Members of Marshall High School's championship-winning Academic Decathalon Team have a problem that some other people may find hard to believe: the brainy team's school grades have slid.
Months of cramming their heads with the facts and forms of hydrogen bonding, Renaissance painting, quadratic equations and Shakespearean sonnets enabled Marshall to beat 52 other schools and capture the crown of the Los Angeles Unified School district's annual competition for the second year in a row.
That meant letting other things go while they spent nights and weekends gobbling down Constitutional law and astronomy along with pizza and pickles.
For example, for A-student Silva Varbinian, a B is usually as rare as one of the solar eclipses she studied on the decathalon team. Yet the 17-year-old senior recently received a C in physics, the first C in her life other than in gym, she said.
And as for social life, television, and traditional teen-age loafing? "The words social life and academic decathalon are antonyms. So, you've got to be a little bit crazy to do this," explained senior Ethan McKinney, the unofficial captain of the high-spirited team and its highest individual scorer. He placed third citywide.
"I used to take a peek at 'Dynasty' and 'The Colbys.' But the last time I turned on the TV was months ago," said teammate Susie Kim, also a senior.
But all 12 team members say the trade-off was worthwhile. Their scores, announced last week, earned them more than 40 medals in different categories and lots of cheers. It also garnered them a spot in the state-wide decathalon in mid-March for which they will soon start preparing after a breather to bring up their other grades.
"We've got a momentum going. We're on a roll now," Matthew Elstein, a talkative 16-year-old senior said of the team's chances in the state test.
Coach David Tokofsky--"Mr. T," as the students affectionately call him--is especially optimistic because Marshall scored 4,757 points out of a possible 6,000 during a daylong marathon of tests, speeches and interviews on Nov. 15. Beverly Hills High, which won the state title for the last four years and is considered a top contender again, garnered the equivalent of 4,142 points in its victory in a separate and different county competition.
Marshall's score is an extra source of pride because the school, located on Tracy Street near Griffith Park, draws students from middle-class and poor areas of Silver Lake and Hollywood with large populations of Latino and Asian immigrants as well as from affluent Los Feliz.
Marshall's win last year broke a four-year city domination by well-to-do Palisades High School. Beverly Hills and another state rival, Palo Alto High, have wealthy student bodies and lush facilities.
"These kids are not from rich homes," Tokofsky said. "But almost all are from families, not surprisingly, with a strong emphasis on reading."
A bearded 26-year-old who wears jeans, work shirts and sneakers to school, Tokofsky is not an overbearing disciplinarian, students say. If anything, they say, he prods them along with joshing and painful puns.
"My feeling is that with these kind of kids, you just let them go. You just give them a little structure and channel their energies. Their spirit of learning is just incredible," said Tokofsky who became the teacher of the daily Academic Decathalon class this year after the previous coach, Mary Sortino, took maternity leave. He receives an extra $1,000 for the duty but says he has already spent that on books and snacks for his students who, in turn, rewarded him last week with a video-cassette recorder as a gift.
Team headquarters is Room 526, on the second floor of a prefab satellite building on campus. There, from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m., Tokofsky leads a five-credit class that can seem chaotic to an outsider but has the determination of planning a second invasion of Normandy. The students break up into small groups for reading. They scribble facts on the board and shout out responses.
On the walls are pictures of American presidents and Mohandas Gandhi. Boxes on the floor are filled with photocopies of the poetry of T. S. Eliot and chemical equations. In closets, volumes of the World Book Encyclopedia--which helps sponsor the decathalon--are stuffed with bookmarks and notes. For example, the volume for the letter P is tagged at the entries for paintings, papal states, paraffin, and pH factor.
Not Nerdish Bookworms
The team is a collection of articulate youngsters who, on the whole, belie any image of nerdish bookworms. A few are athletes. A few never seem to stop talking.
There are eight boys and four girls, although only one girl was among the six students in the first string of competition; the other six teammates are alternates whose scores don't count. They are a mixture of whites, Armenians, Latinos and Asians.