Wednesday, May 28, 1997
Someday you'll be working for them

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The people who will be running things in the next millennium want more respect now.

It's a teen-age thing.

And it's obviously a big thing when you hear it from 36 young women over lunch.

Munching apples and oranges, cookies and the odd sandwich, the members of Marilyn Herring's junior English class at Ursuline Academy had a lot to say in the latest edition of "Lunch with Cliff."

They were so eager to share what's on their minds with a newspaper columnist that they brown-bagged it to Mrs. Herring's classroom.

It's quiet at first, as a semicircle of fresh faces looks up from the desks and floor of Room 208. Vacation is close. I ask what they normally talk about at lunch. I ask what's on their minds.

"You really don't want to know," Heather Alexander muses from the back of the room.

The class snickers. Most seem truly surprised that an adult would care what they think. This breaks the ice. As the laughter dies down, Heidi Gerber speaks up.

"Stereotyping teen-agers!" she announces from her cross-legged position on the floor. "That's what we talk about. People automatically think all of us are bad drivers. When we go into stores, they look at us like we're going to steal stuff. And we get terrible service at restaurants."

Lindsay Vehr raises her hand and tells the story of a botched restaurant order. She waited an hour for a chicken salad. So she complained to the manager. Forgetting that the customer is always right, he told her to leave.

Emily Messer thinks back to Thanksgiving night, when her boyfriend pulled into a restaurant's parking lot.

"He's Mr. CD-man," she says. "He wanted to play a dedication for me."

The song?

"Eternal Flame."

The room swoons.

Mr. CD-man was suddenly joined by Mr. Policeman, who wanted to know - and none too politely - what was going on.

"Why do adults treat us that way?" Heidi asks. "Don't they think we have any feelings?"

They don't realize they're messing with the future leaders of society.

Heidi laughs and adds: "They should be careful. Someday they'll be working for us."

That they are not taken seriously, that some people treat them like children, bothers these teen-age women. It's not easy being 17 going on 35 and knowing that adulthood is just around the corner. That was the heart of their pitch when they invited me to lunch. In their letter, they wrote: "As future leaders of society, we think it would be beneficial for the city of Cincinnati to hear what we have on our minds."

Laughter fills Room 208. A "Shhhhhh!" comes from the class taking a test across the hall.

A hush falls over Mrs. Herring's students. In this quiet moment, the members of the Class of '98 grow even more passionate about their plight.

Anne Bartoszek speaks first. She's puzzled by society's contradictions. "Drugs and alcohol are so much easier to get than cigarettes. It's crazy.

"You can have an abortion. But you can't have your ears pierced unless you have your parents' signatures. That is so retarded." The subject takes an abrupt turn to reckless driving.

Heidi casually mentions she doesn't wear a seat belt.

The class is shocked. "You don't?" "I feel naked without mine." "What's wrong with you?"

"Just listen to us," scolds Kate Wagner. "We say, 'Oh, my God, you don't wear a seat belt!' But if somebody said, 'I went out and got drunk last night,' it would be no big deal. We need to be taught, from the first grade on, that you can get killed by drinking just as easily as you can by not using your seat belt."

Heather Alexander suddenly realizes that this sounds a lot like her mother's advice. And it sounds pretty good.

"This is the happiest time of your life," her mother is always telling her. "Don't mess it up.

"And be home by 1 a.m."

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax 768-8340.