The end of the year drew near, a time when hopes and dreams are answered or denied.
Rich Dunner, the deal-making Milo Minderbinder of Northridge Middle School, saw one of his schemes collapse. For months, he had been collecting supermarket register tape. Under a Ralphs market promo called “Be Cool to Your School,” you got a camcorder for $400,000 worth of receipts. Late in the year, he finally gave up and turned in $41,000 for some soccer balls.
The days were hot, and the girls began showing up in classes in gym shirts. Their blouses had been deemed too revealing, so they were ordered to cover up. No belly buttons was the rule on campus.
Ceasar Martinez came to school one morning in a “Spray Can” T-shirt glorifying graffiti. He was ordered to turn it inside out.
Ceasar’s grades had been nothing to brag about earlier in the year, but in the spring, they plummeted to five Fs and 11 U’s. “He has the record” for the worst performance on campus, said Sue Castaneda, a history teacher. That meant he would not graduate on stage.
The same fate befell Jesse Black, who got six U’s. “Jesse says he’s trying to be good,” said his mother, Vickie. “I said, ‘You didn’t try good enough.’ ”
He was embarrassed. “Yesterday, they were all in line to practice (graduation), and they pulled him out.”
Despite their poor performances, neither Jesse nor Ceasar would be held back. “We don’t hold kids back, because research shows it doesn’t help them become successful,” Beryl Ward said.
Surprisingly, Dasha’s grades fell as well--to three Bs, two Ds and an F. She also quit--or was kicked out, depending on who was telling the story--cheerleading in a dispute with the gym teachers.
“Most of her problem is a power struggle,” Denise Miller said of her daughter. Dasha sat nearby on the sofa with the classic sullen look of a disgruntled teen-ager. “I can’t satisfy,” she said, near tears.
Denise made her daughter give up her outside activities until her grades came up. The way things were going, it was possible that even Dasha would not be allowed to walk across the stage to get her diploma.
“We’re not asking for too much. We’re not pushing for A’s,” her mother said.
Another problem for Dasha was that she did not want to attend Cleveland High School. But if she went to Birmingham, her choice, her mother would have to get up early and take her.
“I have five other kids,” Denise Miller said, growing emotional herself. “I go the extra mile for all of them. Once in a blue moon I think about myself. I want all of Dasha’s wishes to come true, but sometimes not all dreams are answered.”
Cindy Whitaker, who had had the run-in with Marilyn Hayes after her daughter fainted and who had been elected president of the PTSA for the next year, pulled up stakes and moved to Simi Valley. She didn’t feel safe in the San Fernando Valley anymore.
“I got tired of being afraid for my kids,” she said. “They stole my welcome mat.”
It was a new world in Simi. Whitaker saw families out walking together at night. People didn’t do that in the Valley.
Her daughter Rebecca’s school was much harder. In fact, one of the girl’s former teachers said the only class she was not behind in was PE.
“Everything is geared high,” Whitaker said.
She liked this because she believed Rebecca would be better prepared for high school. She also said Rebecca found the students friendlier.
Whitaker said she would always remember Northridge as a “wonderful place” that cared about kids. But she said the staff didn’t ask enough of the students.
“It seems like, every two or three years, we’ve lowered our standards,” she said. “Here, they have a firm standard.”
Her departure threatened to leave the PTSA in the lurch. Alice Dabboussi was the current president, but her daughter was graduating. The organization had been limping along already, run by a small group of women, some of whom do not have any children at Northridge.
“The five ladies here have held the PTA together for years,” said Dabboussi at one meeting, looking around at the other women. “Without them, I don’t know what would have happened to it.”
A gray-haired woman named Cora, one of the longtime members, had been around Northridge long enough to remember the old days in the ‘60s. She said some things at Northridge have changed for the better. A former teacher, Cora remembered a principal in the early ‘60s who was a womanizer. He got rid of one secretary and replaced her with a woman who looked like a model. “He had poker games for the men at lunch hour,” she recalled. “He was taking out the PTA president on the side.”
In the end, Tobie Kennedy, a quick-witted woman with long dark hair and glasses, agreed to take over the PTSA presidency, despite the fact she had not had a child at Northridge in four years.
The last UTLA meeting of the year was, as usual, a gripe session against the administration. The week before graduation, Beryl Ward scheduled a Fun Day for the kids, during which they played a variety of cooperative games such as April Showers, in which students passed leaky buckets over their heads.
Several teachers complained that Ward failed to provide money, as agreed, to buy materials for the games.
Judi Levin denied that, saying Ward did chip in.
As usual, Frank Randa said he would investigate.
Randa looked like the year couldn’t come to an end fast enough. Asked about continuing unrest among the teachers, he said: “It’s growing every day. I wouldn’t be surprised if she is promoted,” meaning the district would find a way to gently move Ward to another job.
Several teachers were not waiting for that eventuality. Karen Warschaw, an English teacher, came into lunch the week before graduation with a big grin on her face, announcing that she was transferring to another school.
She said many teachers were not opposed to the philosophy, just the way it was being implemented. “It has to be the administration and teachers working together. And we’re not.”
Grace Hutchings, a winner of the Jaime Escalante math teacher award in 1991, had received an offer from three schools, but Ward had not yet authorized the transfer. Hutchings said Ward was hesitating because her departure would upset the ethnic balance of the faculty. Hutchings is Asian. “I’m ready to call the ACLU,” Hutchings said over lunch.
