Nightmare on Puberty Street

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The beautifully-tiled auditorium at Everett Middle School filled with chipper 6th graders from all over San Francisco on Wednesday morning. As they filed down the aisles and scooted down the rows, the kids bopped to the beat of Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” playing over the speakers, and many – mostly the girls – sang along as well.

Then, in the middle of the chorus, someone shut the music off. That prompted booing but got their attention. After all, they were here to watch a play about something pretty scary: puberty.

As a public service, Kaiser Permanente puts on wellness plays free of charge at public schools in the region, from Santa Rosa to Fresno. This particular play, with the awkward title of Nightmare on Puberty Street, tries to engage kids in a hip and funny context to discuss wellness issues like changes in the body, peer pressure, sex, drugs, bullying, depression and even suicide. It’s the ninth time the play has come to Everett.

“All we’re trying to do is give them tools so that they can be powerful and they can say no,” said Deborah Bueti, a 6th grade teacher here who is in charge of the play on campus.

She said that even though the play may seem a bit “dorky” to adults, it resonates with kids and gives them a basis with which to begin asking questions. “They felt it was very real and very helpful,” she said of her students, who talked the play over afterwards. “They really, really responded.”

Nightmare emphasizes how changes in moods, the body, and feeling pressure from peers are all normal parts of growing up. It uses songs, dance, and skits littered with pop culture references.

“We ask students all the time – what are you listening to, what are you into,” said Brendan Simon, 29, a road manager for Kaiser’s Educational Theatre Programs and an actor in the play. He says the original script was written by doctors, experts, and artists in 1992, but it gets a makeover every year to add in more fashionable elements and choreography.

“Hey! You could say your body’s going hyphy,” one character, a doctor, says to one of the adolescent characters, explaining that wet dreams and spontaneous erections are normal parts of being an adolescent.

The first dance routine, Am I Normal, introduces four characters of varying ethnic backgrounds played by actors ranging in age from 19 to 20. The plot follows their various trials and tribulations, like changing for gym, being pressured to smoke cigarettes or have sex, meeting someone who likes them, and so forth.

It’s not all silly and the play gets into serious territory, including differentiating between mood swings and depression.

“It’s intense,” Simon said about some of the questions kids ask after the play. “We talk about real issues.” One audience member asked about what they could do if a person was considering suicide.

The play did address this, and even gave kids the number to an anonymous crisis hotline, though the actors emphasized that talking with parents and counselors was the best option.

In 2006, suicide was the fourth leading cause of death for adolescents 10-14 years old and the third leading cause of death in youngsters 15-19, according to numbers published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Studies show that depression hits Latinos harder than other ethnic groups and girls more often than boys. Latinos make up more than half the student body in the Mission District.

“Latino youth have the highest rates of attempted suicide compared to both white and black youth,” wrote Elena Flores in an email to Mission Local. Flores is a professor in cross-cultural counseling psychology at the University of San Francisco.

“In terms of sexuality, they have higher rates of ever having had sex, current sexual activity, and having sex with four or more persons during their life compared to white youth,” she said.

According to the American Association of Suicidology, the rate of suicide in kids 10-14 increased over 50 percent between 1981 and 2006.

The recession also takes a toll on families, and when parents are having money troubles, this stress reflects in the kids. A recent New York Times/CBS poll of out-of-work Americans found that 40 percent of parents responded that they had seen behavioral changes in their children that they think resulted from the parents’ joblessness.

Furthermore, the holidays can add some family pressure. Bueti says her 6th graders seem to act out more right before the break, though she acknowledged it would be impossible to pinpoint to any particular reason for this. The lack of routine could play a part.

Flores wrote that it is important for the adults in an adolescent’s life – parents, teachers, coaches, counselors – to reach out and make room for discussion with adolescents.

The community should be aware of the signs of serious depression, different than the mere mood swings that growing kids generally feel as their bodies and hormone balances change.

Bueti said that one of the most important things adults can do for adolescents is “cut them some slack,” she said. “All they really want is to be liked and to be appreciated.”

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