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Not just a guide to teenage angst

By John Snetsinger

John Snetsinger

As a public member of the State Bar’s board of governors, and as a history professor at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, I don’t often get to wear my two different hats at the same time. But every spring, the two merge seamlessly: That’s when I order from the State Bar (free, by the way, even to non-board members) hundreds of copies of its exceptional guide — When You Become 18: A Survival Guide for Teenagers.

This invaluable resource can easily fit into the curriculum for teachers with students in their teens or 20s. One measure of the success of When You Become 18 is that whenever I hand out copies, none are left behind on counters, chairs or the floor. Any teacher, on any level, will tell you that is a rare occasion when you’re dealing with students.

Another indication of the guide’s widespread popularity is that, four months before the newest version was released last month, the State Bar began receiving pre-orders. All told, the bar tallied 1,000 pre-orders — ranging from a single copy to several thousand copies — before the new publication went to press in late April.

When You Become 18 offers a wealth of information on rights and responsibilities of young adults, including alcohol and drug use, obtaining credit cards, signing an apartment lease and learning about one’s military obligation. The newly revised version also focuses on issues of great concern today, such as Internet privacy, identity theft and blocking those annoying dinnertime telemarketers.

The State Bar obtained the rights to When You Become 18 three years ago from the California Law Advocates. In 2002, the bar distributed free a half-million copies of its revised version and basically “sold out” in less than half a year.

Because of that success, this year the bar, with the generous support of the State Bar Foundation, printed 1.2 million copies, including translations in Spanish, Chinese and Korean. As co-chair of the bar’s Communications & Bar Relations Committee, I would like to thank both the State Bar Foundation and the California Law Advocates for their support of this project and their efforts to help us get When You Become 18 into the hands of as many young people as possible.

Issues covered range from practical consumer protection tips to implications stemming from landmark Supreme Court decisions. For me, the best time to distribute and discuss When You Become 18 is when my United States history courses examine events and personalities intertwined with the Bill of Rights and court decisions.

I use the material in When You Become 18 on the First Amendment to introduce the saga of the “Hollywood Ten” relying on their “freedom of speech” rights in refusing to answer questions put to them by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Students learn that what constitutes “freedom of speech” can change as the composition of the court and the times change — as the “Hollywood Ten,” each of whom received jail sentences, found to their dismay.

When You Become 18 explains how some rights are wide open to varying interpretations in different situations and periods. Raising a student’s Fifth Amendment rights folds in with the World War II denial of “due process” for Japanese-Americans removed to internment camps without ever having been charged with criminal conduct. Why “due process” can be waived in time of war provides students with an insight into the fear and insecurity armed conflict can bring.

Almost all my students at Cal Poly know what the Miranda decision stated, but they haven’t thought about how it might affect them until they read When You Become 18. They hadn’t thought that Miranda had implications except for the “criminally accused,” but they learn that folks such as themselves can be arrested — both for cause and unjustly.

Studying Miranda, Escobedo and Gideon in When You Become 18 provides a perfect entrĂ©e to classroom issues such as the “rights consciousness” movement of the ’60s, the Warren Court and an examination of so-called “judicial activism.”

What a great combination of practicality and substance When You Become 18 is! It has so many elements that are relevant to collegians in day-to-day decisions of working and attending school. In addition, it lends itself to classroom discussion of the most significant constitutional issues, from Brown v. Board of Education to Roe v. Wade.

Simply put, When You Become 18 is a great learning tool. I hope more instructors take advantage of it. They will quickly learn that this guide not only makes the class more relevant, but that the students also genuinely like it.

And there’ll be nothing to clean up after class.

John Snetsinger, Professor of History, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, is a public member and vice president of the State Bar Board of Governors.

Ordering Information: When You Become 18 is available in English, Spanish, Chinese and Korean. Orders should be sent to and include name, complete mailing address (no P.O. boxes, please), number of copies and language version. There is no limit to the number that can be ordered. All orders are free, but contributions are gratefully accepted to defray shipping costs for especially large orders. Any contribution check should be made out to The State Bar of California and sent to the bar at 180 Howard St., Attn: 18, San Francisco, CA 94105-1639.

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