The Washington Post

Project teaches teens life lessons at 13

Claudia Cauterucci wanted to give her son a ritualistic experience that would solidify his transition into adulthood. With collaboration from other parents, she developed "Project I Am Thirteen" to teach preteens a variety of basic life skills and improve their self-confidence. (Victoria St. Martin/The Washington Post)

The way Claudia Cauterucci sees it, if her son had grown up in Africa as his ancestors did, he would complete a series of rituals on his journey into manhood.

“I really believe in ritual,” she said. “All over the world, or in history or in evolution, tribes villages, families . . . they’ve honored this transition. Transition from not being a child, but you’re not really an adult. And it should be honored.”

And while she may not have had the tropical rain forests of Africa, she has the wilds of Anne Arundel County. So Cauterucci created a program for her son and his classmates at his Northwest Washington school so they could learn everything from etiquette, cooking skills, navigating social experiences and the woods of Harwood, Md., to preparing for interviews and changing a tire.

The program, called “Project I Am Thirteen,” is sculpted from various cultures and draws from a range of traditions. But instead of a quinceañera or a bar mitzvah, for example, the teens spent one day a month learning a skill.

“The idea was that the things that will be easy for us to teach will be life-
changing for them,” Cauterucci said. “And that it be formal and ritualized as, ‘Now you’re 13, now you’re going to learn these things, now you’re capable of learning these things. These are things that are important to learn.’ ”

Eighth-grade students from Oyster-Adams Bilingual School learn auto mechanics from parent Miguel Munoz at his car repair shop. Gaby Eng Garcia, 14, blows up a rubber glove so it’s easier to slip on, a skill they were taught right off the bat. Each parent taught the students in the class a different skill, such as cooking or etiquette. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

So last year, Cauterucci sent an e-mail, after what she calls her “Jerry Maguire moment,” asking fellow parents at Oyster-Adams­ Bilingual School to help.

At first, the adults worried that they would have nothing to share.

“It’s easier to say, ‘Hey, do you want to go camping this weekend?’ than to say, ‘Let’s do this year-long ritual.’ At the beginning, everyone was nervous, like: ‘Is this okay? Is what I’m teaching okay?’ Some people say, ‘I can cook,’ but they didn’t think it was valuable. But every time it was like, ‘This is valuable.’ ”

The dozen or so teens who participated in the monthly projects now seem to walk a little taller when they enter a room. They make steady eye contact, they are not afraid to try new things — such as eating cow tongue and escargot — and they now check the stock market along with text messages on their smartphones.

“I’ve become more mature and more self-dependent,” said Cooper­ Ellenbogen, 13, who just graduated from Oyster-Adams. “I can do more things on my own now that I couldn’t do months ago.”

Cooper demonstrated how he would introduce himself by shaking an imaginary hand and saying his name. And then he giggled, as though he knew the punch line to a joke that no other 13-year-old did because he had spent his Saturdays learning something new. He says he is a different teen because of it.

“I’ve learned different things about cars, like how to change oil, tires,” he said. “How to greet people formally — like what you’re supposed to say, how you’re supposed to act.”

His mom, Becky Sachs, and another parent taught the teens how to whip up a simple dinner and properly set a table.

“What I think is unique about this project is it allows us and our kids to gain from the expertise of different families,” Sachs said. “The different families that participated in this have an expertise in areas that I don’t, so I feel like it’s a great way to piggyback on their experiences.”

Sachs said a typical 13-year-old’s mentality has “a lot of resistance to everything.”

But the secret to making these ritualistic lessons work, the parents said, is that their children’s friends were there learning with them.

Marcelo Nawar, like many other Project Thirteen participants, was persuaded to participate so he could hang out with his buddies outside of regular school.

“At first, I thought it would be kind of stupid,” he said, but “I knew I wanted to do it because a bunch of my friends were doing it.”

Marcelo said one of his favorite activities was the “Mad Bankers” lessons in which the kids learned about trading, now an activity he would enjoy “even if some of my friends weren’t there.”

One dad described the project as a throwback to a time when communities gathered around their young people and guided them into adulthood — or high school.

“In this busy time and age, we worry about what we’ve lost as we progress and advance, and I think one of the things is the passing of wisdom from one generation to other,” said Carlos Garcia, father of 14-year-old Gabriel Eng Garcia. “I think our eighth-graders had a chance to connect meaningfully with each other and with other parents, and see all that the parents had to offer — all the wisdom that’s there. I think it opens their eyes to the notion that there’s more out there always to look for.”

That’s exactly what Cauterucci said she set out to do for her son, John McCargo, whom she calls Johncito (“little John” in Spanish). When John turned 13, Cauterucci — who gave her nieces red lipstick and black pumps on their milestone birthdays — wondered if she should have him visit with his uncles for a little guy talk.

Then came the project.

“I had a little bit of an attitude because it kind of seemed, I guess, boring when I first heard it,” John said. “But then she started explaining it more, and I started getting excited.”

John said the sweetest part of the project was going through the same experience as his friends and being able to turn to them — figuratively and literally — for help.

“Like when we had to change a tire, I kind of got stuck,” he said. “So I just looked over and saw my friend doing it, and then I learned and I did it.”

Cauterucci even made the Project Thirteen students’ last gathering a challenge: Each had to taste cuisine they had never tried before. The parents gently nudged their children to the tables filled with food as they talked about high school and how to continue the project for the next group of 13-year-olds.

“I just like how everyone made it an experience,” said Paloma Barada, 14, as the party — and the project — came to a close June 21. “It wasn’t just us, like, receiving all this information and that’s it. It was all of us laughing and having a good time while we learned about different things.”

Victoria St. Martin covers breaking news and Prince William County for The Post's Local desk.


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