Bearing Witness to a Great Grad Night

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Forty-four thousand dollars was enough to send the 330 graduating high school seniors to a community college for a semester. Instead, they partied for eight hours.

And I--a parent of one of the revelers--was with them, locked inside a renovated Masonic Temple in Fullerton with no more authority over them than their former principal or the party psychic who was doling out suspiciously upbeat predictions.

The newly minted graduates were geysers ready to blow off 12 years of test-taking and tardy bells, and the only power I had was the off switch to a videotaping karaoke machine. Fortunately, their energies were well directed and I passed the night unscathed, except for a worn groove in my head from hearing "Lady Marmalade" a million times too often.

Welcome to Grad Night, a Frappuccino-fueled frenzy wild enough to engage weary 18-year-olds, yet sanitized enough to give their parents peace of mind on a night ripe for tragedy. These all-night blowouts have become standard closers for graduation day in Southern California and elsewhere. Many are big-ticket affairs that parents have spent months planning and making happen.

With a sigh of relief, parents let go of their ready-to-be-rowdy kids--in this case at a spot where buses can whisk them to a location kept secret to prevent party crashers and substance stashers from getting there first. The idea is that Grad Night provides enough wall-to-wall distractions that young minds can't stray toward drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and significant others who aren't members of the class.

I'm not a member of the Foothill High School Class of 2001, but I am here anyway, witness to the rock climbing, bungee-jumping, laser tag and a casino where blackjack, poker, craps and roulette winners cash it all in for a chance to win a Compac laptop, Palm Pilot and a dorm-sized fridge. There is a DJ, hypnotist, cartoonist, palm reader and three temporary tattoo artists.

Food tables are loaded with potato skins, tacos, burritos and pizza. A barbecue on the third-floor deck is used to grill hamburgers and veggie burgers. Chocolate-covered strawberries, chocolate chip-covered brownies and chocolate chip cookies provided a sugar intake sensible for ... a hummingbird.

At 4:30 a.m., a fresh delivery of muffins and doughnuts rolls in.

And there is more at this marathon party.

Starbucks brings in baristas to blend up 400 Frappuccinos.

Caffeine. It's just what high-strung high schoolers didn't need. But they guzzle it anyway, amping up their wrestling moves performed in over-inflated sumo suits.

By all rights, I shouldn't be at this event reserved for those who recently endured hard-to-swallow cafeteria food and motivational morning assemblies. But I am--as a chaperon. I have not been the most active of parents over the last four years, but I have an excuse: my son, Eric, attended a private elementary school that was run by sweet sisters who, over the years, sucked the spirit of giving out of me in an effort to build a state-of-the-art gym. But when one of the grad night organizers called me with this reassuring statement, "Janet, we're desperate," I couldn't say no.

I was also surprised to learn that Eric didn't object to spending his first free post-high school hours with his mom. Then I remembered: Eric and his classmates aren't as angst-filled and scary as my generation was as teenagers.

These diplomatic diploma-ites seem to like their parents, whereas my group nurtured a theory that those who claimed to have given birth to us were aliens that NASA--during its televised space exploration in the '60s and '70s--was trying to find a way to send back home. For us, spending grad night with our parents was as unthinkable as dating an eighth grader or a member of the accordion club.

I've always wondered: Do kids today like their parents because we're cooler than our parents and we know better than to scream "Turn that music down!" when our eardrums are taking a pounding in Tilly's? Because we've outfitted their bedrooms like a Circuit City to make up for the fact that our "entertainment center" was a transistor radio we hid under the mattress from our pesky brothers and sisters? Because we remember how our parents humiliated us and we vowed to never wear dorky clothes or speak in lame cliches around our children's friends?

No, it's not us.

It's them. This is a generation raised on self-esteem classes and tolerance training. They simply don't see us as an invading enemy. And, besides, they just want to have fun.

(It's no coincidence that Cyndi Lauper's anthem was sung by girls and guys--dressed in shell bras and straw skirts, no less--at the rock video station I was manning.)

Another difference between the generations: On grad night, we brought our status symbols with us--arriving in the family's station wagon that chugged along with 300,000 miles on it and lugging a bottle of Lancers from exotic Portugal. Their stuff--cell phones, Kate Spade bags, Mustang convertibles--is left behind before they board the bus in an orderly fashion at 10 p.m. They didn't need anything for their party except insomnia.

The similarity between our generations?

Both spent grad night knowing that Our Class would never be assembled to such a force again, that many of our friendships would splinter by fall and yet this would be the night that taught us there's a great way to end a chapter.

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