The kids are alright!
Think there’s no hope for today’s youth? Meet twin brothers Reggie and Matt Parker, ordinary high-schoolers who sometimes lead and always participate
Reginald Parker, a lanky 15-year-old, catches a well-mauled, red-orange soccer ball during a game of dodge ball. Without dropping it, he catches another. He tries for a third. But, alas, he only has two hands.
A 6-year-old boy, startled by a ball to the arm, wants a hug. Reggie complies without missing a beat.
Then he’s back to the sidelines, hands on hips, yelling like a dad.
I ran into Reggie and his twin brother, Matthew, at the Neil Road Recreation Center this spring. I introduced myself as a reporter.
“Write a story about us,” Reggie bluffed.
“Right,” I replied. “Sure.”
Reggie and his brother weren’t doing anything newsworthy. I watched them running across the grass with the pack of younger kids who they coach after school. The twins were playing and leading the game at the same time. The game began to look like a metaphor for the lives of ordinary teens who sometimes lead and always participate.
It’s become a tired cliché, griping about the problems caused by “kids these days” and their nihilistic penchants for violence, drugs, failing grades and general hell-raising. Whatever negative stereotypes about teenagers I had when I arrived at the park were immediately shot down while watching these “regular guys” in action.
In Reno, many teens, it seems, forge their futures in productive ways instead of falling into the usual traps. Matthew and Reginald agreed to let me take a look into their world as they went about their daily business to show us how it’s done.
At lunchtime on a sunny day in May, Wooster High School’s courtyard full of teens, with its clearly delineated but amicable social groups, is a microcosm of the adult world. The young women stand in small groups talking, some on cell phones, a little bored, looking and acting about 90 percent adult.
The guys, on the other hand, are still milking the joys of boyhood.
One doubles over in pain after a kick to a sensitive area.
“Who hit him?” someone yells.
Two others heave a stocky kid most of the way into a trash can. All three of them laugh—even the victim.
Matt and Reggie fit right in. Both are super-slim, appearing fashionably baggy in unrumpled T-shirts and jeans that aren’t actually that big. Outwardly, the fraternal twins have a lot in common. They share handsome African-American features, an enviable level of energy, a knack for charming adults and a bubbly demeanor that can dissolve into giggles.
Matt, though three minutes younger than his twin, is an inch taller, with big eyelashes and a contagious smile. He’s externally a little reserved, but as soon as he starts bantering with his classmates, vivacity bubbles to the surface.
Reggie, who wears oval-shaped glasses, is the one who answers the cell phone, transitioning on a dime from casual-kid tone to news-anchor voice when talking to adults. In the schoolyard, he approaches a group of three girls and is jovially shoved away from the clique. He professes mild annoyance at the glitter that’s been sprinkled in his hair but doesn’t pretend to mind when a girl tries to help him brush it out.
Both boys navigate the courtyard—and the weird world of adolescence—with diplomatic finesse. They may have no more expertise at it than anyone else, but whatever awkwardness comes from the challenges of growing up, they don’t seem fazed by the process.
Asked if they think of themselves more as adults or kids, the twins pause for a second, then answer at the same time.
Matt starts, “We’ll say ‘teenagers.'”
Reggie sharpens Matt’s point: “I consider myself a ‘young adult.'” You can hear the quotation marks in his voice, but he tries hard—and pretty effectively—to put his money where his mouth is and be mature. Even his simple cell-phone greeting, “Hi. This is Reg. I can’t come to the phone right now,” sounds professional in tone and remarkably well-enunciated.
Matt chimes back in with an optimistic reversal of the usual bored-teen-speak: “Yeah. We don’t have the responsibilities of an adult, but we have the privileges that … gain us respect. I guess that’s the definition of being an adult.”
Reggie nods in agreement.
Reggie and Matt are referred to by everyone as “good kids,” but they don’t stumble into the social pitfalls of the self-righteous overachievers. Lunch ends and band class begins. No one is overtly disturbing the peace or misbehaving, but the students maintain a spring-fever-fueled buzz. They tap feet and fix hair. Someone bounces a super ball. Another adjusts a CD player. They chat, chew gum and model sunglasses.
