Saturday, June 20, 2009

Passing Generations

The high school was designed in the customary sprawling fashion as befits Southern California. Instead of a central building with multiple floors, the layout was single storied and extended lengthwise for half a mile, from the science rooms at the top, down to the pool, tennis courts and football field. The design vaguely resembled a large cross, at the tip of each point of the cross were “quads.” A quad was a conjuration of classrooms in the shape of a square donut. Along the sides of each quad were rows of maroon lockers and in the center, where the donut hole would be, was open space, usually dying grass.
The school had central point, it was called “central quad.” It was a park-like space, with various wooden benches and short cement walls used as seats. There were a couple of picnic benches, areas of lawn with mature trees and islands of shrubby bushes that produced clusters of red, orange and yellow flowers. Through the large space, like a sparse spider web, were cement paths that led to each quad.
During lunch, and in the seven minutes allowed between classes, students would congregate in the central quad and in other spots on the campus. Like self-segregating animals claiming territory, clicks of teenagers remained loyal to a designated space and returned to the same spot every lunch, day after day, and year after year.
The popular kids, otherwise known as the “soces” (derived from the word “social”), congregated a couple of steps away from the administration building. They sat on the short cinderblock horseshoe/bench that was uncovered by the eaves that stopped just short of them. There were white and purple irises on either side of the horseshoe and pots with flowers that hung from the eves behind them. The soces tended to be rich, white and blond. They played soccer and football and many of the girls were cheerleaders. They were the all-American standard, their pictures could be cut from magazines.
The smart kids, many of whom wore glasses (also known as the nerds) sat on the lawn in front of the school, a couple steps away from Indian Hill Blvd. The Latino kids sat by the vending machines, on the large cement stairs that separated the upper quads from the lower quads. The punks, and there were only a handful of them, sat on the maroon bench close to the library.
Then there was “the block,” a maroon-painted cement block in the center of the lawn, in the exact spot where if imagined, the lines of the large school-cross would meet. This is where the “alternative kids” sat, the ones who bought vinyl records, listened to college radio and dressed themselves in thrift store clothes, and judging by image, tended to be more artistically inclined. When I arrived in the high school as a freshmen, “the block” was occupied by mostly seniors and juniors, although there were a couple of sophomores and one freshman, Sid, who had been accepted into their ranks.
As freshmen, we were very similar to the alternative kids on “the block,” only we were a little more radical and had no male counterparts. We were a dozen mostly short-haired girls that dressed in old clothes, hung out at the record store and had hard feminist leanings and authority issues. We were called lesbians and man-haters, although almost everyone had a boyfriend from time-to-time. Although some of the girls were friends with the older kids on “the block” and many of us dated, we kept to ourselves and sat at the horseshoe between the trees, a cement configuration of benches that looked like two parentheses facing each other. We sat there during lunch and I often watched the people at “the block”, I watched how they interacted, what they wore…I watched Jean and Mimi, the couple who kissed. I watched Leandra and her big jiggling breasts beneath her ironic thrift store T-shirt, Winslow and his old man clothes and slouchy posture.
By the time we were juniors, the bulk of them had graduated and we, next in line to the alternative throne, migrated to the red cement block, claiming it as our own. This was the block of countless alternative generations. Just as new Latinos entered high school and stood on the stairs, just as freshman football players began to stand at the soc horseshoe, we took our inherited spot in the central quad. We sat there for two years, each new year bringing new, younger additions. They would be the generation to replace us, the kids who would, by merely standing at “the block”, show the incoming freshmen where the alternatives would stand.
A couple years after our graduation, the school removed the block from the central quad. But alternative kids still stand there today. Even though the actual physical block is gone, “the block” is still there.
Year after year, the same kinds of people stand in the same places. It’s a legacy that is passed through shared visual cues, shared heritage, social status, music and dress. It’s passed on by the way we identify ourselves and others. Are we in this group, or that?
Like parents teaching their children the ritual of Christmas or Hanukah, we’re not exactly sure why we put lights up, not really sure about the origin of the potato pancake, but we eat it anyway. The grandparents before us did it, we do it, and the kids will end up teaching it to the next generation. It’s not quite the biological impulse to reproduce and eat, but it’s the human impulse to gather with those like you, to stand next to your clone and reinforce the same shared ideas. It is the impulse for a legacy, a lineage. The danger is the dilution of the original purpose and meaning. Why do we do what we do? Why do I desire marriage? Why do I eat cheese and not cats? Why do I stand by the maroon block?

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