of Lower Merion and Narberth)
Students from the Youth Advisory Council answer questions from the audience at the "Talking Back" panel at the Haverford School. (Photo courtesy of the Coalition for Youth of Lower Merion and Narberth)

Seventeen-year-old Haydn Hornstein-Platt grinned as she tried to remember what an audience member asked last Wednesday night at the Coalition for Youth of Lower Merion and Narberth “Talking Back” panel.

“He said, ‘I know a teenager that said there are three things a teenager can do: sleep, study and party,” Hornstein-Platt said, “and you can only do two of them adequately.”

The Lower Merion High School junior paused before adding, “It’s true.”

Hornstein-Platt is one of 18 students who make up the Youth Advisory Council, a collective of Lower Merion and Narberth high school peers who are pushing the community to be open, cohesive and understanding of teenage life.

About 50 parents and area residents sat in the audience asking questions based on the results of the 2010-2011 Student Survey, which asked 8th, 10th and 12th graders from area schools to answer honestly to questions about drugs, alcohol, attitudes and community involvement.

At “Talking Back,” YAC panelists sought to be teachers instead of students. Hornstein-Platt recalled answering the audience member frankly.

“I actually quit drinking and smoking because of my grades,” Hornstein-Platt said. “I saw a huge difference. My grades progressively got better, and I really agreed with what he said. You really do have to choose between the three.”

The YAC’s members are somewhat different in the sense that some attend area private schools while others go to public schools, but the topics of discussion remain the same. A junior at the Shipley School, YAC member Haley Banks said she struggles to balance her social life with school, sleeping and a fourth component: working.

YAC exists to support an open forum for teens to share their common worries with each other as well as parents, business owners and community members.

“It’s really interesting to be in a program like YAC that tries to get everyone together,” Banks, 17, said. “Part of the purpose of YAC is to find out what teenagers are thinking in the community, how it is to be a teenager and what can be changed.”

Because certain schools tend to associate with each other, such as Lower Merion School District’s Harriton High School and Lower Merion High School, YAC also helps build relationships outside of the typical circles of friendships. Banks and Hornstein-Platt said prior to meeting at the YAC, they went to the same parties but never would have said hi.

“I’m meeting kids from different schools and also affecting my whole community, not just my school,” Lower Merion High School sophomore Robbie Warshaw, 15, said.

Affecting how the Lower Merion and Narberth communities view teens is something Warshaw and the YAC are adamant about. Only 26 percent of students surveyed said they felt valued by their community, and Hornstein-Platt and Warshaw both shared stories about store owners asking them to leave their establishments because of their ages.

“It was weird,” Hornstein-Platt said of her experience. “And they wouldn’t have done that to an adult.”

Warshaw echoed her sentiments, adding that since teens tell their parents where they want to go to eat and buy things, being inconsiderate can backfire on businesses. Elevation Burger really connects with teens through mass texts and promotions, Warshaw said, so if his parents ask him where he wants to go, he’s more likely to say Elevation Burger.

“Businesses should be reaching out,” Paula Singer, the co-director of YAC, said. “I rarely see businesses and government take initiative. If sometimes businesses are struggling with Facebook or social media, kids are very technologically savvy.”

When she was in high school, Singer attended the Baldwin School, and said the landscape of the area has since changed.

“The Main Line was such a cool place,” Singer said. “People hung out in Bryn Mawr at the Main Point. I saw Bruce Springstein there.”

Banks said the venue – she saw Guster perform at the revived the Point before it got a liquor license – was a great example of a place for kids to hang out. But it’s not the only place where a sense of community for area teens disappeared. The closing of Manhattan Bagel on Lancaster Avenue and the Borders bankruptcies affected where Banks, her friends and other teens hang out.

While before they may have frequented Borders for some coffee, the occasional purchasing of a book and study group sessions, Banks said more and more teens just hang out at houses. Hornstein-Platt said venturing into the city is often better than staying on the Main Line.

“What do you do if you’re going to a party?” Banks said, adding there is a misconception among parents that every party involves drugs and alcohol. “I think it’s easier to go to a concert and not drink or smoke.”

The results of the survey do indicate alcohol and marijuana use is prevalent: 69 percent of 10th graders indicate they have used alcohol, and 83 percent of 12th graders said they have used it. In contrast, 36 and 54 percent of 10th graders and 12th graders indicated they have used marijuana, respectively.

But how and why drugs and alcohol are used is a large component of why YAC exists: education.

“Because the schools are so segregated, and the adults sort of have their own clicks, it was nice to see a program that incorporated everyone and could also make a difference,” Hornstein-Platt said.