Band director Marsha Jameson says she’s often impressed by the twins’ polite manners, but Matt, who plays trumpet, and Reg, who’s proficient on clarinet and is learning saxophone, aren’t immune from the contagious fidgetfest.
The boys’ full schedules don’t leave much time to ace all their classes, but both do pretty well.
Matt, one of few students assigned to be a teaching assistant in his algebra class last semester, decided last year to put extra energy into improving his grades. He’s pleased with the results, and he’s begun to find that a high grade-point average and shiny capital letters make homework less of a drag.
“It’s kind of, like, fun, because my report card had a 3.0,” he beams. “And right now … I have the best grades of my life. I have three A’s and three B’s.”
Matt approach to good grades involves self-discipline.
“You’ve got to find some time,” he says. “Instead of watching TV and everything. And just study for every test when you know you have it.”
While Matt explains his academic life, Reggie laughs at the distant antics of a classmate.
“He’s kind of the social one, you know,” Matt says, nodding at Reggie.
"[My grades] aren’t that bad,” Reggie says. “OK, my grades are, like, mediocre. I tried to get no D’s. I got one D. It’s in Spanish.”
That was last semester, he says. He’s since raised it to a C.
Matt encourages him.
“That’s good, Reg, you know, you can get that B. You got your final coming up. Now, I would help him in Spanish, but I’m in French, you know?”
“The stupid language,” Reggie deadpans.
Matt doesn’t fall for his distraction. He explains that he once helped Reggie with his Spanish, even though it’s not his field of expertise.
“It was just with one word,” Reggie protests.
“But I knew what the word meant,” Matt says. “I helped him out.”
It’s a windy June day at the Neil Road Recreation Center. The dodge ball court takes up half the basketball court, sectioned off by a long vinyl curtain. Matt is rolling on the floor, flailing with laughter at the dozen smaller kids playing the game. Within about three seconds, he’s running along the sidelines. He claps with authority as he runs, encouraging the younger kids to throw and dodge.
The boys never stop moving as they throw fast balls—and adeptly settle disputes among the smaller kids. Their “LIT” T-shirts signify Reggie and Matt—and two other teens on the court—as “Leaders in Training,” who work supervising younger children after school as part of a city of Reno program.
In their usual style of cooperative, overlapping conversation, the twins explain their entry into the workforce.
“Mom, well, she picked us up from school,” Reggie explains. “Then she said, ‘Guess what? I got you a job.'”
“It sounded like a good idea, you know,” adds Matt. “We don’t get paid for a year. Well, we’re getting paid this year because we started last semester.”
The program gives 13-to-15-year-olds unpaid internships as coaches, then, after a probationary year, paid positions.
“Actually, they’re just paying us to yell at the kids,” Reggie laughs. “Not yell at the kids, just put the kids in check. And go on field trips.”
“And have fun,” Matt says. He takes the job’s responsibilities seriously. “It’s like teaching the kids. It’s like a second home for them. So the kids come in to have fun. They have dodge ball in there and everything. … You get problems sometimes; you can settle problems. … That’s pretty much what we do sometimes.”
“These kids … kind of have bad mouths on them too,” Reggie muses with equal measures of concern and resignation. “You can’t just tell them not to say it, because they’re not going to listen. So I just say, ‘Don’t say it around the little kids,’ because, you know, there’s little kids like 6 and 5 around here. You don’t want them being—what’s the word?—corrupted! That’s the word I’m talking about.”
“Yeah!” Matt weighs in as they both laugh.
The boys juggle their coaching jobs with all the usual school commitments, performing with the pep band, and playing high-school football. While any adult would likely be charting schedules on a day planner, Reggie and Matt talk like running 24/7 is no big deal.
“Um, it’s really timing,” Matt says.
They seem to enjoy their jobs.
“The motivation is seeing the smiles on the kids’ face,” Reggie adds.
“You try to make a difference,” says Matt.
Both boys begin to notice the hammy flavor in their television-toned comments. They run with it.
“Save a kid or two,” Reggie says with the joking authority of a Hollywood-scripted newscaster.
