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The News Scene According to Teens

The 21st Century offers an outlet for essays on everything from school to starting a business

Whittle your waist in just one week. Hide figure flaws with these swimsuits. Lift weights, get dates. Magazines shouting these messages are often hard for a teenager to resist.

Jill Szykowny swallowed the bait for a while. But then the high-schooler from Williamsville, N.Y., realized that her favorite magazine was just "another form of deception." She stopped reading it - and turned instead to a very different kind of publication, the 21st Century.

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Published each month in John and Stephanie Meyer's modest office in Newton, Mass., the lively newspaper gives teens a place to express themselves through poetry, essays, and reviews. Jill Szykowny, for instance, wrote an eloquent essay about her rejection of standard teen reading fare.

The newspaper reverberates with modern-day teen concerns about death, racism, teen pregnancy - although, of course, humor, dating, and music are well represented, too.

The Meyers, who have two college-age children, decided in 1989 that "one of the greatest needs of young people is to preserve their sense of self-worth," and second, that "teens didn't need another publication with adults trying to figure out what they wanted to hear." They made plans to start a newspaper, agreeing that their role as publishers was essentially to "listen" to their contributors.

They hit on a winning formula: Seven years later, the 21st Century is distributed free to 1,700 high schools in New York and New England that request it. The newspaper gets 20,000 submissions each year. So far, 10,000 teen writers have published their work in its pages.

For the husband-and-wife team, the key is offering students a forum through which they can gain self-confidence, develop creativity, and see that their ideas are valued.

The feedback they've received so far seems to confirm the merits of the Meyers' approach. One especially poignant letter came from Patricia Lang, a high school student in Braintree, Mass.: "Self-esteem. Reassurance. Ambition. These are qualities I have gained after recently receiving the check for my literary contribution to this magazine. It wasn't the money ... it was knowing that my name was in print for something I wrote. It is an inexplicable feeling for a 15-year-old, self-conscious of just about everything, to be appreciated in such a way."

In some schools, publication of a student's work in the 21st Century is cause for celebration.

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"Students take extreme pride in having their work published," says Ronald Prouty, an English teacher at Auburn High School in Massachusetts. "We make a great deal of this by posting their published work on the English department bulletin board."

At Marshfield High in Massachusetts, "reluctant readers" particularly enjoy the teen newspaper according to reading teacher Joanne DeSario.

And many teachers use the 21st Century to spark discussion. "I use the opinion essays when discussing themes in literature such as tolerance," says Junita Drisko, an English teacher at Bangor High in Maine.

While teachers are often the paper's staunchest grown-up supporters, the 21st Century has many adult fans outside of the high school classroom as well.

Michael Dukakis, for example, has been an advocate for years. The former governor of Massachusetts says, "The opportunity to be published at a young age is a terrific thing." He adds that the publication is not only great for young people, but also for the newspaper industry. "Here we have newspaper readership declining, and the 21st Century is helping to build it up."

David Anable, chairman of the Boston University journalism school and a member of the 21st Century's board says the newspaper is a hit because "It's by high schoolers about their concerns. It's not filtered through a lot of professional journalists. Most of all, it's a really good idea."

He also recognizes its effectiveness as a tool for cultivating talent. "I know how valuable it is to get students to learn the craft and write with enthusiasm, not reluctance, to put words together not just to be coherent, but to sing," Mr. Anable says.

For the Meyers, making a go of the paper has been no small feat.

"Tons of people have tried to imitate us and failed," says the energetic Mr. Meyer. "Fund-raising and advertising are excruciatingly difficult." Donations and grants from corporations and individuals cover half of the paper's operating expenses and advertising makes up the rest. His advice to anyone hoping to give it a go: "Don't have the motive to make money."

Mr. Meyer's persistence in wooing financial contributors and selling ads has helped the paper grow into the largest of its kind. But these dollars stretch only so far. They can't quite meet demand from high schools for additional copies. And while they are beginning to distribute nationally, their dream of publishing 10 regional editions with a total circulation of 250,000 is a long shot.

More realistic for now is the prospect of going on-line. But their site on the World Wide Web, now in the works, will be used only to solicit ideas. "We don't want to make this a Web-site publication," Mr. Meyer says. "Kids don't need more of that." But most important, he says, it's more fulfilling for students to see their writing in print, and be able to put it up on a wall.

Perhaps the Meyers' most potent marketing tool is their overwhelmingly positive view of high schoolers, whom they characterize as "hopeful, eager to be heard, sincere, and socially conscious."

Such high marks for today's teens, not always echoed by their media colleagues, earned Mr. Meyer a speaking slot at the recent Newspaper Association of America conference. His topic: "Generation X: Unmasking the Myth."

For Mr. Meyer, the 21st Century is an important investment in the future.

He asks: "If we don't give young people a better source of enrichment to look to, then how can we expect them to aspire to or achieve anything greater than what they're exposed to on movies, TV, or MTV?"


On teen pregnancy.:

Teachers and parents are constantly telling us statistics concerning teenager pregnancy, stressing how difficult it is to raise a child. Ironically, they never emphasize what the child born to a child may face when s/he gets older.

I am 18; my mother gave birth to me when she was only 17 ... my mother works at the Stop and Shop, making only 50 cents an hour more than I do, and she has three children and a husband to support.

Parenthood should be left to responsible adults, not naive teenagers. A baby is not a doll.

On racism:

A few years ago, I was a new student at another high school.... Immediately, I noticed something peculiar. I realized how segregated it was. During lunch, the tables were either predominantly white or predominantly black. Nothing like this occurred at my previous school. When I sat with a white student during lunch, the defamation of my character began.

The television and the newspapers inundate us with materials urging us to take steps toward equality and to promote racial harmony. Am I the only one who listens? Did the train pass every black person at this school? Why are we going backwards?

On TV:

I'm tired of society blaming its problems on television. The problem occurs when television sets start raising children.... Parents need to take responsibility for their children and their home.

On art today:

American art is at a standstill. Sapped by commercial capitalism and passive entertainment, our present culture seems inspirationless.

On trying teens as adults:

If we tried teenage offenders of violent crime in adult court, with adult penalties, it would force them to think like adults about their actions. They would no longer be able to walk the fence between being an adult and a child. Trying teenagers who commit violent crimes in adult court would serve as a powerful deterrent.

From a college essay:

My life looks pretty boring in essay form. Nothing essay-worthy has ever happened to me. My parents are still together after 25 years, no one I know has ever died - I've never even had a cavity. I'm from a small New England town that no one has ever heard of. I have gray eyes and light brown hair....

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