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It’s One Rad Recess

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If life is a series of passages, this has to be one of the best: You forget about work, throw away all your daily obligations and take a nice, long weekend--say, 75 or 80 days. You catch late-night movies. You sleep late. You party, swim, hang out at the mall.

That is Danna Lopez’s plan. The very idea puts a grin on her face as wide and sparkling as a sunny beach--maybe Malibu Beach, where she’ll lie around, just soaking up the sun.

“I’m going to take some vacations and do whatever I want to,” Danna, 12, said at the Eastside’s El Sereno Middle School, where the end of classes today means the arrival of an American rite: summer vacation.

It is a quirky, anachronistic tradition, having a whole summer off with no school, nothing but time to fill. There are those who shake their heads. The beacons of erudition, those who see the world all in a glance, wonder what good is it? Why are all these young teenagers running amok at the Beverly Center, filling up movie theaters, crowding into arcades and fast-food joints the way college kids used to pack themselves into phone booths?

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“People are starting to rethink this,” said one such skeptic, Myron Dembo, a professor of educational psychology at USC. He frets about American children skateboarding through Muscle Beach while their counterparts overseas are bent over the Periodic Table, mastering new languages and factoring polynomials.

This whole notion of taking the summer off is an American creation, like the T-Bird and the surf wagon. There was reason to it back when society was more agrarian, when teens were needed during the summer to work the fields, Dembo said. Not so anymore, what with trade imbalances, the brain drain, idle hands leading to mischief, all that.

As Dembo asks very pointedly: “Can America afford this three-month hiatus . . . [when young people] do nothing and lay around and watch TV and get fat?”

But he is 53, and his own summers--"great times,” he remembers--are quite a while ago. A younger thinker, a person such as Ariell Ilunga, 13, is not likely to spend very long mulling over those deeper questions while she’s sleeping late, traveling, regrouping for a very hard year.

From her point of view, summer has arrived not a moment too soon.

“I’ve been ready for it since September. It’s time,” Ariell said while relaxing on the front steps of John Burroughs Junior High, an old, stately brick school in the Wilshire district, where she was about to become an eighth-grade graduate.

Ariell is another of the 430,000 Los Angeles Unified School District students--give or take a few--who begin their summer vacations today. The number represents about two-thirds of the district’s 649,000 pupils; the remainder attend schools that have gone to year-round schedules, mainly because of overcrowding.

Before enrolling this fall at University High School, Ariell plans to spend the summer as many youngsters do--traveling. Her itinerary includes Memphis and Indianapolis, where she will see relatives, including a 2-year-old cousin.

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This year wasn’t too bad, Ariell said. She worked hard. Her teachers were all right, except, well, “We just don’t get along. We think differently.” The stress showed on her face. “We don’t get along at all.”

Her friend, Kaiulena Prado, 13, had been keeping track of the days in a tiny black date book, waiting for school to end. Kaiulena’s aim is to hit the movies, the mall and, above all else, to party.

“Day and night parties, pool parties,” she said. “I need to get a boyfriend for the summer.”

For most students, the contrast between the school year and the summer is one of extraordinary extremes. School is about schedules, stress, high expectations, do’s and don’ts. Kaiulena rails at the dress code: “We can’t have nose rings,” she said. “We can’t have our belly buttons pierced. You can’t wear flip-flops to school. You can’t chew gum. If they see you chewing gum, you get detention.”

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Almost invariably, there is some teacher, or some subject, that is just about intolerable. Sometimes it is both; sometimes those unfavorable elements join up in clusters, like atoms in an unstable molecule.

For Alex Anguiano, 13, a Burroughs eighth-grader, the dreaded class was science: “Over and over, the same routine--chapter tests every Friday,” he said. “Rock formations, minerals, clouds, structures of clouds. . . .”

John Quintero, 12, of El Sereno, has a similar abhorrence of social studies--lectures about Mesopotamia, Greece, China. Oh, how they seemed to go on forever.

Deirdra Marmolejo, 11, lamented those old twin bugaboos, math and science. She will not miss agonizing over decimals, the times tables, the problems with the ozone layer. Nor will she miss the teacher, the short-haired blond, who kept yelling at her students to “Shut up!”

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“She says we’re a disgrace,” Deirdra said, further complaining that she had favorites: “The smartest kids in the class.”

That teacher--and every school seems to have one--was a nemesis of whole hordes of young scholars.

“We made her cry twice,” one girl boasted, causing 10 others to break out laughing.

At Van Nuys Middle School, there is a math teacher who fit the mold: She is known for confiscating wristbands and “friendship bracelets,” said Robert Recinos, 15.

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“If she doesn’t like it, she’ll take it,” he said. “She likes to pick on people. She’s the worst teacher in the school.”

Robert said it is a relief to get out of school, but it’s also sad. “All my friends are going to different high schools” next year, he said.

Friends part, go different ways. There are hugs and farewells, punctuated by classroom parties and hurried moments spent signing T-shirts and yearbooks. Phone numbers are exchanged. Favorite teachers fade into the past, along with the monsters.

Inevitably, the splashing chlorine of public swimming pools and the hot dust of the softball diamond gets mixed with dull moments, days that seem to drag on like a geometry lecture.

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El Sereno’s Mirna Hernandez, 13, is afraid she’ll be bored, stuck at home, nothing to do.

“I’m a hyper girl,” she said. If she isn’t at Montebello Mall, checking out the shoes, she hopes to be at Santa Monica Beach, checking out the guys. “I don’t go in the water,” she said. “I don’t like the water.”

David Campbell, 13, a seventh-grader at Audubon Middle School near the Crenshaw district, expects to take a monthlong trip to Mississippi, but aside from that he has no real plans, “nothing to do except clean the house,” he said.

Even so, that beats getting up at dawn, and it beats standing in line for cafeteria food.

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El Sereno’s Alicia Hernandez, 12, said she is fed up, in every way possible, with that cafeteria food.

“Oh, the hot dogs,” she said. “Oooooooh! And the corn dogs. . . .”


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