Philadelphia Metropolis

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Runaways

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"Look for the sign that says R7 Trenton. Don't stand on the wrong side of the platform. And be careful. There's always a lot of zombies in that part of the station."

I am delivering this little lecture to my 16-year-old son and his friends, who want to take the train into the city to visit a skateboard shop. I'm trying to give them directions, but they're engrossed in their cell phones and not paying the slightest attention. Only one kid's head snaps up when I warn them about the zombies. All I can do is sigh. I'll probably wind up driving them.

Today's teens scare me. Not because they're any more violent or irresponsible than the kids of my generation, but because they're so clueless. With help just a text message or Google search away, they don't need to learn how to think on their feet. They have no survival skills, unless you count what they've learned playing Xbox. Strand my son and his classmates on a Philadelphia street without cell phones and they'd probably walk around in circles, too dense to figure of how to use public transportation to get back to Bucks County.

It was different when I was young, When I was a teenager, me and my girlfriends were bored senseless in the suburbs and escaped into Philly whenever we got the chance. I don't remember my parents sitting me down and teaching me how to take the train or read a bus schedule. We figured it out ourselves, because not learning meant being left behind while the cooler kids roamed South Street.

texting.jpgWe took risks that, as a parent, make me cringe when I think of them. Like my great runaway adventure of 1980. I was 14, in Ninth grade. My best friend Sandi and I had recently learned how to skip school, and we were ditching classes at least once a week. When the police officer approached us in a store we stayed cool. Why aren't we at school? We have doctors' appointments. Yes, both of us. Which doctor? Umm...

That was my first and only time in the back of a police car. The officer brought us to school and marched us into the principal's office. Classes were changing. Everyone was staring at us. Sandi was grinning ear-to-ear. We were famous! I felt like I was going to throw up. My mom was going to kill me.

Back then, there was no "in school" suspension. We were kicked out for three days and told that our parents would have to come in for a conference. Neither of us had ever been in that much trouble before and we were terrified. Moments after we left the principals' office we agreed on the plan. We had to run away from home.

In 1980, the after school special was pretty much the only TV geared for teens. It was from one of these melodramas that we learned about the toll-free runaway hotline. We called it from a payphone and were directed to Voyage House, a shelter in Philly. We wrote down the directions, hopped a train in Bristol and made our way into the city.

For three days we stayed in Philadelphia, mostly walking around. The Voyage House counselors tried to get us to go home, but we told them we were too afraid of our parents. We spent the nights at volunteers' homes, and Voyage House gave us $3 a day for meals.

Think about it; we were two 14-year-old girls from Bucks County, alone in Philadelphia for three days. We took the trolley for the first time. We saw drug addicts, homeless people and prostitutes. No one drove us to the places we spent the nights at. We were handed directions and had to figure it out. We asked strangers for money when we didn't have enough for a bus token. We turned down offers for car rides from leering men. I guarantee you that most teens today wouldn't have the street smarts to do what we did.

I admit it, we were having fun. But when the weekend came and we learned we'd have to go to a homeless shelter until Monday, we cracked and let counselors call our folks. We were both grounded for a long time.

Sandi and I still talk about our runaway adventure. We both agree that we'd be horrified if our children pulled a similar stunt. I tell her I don't think we have anything to worry about. When our kids want to escape us they just zone out in front of a computer screen. Going to the big city--especially via public transportation--would be too much work.

Sure, the mom part of my brain is relieved that my son isn't capable of going on the same kind of runaway adventure I did. But I also worry how he, and his clueless friends, would cope if they were forced to navigate city streets alone. If he didn't have a cell phone would he know how to ask directions? Without an Internet connection could he figure out how to get home?

I try one more time to explain how they can take the train to the skateboard shop, but now my son and his friends, who are standing a few feet of one another, are texting each other. Each other!

I resign myself to driving them into the city. I'm not ready to let the zombies eat them yet.

 

Laurie Schroeder keeps a close eye on her son in Kulpsville

 

 

 

 

 

 

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