Matt explains, still half joshing but sincere: “Sometimes it’s tough, like, after football practice, then your legs are sore, and you don’t want to do much. But, then, you’re here for a reason. You’re here to work, you know.”
Reggie doesn’t let the fact that that he’s making a solid point get in the way of emphasizing every syllable like a persuasive infomercial actor.
“But you can’t get too attached to the kids.”
“They want to sit on your lap and high-five you,” Matt explains.
“You can’t have them sittin’ in your lap,” Reggie points out.
The boys agree that they do a good job at things like comforting younger kids while keeping enough of a professional distance to get the job done, and they still think of themselves as mentors, even once they clock out.
While we talk about this, their 7-year-old brother, Cameron, wanders by.
Reggie turns serious.
“We’re teaching him how to be responsible,” he says of his brother. “How to be trustworthy.”
It’s late June. The boys are relaxing at home in the spacious apartment where they live with Cameron, 17-year-old brother Christopher and their parents. The new-ish housing complex in the Mira Loma neighborhood, southeast of the airport, is comfortable but not fancy. Beige-and-white apartments face shady, well-kept lawns, and the sound of kids splashing and cooling off in the pool signifies that school is out for summer.
The boys’ mom, Nedra Dougherty, is a benefits manager for a human-resources outsourcing company. Their step-dad, Kevin Dougherty, works as a residential care specialist for foster children. The couple laid out straightforward expectations for their sons.
“That they do the very best that they can with everything that’s been provided to them,” Nedra says. She doesn’t require them to do better than other kids, but it’s important to her that they do the best they can and stay active.
“We just try to be as supportive as we can [and] understand that not everything that they do as youth has to have some further purpose,” she says. “But lying around, watching television and watching other people accomplish things shouldn’t be their focus. They should focus on being participatory.”
Matt and Reggie don’t appear to spend a lot of time dwelling on Mom’s theory, but living by it seems to come naturally.
Reggie disagrees with the stereotype of most teenagers being practically walking misdemeanors.
“It’s not hard for kids to not get into trouble,” he says.
Matt adds: “I mean, some of the guys at school, they do drugs on the weekend and, you know, smoke and drink and all that stuff, and that just doesn’t seem like a good idea.”
The boys say they don’t have time for that.
But it’s not like Reggie and Matt don’t know how to kick back and have fun. At the dining room table, the boys explain how they fill their time when they’re not in class, working or playing music or sports. They say there’s always time some time in the day for a little swimming or basketball or to jump on a friend’s trampoline.
They don’t usually devote many hours to surfing the Web, but sometimes something in cyberspace catches their interest for a while, especially Reggie, who recently went on a three-day myspace.com kick. They listen to jazz, hip-hop, R&B and, says Reggie, “rap, but not all kinds of rap.”
He starts listing favorite artists: “Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.”
Matt holds up his open palm for a high-five: “Up top!”
“Wooooooo! … and Linkin Park,” Reggie continues. “They’re the only rock I like.”
The boys are both video game fans. The tidy, sparsely decorated bedroom they share has two twin beds, two televisions, two video-game consoles and an assortment of controls.
In the bedroom, they each spontaneously dig out something they’re proud of. Reggie has a collection of certificates stacked on the bookshelf, commending an assortment of efforts. Completing a “Money Matters” course is one. Staying physically fit is another. Matt has a journal full of drawings, mostly of animals, that he works on once in a while. He shows off a picture of a dog that he’s been drawing off and on for about a year.
Reggie reclines on his bed, looking off into space wistfully as he describes the family’s summer plans, including a trip to the Feather River with Kevin and the foster kids he works with, followed by a cruise to Mexico with both parents and brothers.
For the present, life is good for Matt and Reggie.
So, how about the future? The boys both think seriously about college, though neither has mapped out specific career plans yet. But, whatever comes their way, it looks like they’ll be ready.
Nedra’s not worried at all.
“Whatever it is that they’re faced with, they don’t have a can’t-do attitude,” she says. “They have a can-do attitude. You just can’t tell them what they can’t do.”