Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Extra Lazy Polacks

Everyone has a dark period in their lives, however short or long, that left a serious dent in their psyches. Mine happened in 1976, lasted only three months, and kicked my butt halfway through next week.

On March 21, 1976, my family moved from our small town in Pennsylvania to Southern California. We followed my dad, who had moved in January, cutting a dashing figure as he walked down the tarmac to his plane at Scranton-Avoca airport. "I won't be needing this," he'd said, handing his coat to my mother, and then striding, coatless, out into the snow.

Two months later we joined him. Thirty-one years later it's easy to forget what March in Southern California looks like to a bunch of East Coasters. We were floored, amazed to be swimming in March. There were palm trees, and when you drove past the Lemon Street off-ramp on the 91 freeway, it actually smelled like lemons. We were babes in toyland, absolute naifs who thought we should live in Long Beach because it had the word beach in its name.

One week later, settled into a tiny house in Anaheim, Noodles' Mom and I started at our new schools. And thus began the trauma we both still strive to overcome.

I'm not going to say that almost eleven years of life in Clarks Green, Pennsylvania (population 1,200) didn't prepare me for the realities of Riverdale Elementary School. All of that time running across open fields gave me enough stamina to outlast the gangs of kids who chased me home every day. But as I've said many times since, you show up in Orange County in 1976 and you're short, Jewish, wear glasses and have a big vocabulary, no amount of sports is going to save you.

It took a few days before anyone decided to call me "Fairy." By then, I'd already earned the ire of the class bully, Ernest. I'm not sure why. It could be any of the quirks outlined above, or it could be that, in my quest to be cool, I'd told someone that I wasn't afraid of Ernest. I was lying.

Weirdly, by the time Ernest finally jumped me and kicked my butt, I was no longer afraid of him. I'll never forget him on top of me, in the field during P.E., screaming "YOU PUD!" and me underneath him, not even blocking the blows, calmly saying, "A pud is a cigarette," as he flailed away.

They pulled him off me after awhile. He was crying hysterically, so the teacher comforted him, which I knew, even then, sucked. Nobody checked out to see how the freaky new kid was doing. They just called me "Fairy," then went off to do their own thing. I went back to the tetherball post, where I spent every recess of every day.

One week I took a test to see if I could go to this other school, with all the other freaky braino kids. I must have passed, because the following Monday, I was gone.

I liked that. Never even cleared out my desk. Just took off on a Friday, ran home so nobody would beat me up, and didn't show up on Monday. I hope they made Ernest clean up my stuff, and I hope it was full of things he found confusing and threatening.

Not that I'm bitter.

The following week, I began at La Veta Elementary where, mixed among the "regular" kids were two classes of "ELPs." Ask me what "ELP" stood for; I can't tell you. Everyone said it stood for "Extra Lazy Polacks." I liked to think it stood for "Electrically Powered," so I repeated this phrase to myself sometimes, quietly:
Electrically Powered.

La Veta Elementary School saved Southern California for me. Noodles' Mom didn't have a La Veta Elementary School, so she had to grind it out at hideous places like Vista Junior High. Nobody stepped in, and she hates Orange County to this day.

At La Veta I found two whole classrooms full of weird, smart kids, some of whom wore glasses and bought their pants at Sears. Some of us (after plenty of hard work) managed to at least look "regular," and some even mixed well with the "regulars." I wasn't one of them, sadly.

Thirty years later, I'm not sure that the "ELP" or "MGM" ("Mentally Gifted Minor" -- AKA "Mentally Gifted Moron") program did much to meet the needs of its unusual customers. For many years, I ran around saying that I never should have gone to La Veta, that if I'd stayed at the neighborhood school -- once we'd moved to a new neighborhood -- I would have gotten to junior high with a leg up. I encouraged Bud and/or Marsi to avoid La Veta at all costs. "Don't be branded a freak," I said, which she would prove over time to be a very ironic statement, indeed.

And of course, modern education theory rejects the entire concept of taking smart kids and separating them from everyone else. They call it "tracking," and it's considered only slightly less evil than racial segregation.

To a point, I agree. For kids in the middle, tracking sucks. For kids at the bottom, it's even worse. But for all the kids carrying around these huge brains and not knowing what to do with them, tracking at least puts them in the same place, pays some attention to them, and doesn't force them to spent 2/3 of their class time drawing war scenes on the back of their homework or feeling weird because they finished the quiz twenty minutes before everyone else. Thirty years later, I'm pretty sure that "gifted" kids are also "special needs" kids. The middle serves them no better than it serves special ed kids.

Let me step off my soapbox for a moment and go back to 1976. Two days ago I got an email from a guy I haven't seen in almost 25 years. I went to high school with him, but didn't really know him after sophomore year, because by then he'd been completely swallowed up by the punk rock world. One day he was sitting in the back of Mr. Lindskoog's class with long hair and a fleece-lined jacket; the next day he had a reverse mohawk. The last time I saw him, he was driving down Chapman Avenue in some old car. He had a mohawk and a tattoo on the side of his head. I am told that he hung out in the same frightening circles as Bud and/or Marsi.

He was a La Veta guy, though, and I remembered him from there as a skinny guy with blonde hair who had a rugby shirt that was identical to mine, and who occasionally presented outrageously controversial ideas as facts. Apparently, we played draydel with Dave K. Little kids.

And now he is a special ed. teacher which, given what I wrote above about "special needs," makes a certain kind of sense. He lives in Minnesota, has two kids, and sent a picture of himself -- a 40-ish guy with a goatee, holding a toddler, wearing a baseball cap and a polar fleece jacket.

Here's the funny thing: I have a good memory, and I'll bet that probably 65% of the people I knew in high school could email me and I'd instantly know who they were. Forget if they were friends of mine or not; I'd at least know them.

But there is a strange bond that I feel with the weirdos from La Veta Elementary School. Not you "regulars," only us Extra Lazy Polacks. In junior high school and high school, the ELPers dispersed, as anyone would. We would occasionally cross paths, giving each other an unseen nod or internal wink, a sort of, "Hey there, I see you pretending to be normal, and I get it, and it's okay with me, bub."

So a belated "thanks" to the small crew of La Veta alums who went to El Modena High School, class of 1983, and to the rest of the freaks who got together at Kim Senft's house that same year for a La Veta reunion. Welcome to the show, Mr. Former Punk, and Lisa Mac, if you're out there, call me.


Anonymous Noodles' Mom said...

I know of one almost 11 year old boy who could deperately use a La Veta,--and his crazy mother who has NO recollection of March 1976 through Sep 1980.

7:10 PM  
Blogger Bud and/or Marsi said...

riverdale was also the name a my elementary school in memphis. it was one of the 5 i attended. all in different states.

10:01 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

I believe that ELP stood for Extended Learner Program.

6:45 AM  
Blogger Syl said...

By the time I got there it was MGM and the next year turned to GATE. My GATE cronies are still some of my best friends to this day. I feel really fortunate that I had this pretty large group of freaks to hang out with in high school. We were such a large group that we were mostly left alone. I would imagine we were a parents dream as we didn't drink, smoke, do drugs or have sex. However, we thought we were normal and we didn't grow up too fast. It can be a good experience.

5:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

being that special ed teacher, gifted and talented kids are consider special ed...different kind of needs, but we still have them.

4:45 PM  
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