06/28/2006 09:34 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Do We Cheat Teenagers?

We were in our neighborhood Tar-chez this morning buying acne medicine and a few other essentials when the 16-year-old decided to apply for a job. He's been job-hunting for a few weeks ever since school let out. He even attached a snappy little essay to his applications so he'd stand out from the slackers. But so far no luck.

If things don't pan out soon, I'm thinking of renting one of those flashy billboards on Sunset Strip. And slapping on an ad that says: Sharp, if not slightly disorganized, 16-year-old available for hire. Good with people! Winning sense of humor! Impressive biceps from drumming! Will work for food or a gig at the Roxy.

No wonder the Tar-chez opportunity suddenly felt like a tryout for The Apprentice. "Hey, mom, they're hiring!" my son announced breathlessly as I was waiting in line. What pluck! What initiative! He'd already starting filling out his application so he grabbed the cart and raced off to the employment area to finish.

When I got there he was sitting at a computer tapping away. A handful of other teenage boys were there too. So I sat down on a bench to wait. Good thing. The application was as thick and probing as an NSA document. My son kept waving me over to help him. What's my Social Security number? What's my former address? How many employees has he surprised? That one threw me. Surprised? I read the question again.

"That's supervised, honey," I said.

A lot of the five-page application, I was curious to note, dealt with criminal activity. Arrests and the like. But my favorite part was the multiple-choice section. You had to give the "best" and "worst" answer in response to various ethical scenarios. What if a friend and fellow employee got nabbed, say, leaving the store with an MP3 player under his jaunty red shirt? Would you a) pretend you'd never heard of him b) assume he'd done it before and just hadn't gotten caught c) profess his innocence and call a defense lawyer or d) ask your supervisor for a raise.

That led to this wistful thought. If only Congress would adopt Tar-chez's rigorous hiring practices to lobbying reform. We'd never have to suffer a Jack Abramoff again.

But the point I really want to make is how sucky we are in this country to teenagers. How tough it is for them to find jobs. It's the older and even more cynical version of No Child Left Behind. We want teens to be productive little citizens but we cheat them on education, we cheat them on job training, we cheat them on opportunities to help them grow into responsible adults.

Here's a test for you. In Los Angeles we now have a high-school exit exam that seniors have to pass to graduate. Guess how many passed? Guess. A little more than 42 percent. And the test is geared to a seventh-grade education level.

I hope the 16-year-old gets one of those $5.65-an-hour jobs at Tar-chez. But if he doesn't I won't feel too badly. There are lots of teens who could use the money even more.

Like the sweet blue-collar kid named Mauricio who was sitting next to me with his 14-year-old brother. He hopes to use the money from his Tar-Chez job to go to college next year.