Some kids giggled. Some glanced around awkwardly. Others bore pensive expressions as they learned about common pitfalls of life as an American teenager, and ways to avoid them.
This week marked the thirteenth edition of the Teen Maze, organized by the School Community Youth Coalition.
Hundreds of middle school students from the region converged at the Montezuma County Fairgrounds, where they filtered through a dozen exhibits on such topics as pregnancy, substance abuse and self-esteem. Each exhibit was separated by blue curtains.
With real-life scenarios, organizers reinforced how decisions made now can profoundly impact one’s life later.
“It’s a safe environment to experience negative consequences,” said SCYC board president Rebecca Larson, who helped launch the maze in 2000. “We try to sandwich the consequences with positivity, so it isn’t one big scare tactic. We talk about using character attributes, your career (goals) and support network to keep you safe.”
About 300 kids, mostly seventh- and eighth-graders, visited the maze on Tuesday and Wednesday, Larson said.
Attendance was down from the 500 to 600 students in past years. Some rode the bus 100 miles from Naturita, in Montrose County, to be there.
The maze costs SCYC $15,000 in hard cash to put together.
But Larson said it wouldn’t be possible without donated supplies and volunteer hours from some 150 people.
Each batch of students began by picking a character trait — dependability, tolerance, faith, resourcefulness, etc — they felt was a strength. They then used it as a guide while meandering through the maze and facing tough decisions.
Shrouded in a cloud of gray (machine-produced) smoke, a woman tempted the students with cigarettes as they reached the tobacco exhibit.
Once inside, they learned that 90 percent of tobacco users are addicted by age 18, how cigarette companies target youth with flashy marketing and how smoking a pack a day costs $2,000 a year.
An oversized cigarette and snuff can could be unpacked to reveal all the harmful carcinogens.
“It made me not want to smoke ever, in a million years,” said 12-year-old Blaze Braford-Lefevre of Silverton.
Students also tried breathing through straws after doing jumping jacks, to simulate how tobacco smoke impairs lung function.
A few exhibits away, discussion shifted to sex and family planning: the definition of abstinence, contraception methods, how expensive caring for a baby can be, especially if sick or premature.
Students heard about the three main parenting styles, and how children tend to emulate whatever their own parents did. Authoritarians emphasize obedience above all. Permissive parents set few boundaries. Authoritative parents meld the two, setting clear structure while patiently explaining the rationale behind limits and rules.
One side of the maze built progressively on the aftermath of a DUI car accident. Students were led from the “crash site” to an ambulance, a jail cell, courtroom and substance abuse support group.
At the nutrition station, students were grossed out by a five-pound chunk of fake lard. It visualized how soda and other sugary drinks turn to fat inside the body if not worked off with exercise.
Organizers try to stay current, fine-tuning the maze as risk behavior evolves.
This year, they gave greater mention to technology. Text messages — which teens send and receive 60 times each day, according to the Pew Research Center — are yet another behind-the-wheel distraction. And social media sites allow strangers to view personal information if privacy settings aren’t set properly.
Lynette McKinnery explained to students, as they entered the maze, how people have been fired from jobs for posting crude images or offensive comments.
“Be cautious with anything you post. It can come back to haunt you,” McKinnery said.
Another new addition was the “celebrate diversity” room. Students from Dolores High School spoke about respecting differences in race, wealth, sexuality and culture.
“It’s about looking past how someone looks, or some other (innate) feature, and instead looking at their character,” said senior Bethany Tourjee.
Tourjee and several peers founded a gay-straight alliance in Dolores, and she said students from Cortez and Mancos have approached them about how to start similar groups.
“Most kids deny prejudice when they walk in. But after talking to them, they start to admit they might be uncomfortable around one group or another.” Tourjee said, adding that girls tend to be cliquey and judge others for their looks, while boys struggle the most with homophobia.
“I love seeing youth leadership. I love seeing them grow and take charge,” Larson said, referring to the high schoolers who oversaw certain exhibits.
Tiffany Small, now in her 20s, has participated every year since the maze’s inception, either as a student or volunteer.