To help struggling teenagers, adults need to regain their attention. As parents know, this can be a tall order. For a start it may require temporarily turning off distracting media. To provide a quiet context for new students to face their problems and catch up in maturity, we turn off cell-phones, video-games, I-pods and chat-rooms; we rid the ranch of television’s mind-numbing superficiality and distracting peep-shows; and we eliminate the incessantly shifting images that shorten the adolescent attention span.
Rather than let our students gape at Friends, we want them to make friends. Rather than play World of Warcraft, they play frisbee or soccer with flesh-and-blood competitors who cannot readily be blown off or blown away. A lack of Twitter frees our students to think coherently, and to express their ideas in full paragraphs. To join this community, arriving students unplug from old schools, familiar drug-pals and dealers—even, for the time being, from worthy friends. This time-out can be difficult, as well as a relief. But a separation from old contexts in which there were so many problems usefully pushes new students to make friends here, to encounter their own thoughts and feelings now.
The slower pace of life at the ranch is amenable to talk. A typical day provides numerous occasions for discussion, hours set aside for conversations that involve trusted adults. Students have much to do, surely, but nothing that requires them to rush off somewhere else. The dining hall din is talk and laughter undisturbed by lyrics in a head-set, or instant messaging, or rant radio or the siren song of intoxication. No one is selling anything. No one on a cell phone sits across the table like a hallucinating lunatic, talking to someone not there.
Finally, to live on a remote ranch is to encounter the natural world. Weather intrudes. Time slows. The diurnal cycle and the changing seasons become the rhythms of calmer lives. Some arriving students, going cold-turkey from the noise, lights and come-ons of urban lives, experience a peculiar withdrawal. For them, the tranquility of the valley, set off by the wind in the pines, may for a time make it hard to sleep. There is time and scope for thinking and feeling, for loneliness and regret, for anger and shame, and there are no drugs or compulsive habits to distract a young person from felt emotion. No video-game or urban glow dims the night’s starry vastness.