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Freshmen Learn for Who or Whom the Bell Tolls

Times Staff Writer

Outside, an early rain had cleaned the air with a scent of fall.

Inside, 30 students sat quietly in a cream-colored classroom at Cypress High School. For all 30, Wednesday was the beginning of an adventure: their first day at high school.

The second-period bell sounded metallically. Teacher Elizabeth Van Hunnick walked to the front of Room 328. Freshman English was now in progress.

“First of all, relax,” Van Hunnick said. “I’m not going to give you an assignment this first day. It’s hard getting started again. What is it that Snoopy said? ‘My body is here but my mind is still on vacation.’ ”

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Smiles flashed, row after row. Several of the smiles had braces.

The new freshmen, mostly 13- and 14-year-olds, might have arrived by time machine from the 1950s. Boys’ haircuts were universally short. Pink was a dominant color in the girls’ clothing. Most of the boys wore new-looking sport shirts. Girls tended to favor skirts, and the skirts were long. Only a few wore makeup, and only one girl had earrings.

Ivy League Look

The look was clean-cut and natural. In the ‘50s, it would have been called the Ivy League look.

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“We’re not a predominantly wealthy community, but middle class, with about 30% minority students,” Principal Dave Kuzmich had said. “We have a nice mix of kids here.”

Cypress High is part of the Anaheim Union High School District, where classes started earlier than in the rest of the county. The other 27 school districts start classes either today or Monday.

Van Hunnick, a teacher for 20 years, was unharried, talking to the students as if she had known them for years.

“Today we’ll be doing a lot of things that are routine,” she said. “One is a seating chart. And I want to discuss with you the school’s policy on assertive discipline.” Van Hunnick motioned toward the yellow blackboard. The message proclaimed: “Teachers have the right to teach; students have the right to learn.”

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“That’s sort of like our motto,” she said.

Grammar and Writing Test

Van Hunnick then promised that in English I “we’ll be working on your writing, especially in developing a good paragraph.”

She also discussed something relatively new in the educational spectrum: the need to pass the district’s grammar and writing tests before a student can graduate from high school. “If you pass the test as a freshman, then you won’t have to worry about it any more,” she said. “Some seniors are still worried because they haven’t passed it. They’ve been taking it for four years.”

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By the end of the first week of school, Van Hunnick said, she would give each student a “contract” to sign. The contract would signify the student’s willingness to show up daily and perform assigned work.

“This is a life experience for you,” she said. “Think of this as your job.”

The subject changed to seating arrangement. “I want each of you to keep your same seat every day,” said Van Hunnick. “But remember, you’re not embedded in concrete. If there’s any (discipline) problem, I’ll move you.”

Empty Front-Row Seats

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She wryly noted that most front-row seats were not taken. “If you were going to the theater, where would the most expensive seats be?” she asked.

“Up front,” said several students in unison.

“That’s right,” she said. “Front-row seats could cost you $40 or $45 if you went to see ‘Cats.’ ”

A handwritten message on the yellow blackboard said: “Welcome to Cypress High School.” It turned out to be more than a greeting.

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“Today we’re going to play a little word game,” said Van Hunnick. “I want you to write down on a sheet of paper as many words as you can make from that (welcome phrase) on the board. . . . You can use proper names, abbreviations, and foreign language words. The only thing you can’t do is use poor taste. I don’t want any four-letter words.”

Van Hunnick said the person with the most words would win a prize. “A student in first period had 51 words,” she said.

Pencils Flashed

The 30 freshmen started writing. Occasionally, one or another would look up perplexed. “Is hoot a word?” whispered one girl to a student behind her.

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Pencils flashed across notebook paper. Lists of words formed at seat after seat.

The classroom smelled faintly of new paint. The heavy-duty carpet, burnt orange in color, was spotless. The cream-colored walls were decorated with travel posters, movie posters and memorabilia of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. A small American flag--clean, bright--hung from a corner over the blackboard.

“Time’s up,” said Van Hunnick, after about 15 minutes. “How many words did you get?”

Several students raised their hands. “Sixty-four!” a boy said.

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“Seventy-four,” said another. Students nearby muttered aloud, “She kept on writing” (after the deadline).

“I DID not,” huffed the girl with 74 words.

Played Solomon Role

Van Tunnick played the role of Solomon. “We’ll have several prizes,” she said. She gave Snickers candy bars to the girl with 74 words and to another with 71.

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The bell rang, and the first day of freshman English was over.

As the students filed from the classroom, Van Tunnick said that she was pleased.

“I must say this is an atypical class of freshmen,” she said. “Often freshmen run up to the desk and ask me questions in the middle of class and fidget around and so forth. But this was a very orderly group. Very nice.”

She smiled. “Maybe this is going to be a good year.”

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