The Bell Curve: Mistakes on the field, and in schools

Two socially important things happen every year in late September: The baseball season ends for teams that don't make the playoffs and back-to-school nights inevitably take place.

In the first instance, the players representing our home team, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, have been sleepwalking ever since they hosted the All-Star game in mid-July.

They've been wandering off base without a compass. Failing to keep track of the outs. Throwing to the wrong base.

But most of all, leaving hosts of base runners stranded in scoring position. Faced with such a sad galaxy, about my only good baseball news is that I won't get tapped for playoff tickets, thereby saving enough money for a down payment on a house — or maybe just a car.

Admittedly, we're badly spoiled. Since 2002, the Angels have reached the post-season six times, coming off once with World Series rings. So we don't know how to behave when faced with this year's early collapse. That's why season ticket holders — like my daughter, Patt, and myself — find lots of empty seats and strange faces surrounding us when there is no ring to be had.

Over a six-month baseball season, we get accustomed to the peculiarities of our neighbors. There is the expert behind us who explains every play, mostly incorrectly, to his female companion. And the loud mouth carrying on a conversation that has nothing to do with baseball. And the young mother who tells her 5-year-old in a tone that's too gentle to be effective to stop kicking the back of my seat. And the guy in the middle of the row who climbs over us a half-dozen times during the game either to go to the men's room or to get another beer, or both.

But mostly our neighbors are baseball savvy, and the talk — if any — has to do with what is taking place on the field. And when your team is out of the running, those meaningless games serve mostly as reminders that the curtain is about to fall locally, and it will be four months before the first stirrings of spring training that denote a new season, both of baseball and life, itself.

And if that sounds pompous, you shouldn't be reading this.

Which takes us, illogically enough, to back-to-school night. When I took a seat in the last classroom of my last back-to-school night career — this one for my youngest daughter, Debby, who graduated from Corona del Mar High school in 1969 — I figured I had attended 36 such evenings. The toughest was the last one. Not because I had reached a saturation point but because it marked a passage of time that seemed to be accelerated each year. And while the empty nest was beckoning, Debby — although she firmly denies it — gave me an out without guilt that would have shattered my perfect back-to-school-night attendance record had I accepted it.

"Dad," she said, "it's all right with me if you don't go tonight. It'll just be boring, anyway. No hurt feelings."

Translated freely this meant "Couldn't you pass up the questions you usually ask so we can all get out of there early?"

And I couldn't just fade away. I had to guard the academic gates one more time.

To understand that, you need to understand the political atmosphere. All three of my kids graduated from public high schools in Newport-Mesa at a time when the communist witch hunts of the John Birch Society were spreading its poison through candidates in school board elections, whose goal was to win a majority of right-wing thinkers and politicize a school system.

I don't remember what books were being burned by the Birchers in Orange County the year I attended my last back- to-school-night. It may well have been "The Dictionary of American Slang" caper, which was immortalized in Esquire magazine among others and gave us our 15 minutes of fame.

This dictionary was a fat volume of American slang words and phrases. It had a kind of dusty dignity about it that commanded respect. That is it did until a Corona del Mar parent discovered that it also contained dirty words.

Once that discovery was passed around, the porn police were off and running and the battle was joined to rid our schools of this "filth." The high point in this action came about when several ladies' groups combed the pages of the dictionary for scattered dirty words. And the crowning absurdity was printing hundreds of fliers containing the neatly assembled collections that made it possible for eager students — the few who didn't already know these words — to acquire them without going through the labor of digging them out.

So some 40 years later, baseball is still winding down while our schools crank up. And the Birchers are in public office serving tea.

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