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ThreeSixty: The Drink Knot

ThreeSixty is a youth journalism program based at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. It uses the tools and principles of journalism to help Minnesota youth — particularly minority youth — tell the stories of their lives and communities, practice the skills of active citizenship, learn the basics of good reporting and strong writing and pursue careers in journalism and communications.


A social chasm divides teens who drink from non-drinkers

It was like a flag exploding, an electric mesh of red, white and blue lights reflecting in the rearview mirror. My friend pulled his car over. Seatbelts clicked and sweatshirts were tossed to hide the evidence – the two cases of beer beside me in the back seat. I imagined I heard the policeman’s footsteps as he approached the car, ballpoint pin clicking to write a ticket and perhaps take us to jail.

He surprised us, saying, “Your tail lights are out.” Smoothly, my friend thanked the policeman and assured him it would be taken care of immediately. Then the officer’s flashlight beam struck the beer sticking out from behind a sweater. It also illuminated our fear, shame and guilt.

For half an hour, the cop asked questions: Were any of us over 21? Where were we coming from? Why did we have beer? Had any of us consumed any alcohol?

No, we are all 17. We’re coming from a party. We wanted to protect our friends from drinking more after we left to drive some people home. We didn’t drink at all.

We spoke politely and honestly answered his questions, even though we didn’t say exactly where the party was. We gave him the beer and allowed him to search the trunk and my purse. We managed to convince him that we were innocent.

But we were mad. To protect our drinking friends, we got ourselves into trouble. It felt like an unacknowledged sacrifice. That night the divide between those who drink and those that don’t grew a little wider.

A social divide
Out of 100 Minnesota high school seniors, 47 reported drinking in the past 30 days, according to the 2004 Minnesota Student Survey. What the statistics don’t show is the chasm that exists between those 47 and the other 53, between those who drink and those who don’t. Because of this divide, some friends at school hardly see each other on weekends.

Some of the teens I’ve spoken with label themselves as part of the drinking crowd. They understand the divide but don’t believe they contribute to it. But many teens who don’t drink cite the way alcohol changes their friends’ behavior as the reason the two crowds can’t hang out together.

“It doesn’t matter if you don’t drink,” says Martin, a 17-year old in St. Paul. “If you are around people who do, you will somehow be affected. And it is usually a negative effect.”

“It’s teen life,” says Kelly, an 18-year-old Minneapolis student. “If you drink, you won’t find yourself with people who don’t drink on the weekends.”

It’s inevitable that the two groups sometimes interact. What happened to my friends and me illustrates some of the most typical situations and resulting tensions that teens have to face.

It wasn’t fair that we had to deal with the beer, the cop and the risk that we could have faced had he given us a ticket or called our parents. But as much as we were mad at our friends who were drinking, it was our decision to take responsibility for their safety and drive them home and take the beer with us. We had choices that night although it seemed as though we had none.

What does it mean to hang out with people who drink if you don’t? You face issues of tension, separation, designated driving and the risk of punishment. Is it possible to merge both groups in a successful get-together?

“No big deal,” drinkers say
A good friend held her birthday party on a boat. She invited the entire class and warned drinkers that she didn’t care what they did before or after, but they couldn’t bring alcohol onto the boat.

A couple of people teens snuck alcohol onto the boat anyway. My friend’s mom discovered an empty bottle of vodka in the bathroom trash can. The police arrived when the boat pulled up to the dock and threatened to give everyone a Breathalyzer test if the guilty minors didn’t step up.

Fortunately, they ended up confessing, so the rest of us were free to go.

To most of the teens I talked to, their reason for drinking isn’t emotional problems. More often than not, it’s just something to do, says Jenna, a 19-year-old in Burnsville. “It’s usually just not a big deal to drink besides the fun factor. I guess some people assume there’s always some big reasons to drink, but there’re usually nothing to it.”

Tim, a 16-year-old from Minneapolis, shares a common reason for drinking. “I admit that when there’s alcohol, I can be the life of the party. If I’m not drinking, I’m boring. That’s just how it is. It’s not that I’m uncomfortable with just hanging out with my friends without the alcohol, it’s just more fun with it,” he says.

Josh is a 19-year-old from St. Paul who admits to binge drinking. “When I drink, I’m just bonding with my friends,” he says. “We’re not trying to exclude anyone based on whether they drink with us or not.” Josh says when he and his friends drink, they become hyperactive and seek spontaneous activities that people who aren’t drinking don’t appreciate. He added that if people who didn’t drink were into the fun and activities, they wouldn’t be excluded.

Louise, 18, agrees. “I don’t get why people who don’t drink can’t hang out with us. They’re creating a division by thinking they can’t hang out with people who drink.”

For Andy, a 17-year-old from Eagan, it’s the nature of the activity that distances him from the people who drink. “I can’t really hang out with people who drink, because then everyone is acting wild while I just sit there,” he says. “They always tell me I’m invited knowing I don’t drink, but then there’s a clear division because I’m sitting and they’re drunk.” He adds he doesn’t understand why people who drink can’t just set aside the alcohol when non-drinkers are around.

Josh takes the same idea and flips it around: If there are people drinking, the people who aren’t drinking should accept that and just have fun with them.

Christine, a 17-year-old from St. Paul, describes herself as a moderate drinker. Whether she decides to pick up the drink places her on one side of the barrier, she says. “When I don’t drink, it doesn’t mean I have to be boring and just sit there,” she says. “I’ll act like the people who drink. I’ll be really hyper and excited with them, and they’ll tell me I’m fun. The secret is that I didn’t have a single drink.”

Christine and Josh agree that alcohol doesn’t have to be a factor in how they behave at a party.

The risk for non-drinkers
However, the legal ramifications do matter. “I wish I could hang out with my friends who drink, but I can’t. It’s too risky,” says Linda, a 17-year-old from Minneapolis.

Even the language of these teens — the “us” and “them” — illustrates the separation. At school it’s common to hear an exchange about a weekend party between two friends, one who drinks and one who doesn’t: “There’s a party going on tonight, you should come. Of course, alcohol will be there. No one is drinking until late, so you should still come.”

The other side: “Will alcohol be there? I don’t drink, so no thanks. I’ll think about it, but that’s what you said last time, and people were already drunk by the time I arrived.”

The underlying tension stems from uncertainty about what will actually happen at the party. Drinking doesn’t automatically make the party wild and crazy. And not drinking doesn’t mean a boring time.

On one hand, 18-year-old Sean from Burnsville laims, “Drinking is just an activity. And activities divide people based on who participates and who doesn’t.”

But then there’s 17-year old Jessie from St. Paul. “I miss my friends. I don’t care that they don’t drink with me, but I care that I hardly see them on the weekends. I’m not going to stop drinking, but I wish my other close friends could be there and see that it could turn out all right.”

Eliminating alcohol is an ideal solution. I was at a friend’s cabin earlier this summer, and there was no drinking. Without alcohol present, we had fun making fires, playing Taboo, baking brownies and having movie marathons. No alcohol, no division.

Realistically, the solution isn’t to get one group to stop or the other group to start drinking. It’s either establishing a balance where both can hang out or deal with the division between them.

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