Year-Round School

Around February of 1981 there were some weird rumors flying around LeConte Junior High School.  The rumors had one idea in common; that the LA Unified School District (LAUSD) was doing something with the school schedule.  Stories ranged from the optimists’ “They’re adding onto summer vacation!” to the pessimists’ “They’re getting rid of summer; we’ll have to be here all year!”  Since this was Hollywood of the early Eighties, even among the 7th, 8th and 9th Graders, the pessimists easily outnumbered the optimists, probably about 10 to 1.

The kids were pessimists, crime was bad everywhere, some of us were getting bussed in from Watts and Santa Monica.  Students had formed little proto-gangs based on ethnic or neighborhood affiliation.  School was just a place we had to be until we could go to Rock City Arcade or go see a movie out on the Boulevard.

We’d just emerged from the 70’s, and though we were too young to disco, we’d all seen the graffiti on Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards that said “DISCO SUCKS.”  It was written everywhere; so many places it seemed like an official announcement.  And we were glad; we were into the fret hammering sounds of Van Halen anyway.  We had a corny old man as President, it seemed like he was on TV all the time.  Who cared if he used to be an actor and was from Hollywood?

One thing we all suspected was that the LA County school system was pretty much broke.  We knew that our school was overcrowded when they built a few temporary buildings to add classrooms out on the south side of the school by La Mirada Avenue.  If we were overcrowded, maybe it was that way all over LA.  Also, we had a daily breakfast session that lasted 15 minutes, called “Nutrition” that probably, anytime it was referred to, should have had quotation marks around it.  Everybody went at the same time and it was a mad scrum to the outdoor cafeteria areas to grab a piece of toast with melted cheese on it and sometimes and apple or a banana.  I don’t know how we ever got anything in that time crunch, it was like that Who concert stampede the previous year, but played out on a smaller scale every day and with little kids.

For lunch we had a little more time and a little more food, though (and this was notorious at the time) the little catsup packets they gave us were classified as a serving of vegetables.  Watching the channel 5 news one day I heard the state of California had then Governor Reagan to thank for that.  I attributed it to the bullshit Reaganomics I’d been hearing about on the news.  Anyway, with the overcrowding and the food we all knew the District must be pretty broke.

Finally they scheduled a series of assemblies in the theater where Mr. Crumb normally would be teaching Method Acting to baffled 8th Graders (like me) in Drama class.  We sat down in apprehension of the news, glancing at each other and guessing.  The Principal was there with a chart with four colors on it and a bunch of nonsense-schedule writing.  The colors on that chart were red, blue, yellow and green.  Those colors would become very important to us over the next year.

They called it “Year-Round School” and basically it went like this; they were going to split up the student body into four sections and give each section a different schedule.  Some would have the spring off and go to school in the summer, some would get half a summer and half the winter off, etc.  The idea was that with overcrowding only ¾ of the students would be there at the time.  I didn’t know, it sounded like bullshit Reaganomics to me.  I assumed they were doing this all over LA but I found out years later LeConte was one of 24 pilot schools in the LAUSD to try this for the ’81-’82 year.  Yay.  I also assumed my friends and I would end up on the same track, well probably, but that turned out to be different too.  I didn’t think about how the odds were really against that.

During the next couple of weeks we all received official notifications about our track assignments in the mail.  We then spent the remainder of the school year sharing the info, generalizing, judging and strategizing.

My notice informed me I was on the Yellow Track.  The worst.  It was the worst because I had immediately lost half of my summer vacation.  I would leave the 8th Grade normally and then be back for the 9th by even before my birthday in early August.  The last few days of July I would be in school.  Also, all of my friends were on different tracks, even my sister was on the Green Track.  Enrique was on the Red, Rory on the Blue, it went on and on.  Breaking it down, it seemed like the majority of the painters pants wearing Tree People (as we had designated the cool kids that hung around the lone courtyard tree) had ended up on the Blue Track.

We tried to make sense of it by demographically slicing and dicing.  Were all the cool kids on the Blue Track?  What did that make me?  We noticed a lot of the Korean kids were on the Yellow Track; did that mean they were dividing kids up by ethnicity?  One of Enrique’s brothers was with him on the Red Track, but why not my sister?  What did it all mean?  Was it by some proficiency in math or English?   We decided they were just making shit up as they went along, that they didn’t even know.

My first day in the 9th Grade was weird.  LA kids don’t have to worry too much about seasonal changes, they never have to shovel snow-clotted driveways, for instance.  Because of this they say the Southland doesn’t have seasons, it’s not true, but it’s subtle, and you have to pay attention.  Six weeks after leaving the 8th Grade I strolled into LeConte, half expecting it to be still locked for the summer.  It wasn’t.  The day was a little warmer and the shadows cast everywhere were in odd places.  I had never seen the light the way it was there; I’m sure my fellow Yellow Trackers (the Green Track accompanied us on that truncated summer) felt the same way.

During the 8th Grade I had figured this whole California thing out, my bully had been expelled (for other offenses); I had a good vibe going with several friends.  I had stopped feeling so out of place; and now this.  I worried that I’d have to start all over again.

And anyway, during the year it never really seemed less crowded; it just seemed like all my friends were sometimes gone.  It was like there was a really bad flu going around and all these kids were at home sick.  I’d call Enrique or Rory when they were on break and catch them up on things.  We all had overlapped schedules sometimes and it was great to see my friends, though we were never together all at once.

If being at school on the Track System was weird, being off was even worse.  Instead of 2 weeks off for Christmas, the Yellow Track was assigned 6 weeks off.  The Super Bowl happened and I had nobody to brag to about how great the Bengals were (which in this case was good because they lost to San Francisco 26-21 in Detroit).  I had nobody to hang out with because everybody was at LeConte; so sometimes I just went to the magazine stand on Cahuenga or schlepped up and down both Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards.  But mostly I stayed home and watched “The Young and the Restless,”  “As the World Turns” and “Guiding Light.”

But all in all, not much changed, I rolled with it, adapted, and got used to the schedule pretty easily.  It was the other things that year that threw me, we moved from our cozy apartment in the Lido to a motel on Hollywood Boulevard.  Then right after the Super Bowl we moved in the Villa Elaine on Vine St.  It was still good, I knew change was only a temporary condition, I could get used to it because it wouldn’t last forever, and I would soon be moving up to a normal school, to Hollywood High.

Months later, ensconced in my freshman year at Miami Beach Sr. High School in, well, South Florida, I longed again for the naïve days of waiting for change to end.  In that short span of retrospective introspection, even the track system at LeConte didn’t seem so bad.

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