Hey Terra at
Escambia County Middle School
by James Crawford
On January 17, 2003, Annie answered questions dealing with relationships and breakups asked by 1000 students at Escambia County Middle School in Atmore, AL. Photo by JAMES CRAWFORD/THE ATMORE ADVANCE
Anyone who's ever had to deal with tough questions from kids knows it's not easy being a parent these days. Annie Fox, author of Can You Relate?: Real World Advice for Teens on Guy, Girls, Growing Up, and Getting Along [re-released as The Teen Survival Guide to Dating & Relating: Real World Advice About Guys, Girls, Growing Up And Getting Along], a collection of letters that deal with just those kinds of questions, from kids of all ages, knows it better than most.
For the past six years, she's been facing them head on through her website and alter ego, Hey, Terra, an online letter answering service along the lines of Dear Abby, where kids can write to her and ask advice on any subject.
Fox was on hand at Escambia County Middle School on Friday to talk with students about issues and problems that were on their minds. During the seventh grade assembly, Fox fielded questions such as "What do I do when my friend wants to date my ex?" and "How do I stay friends with a former boy/girl friend?"
Questions like these are nothing new to Fox who says they instead constitute the majority of the questions she receives online.
"This is what's on their minds 99% of the time. They don't want to talk about math or spelling," Fox said. "They want to know how do I get my parents off my back or how do I get this person to like me and I tell them the answer to that is you can't, which is heartbreaking news to them."
Don't worry parents, you're invited to write too, but don't expect her to take your side right off the bat. Annie deals her advice straight from the hip. She's fair, but she's also brutally honest because she understands that you don't always get a second chance at raising your kids.
"I take the point of view that parents love their children. But you have to let them learn to grow up," Fox said during a post-speech interview.
ECMS principal Herbert Payne recognizes the need for teens to have someone to turn to for questions and was very pleased to have Fox talk to his students. "It's very beneficial. She's giving these kids good information concerning problems that kids of this age level are dealing with."
Fox began her online letter-answering career after her eldest daughter graduated high school. The idea to offer advice came from an extension of her daily life. During the day, she ran a carpool where she picked up her son and several boys from middle school and her daughter and friends from high school.
She would spend the trip home talking to the kids and answering their questions. When her daughter graduated, she wanted to fill the void that she had grown to love and thought what better way to talk to kids than through the Internet.
"I had a dream about an Internet version of the carpool where teenagers could talk about their problems. So, I drew up the plan and took it to my husband, who thought it was a great idea, and it went from there," Fox said.
Fox, who holds a degree from Cornell University in Human Development and a Masters from State University of New York at Cortland with an emphasis in early childhood, feels that through her column she can do the most good for the most people.
"I do it because I can and because it needs to be done. The idea is to use technology to help people be more of what they are," Fox said.
Fox offered the gathered seventh graders advice on relationships with their peers. "If you're not with someone you trust, it's hard to be joyful. Trust, respect, honesty and open communication. If you have all that, then you have a gem of a relationship. If you don't have these, something is missing. And I'm not just talking about relationships with boy/girl friends, but also relationships with your family, friends and yourself," Fox said.
Lamenting on the value of friendships over fleeting romance at this age in their life, Fox cautioned the children that "the boy/girlfriend thing doesn't last, especially in middle school The friendships can last a lifetime. You cannot have too many good friends in life. That's your emotional bank account."
When dealing with the issue of anger, Fox told the students "I encourage you to speak the truth. If you don't, then you get madder and madder. You need to speak the truth with compassion. Your friends are not mind readers," drawing a huge reaction from the crowd. "You have to tell yourself, 'I can't control what other people think. I can only tell the truth.'"
Despite her success online Fox is still drawn to the workshops and speaking, saying she would love to do even more appearances. "I love the interaction and dealing with the kids. I want to do more because I think it's needed."
Fox came up with name Hey, Terra as a two-fold meaning. The name Terra symbolizes mother Earth to encompass all the kids she talks to and the slang usage of hey, by kids, as a hello to appeal to her younger audience, which includes children from not only the United States but other countries.
"I get email from all over the world. The questions are developmental, not cultural. It has to do with what stage of life they are in," Fox said. "The most important questions are: Who am I? and How do I gain independence from my parents?" She emphasizes that parents should let children learn to make decisions on their own. If not, they will never learn to be fully adjusted adults capable of functioning well on their own. "Judgment is like a muscle, you have to flex it," Fox said.
Fox's most current project is the relaunching of theinsite.org, the website her letters, as well as other teen related topics, were originally offered through. Fox has spent the last few years regaining control of that original content in an effort to once again provide teens with what she feels is vital information and a place they can turn too with questions.
"This was my baby. It was alive and kicking for four years and then the tech bust happened and it essentially died. But we now have control of all that material and plan to offer it again," Fox said.
The site is scheduled to be up and running by March and will contain, in addition to the Hey, Terra letters, information on drugs, racism, homophobia, peer pressure and other topics Fox feels are important to teens, according to Fox "a total teen resource site."