Laurice Harris had sent in her application to return to Indiana. “I like the weather here, and the people are wonderful,” she said. “The staff is one of the best I’ve ever seen.” But she was finally fed up.
Three teachers were retiring--Don Betts, the PE teacher; Bruce Faunce, the wood shop teacher; and Bill Kennedy, the science teacher.
On June 25, a dinner honoring them was held at the Airtel Plaza Hotel in Van Nuys. About 100 people gathered to pay their respects to three men with more than 100 years of service among them.
“With Bruce gone, I feel like the last of the Mohicans, a dinosaur on a sinking ship,” said Eichorn, the metal shop teacher, looking pinched in a shirt and tie.
He mentioned all the shop classes that had been closed over the years. With Faunce’s departure, the wood shop would be closed.
Betts, looking dapper in a tuxedo, was lightly roasted. His feats at the table were described. “He has the metabolism of a hummingbird and the appetite of a horse,” said a friend, adding that Betts could down a pot of chili at one sitting.
“This is a whole different world,” Betts said when he went to the podium, silencing the laughter. “It’s not like it used to be. When I started, if you got two tardies they counseled you with a paddle. Today, kids are tardy 30 to 40 times.”
His voice rose. “You have an awful battle ahead of you. I hope society finds it’s got to toughen up, because the easy way isn’t the way out.”
Ward was called to the podium to deliver some simple remarks, which she did with tight formality. The principal’s appearance was like a rock being dropped into oil, which disappeared quickly and left no ripples. Not one person in the audience clapped. Afterward, she returned to her seat at the back of the room.
Graduation--or culmination, as Ward preferred to call it to underscore her message to the students that finishing eighth grade should not be the end of their education--was on June 28.
The day arrived as warm and crisp as a fresh potato chip. The girls were in full, billowy dresses with ruffles. The boys wore suits and ties. Just weeks before they had seemed like children. They were still gangly, and some of the girls were unsteady on their heels. But already, they wore their bigger, almost-adult bodies more comfortably.
Rich Dunner had said earlier in the year that he was going to invite President Clinton to speak to the graduates. He thought he had a chance to get him because here was a school doing a good job educating minority kids. Look at the grades.
Clinton had not made it. But it was a time of celebration and everyone was upbeat. The auditorium was filled to bursting. Parents with video cameras crowded the aisles to take pictures of their children when their names were called and they went to get their diplomas.
“This is very nice,” said Sue Emerson, who teaches history, “but it’s sort of a shame. A lot of them aren’t going to make it.”
Asked how many would not make it through high school, she said, “A third.”
Beryl Ward took up the microphone after all the names were read. “I now announce that you are the graduates of 1993 of Northridge Middle School.”
Joe Boss cued the tape and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony filled the room.
Afterward, Dasha’s parents stood smiling on the lawn in front of school. With Ward’s help, Dasha had graduated on stage. Ward had asked the teachers to reconsider the U’s they planned to give her for bad behavior. People might argue over the message the principal’s intervention had sent, but the result was that Dasha was feeling better about the future. She predicted things would fall into place for her in high school.
Ward stood outside her office in the morning going-on-afternoon heat. She would be leaving shortly to spend a few days at her house in New Mexico, she said. But she had to be back to run summer school. Since the pay cut, she couldn’t afford to take the whole summer off.
Two school district police officers came up. They had been watching for trouble outside. Anything to report? Ward asked. Nothing out of the ordinary, they said. There were some kids trying to steal cars in the parking lot, but they ran them off.
Outside the front gate, near the teachers’ parking area, Ceasar Martinez and his girlfriend, Wally, cuddled under a tree. He played with her curly hair and buried his face in it. Neither participated in graduation, but it seemed they needed to be near it.
“I got five U’s,” said Wally, explaining her failure to graduate with her class.
Asked whether their relationship had messed up their report cards, Ceasar sniffed. “They said it was because we were together, but it’s not.”
Wally was moving to Burbank. She had been living with her father, but her mother had recently moved from Pennsylvania. But even after she leaves town, she said, she plans to go to Cleveland, where Ceasar would be going.
“You better or I will kill you,” Ceasar said possessively.
Flattered, Wally snuggled against him.
Both were bright, but neither seemed to think very seriously about what lay ahead. Were they given too much unearned self-esteem? Had they had such an easy ride in junior high that they had come to believe the world is a less demanding, more cuddly place than it really is? Maybe they figure that whatever happens they’ll squeak by somehow, because, after all, it’s worked so far.
Or did the fun they had in middle school, and the good feelings they developed about themselves, set them up to take off in high school?
Only the future would answer those questions. There was a time, midway through the year, when Assistant Principal Bob Coburn had considered such uncertainties during a soul-searching conversation in his tiny office.
“I don’t know if it’s going to work,” he said of the things they were doing at Northridge. “Maybe in 20 years they’ll say, ‘You screwed up that generation.’ ”
A new school year has begun. Six more schools converted to sixth- to eighth-grade middle schools, bringing the district total to 33.
Beryl Ward was still in charge at Northridge and Ronn Yablun was still on the faculty, teaching algebra. Eleven teachers, fully 20% of the staff, had left for other schools and educational programs, or retired. Joe Luskin, who tried to mediate the problems last year, and said he might make personnel changes to improve the atmosphere on campus, had finally decided not to do anything yet.
“We’re going to hope that things tend to work out better” this year, he said.