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Senioritis Strikes : High School Students' Ennui Called Contagious, Not Fatal

May 17, 1987|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

Liz Beckenbach, who will graduate this week from Marlborough School in Hancock Park, remembers what she was like before she came down with senioritis.

"I was such a geek," she said. "I turned everything in on time. I never ditched."

On Dec. 13, she found out she had been accepted at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, the college of her choice, and a new Liz emerged.

"It happened overnight. Once I found out I was accepted, I came in the next day out of uniform!"

The old Liz would no more have come to school out of uniform than without having her French homework done--or with a frog in her pocket.

Mystery Student

But that was last semester. This semester, she said: "My French teacher doesn't know my name. Oh, she knows who I am, but she doesn't speak to me."

Like most of Marlborough's Class of 1987--indeed, like seniors everywhere--Liz keeps forgetting why she should concentrate on her schoolwork. Something is ending forever, something unimaginably exciting is about to begin, and that seems infinitely more important than perfect attendance or spot quizzes or even term papers, all matters that formerly loomed large.

The common name for Liz's condition is senioritis. While the term does not appear in textbooks, psychologists contacted by The Times described senioritis as a normal but often anxiety-ridden stage that teen-agers pass through on their way to adult autonomy.

Senioritis is rarely fatal, but, as one Marlborough senior pointed out, it is highly contagious. And it is an annual trial for teachers and school officials who find that their once-diligent, even driven students are suddenly as distractable as 3-year-olds.

"Let's face it," said Lu B. Wenneker, college counselor at the private girls school. "Once they've got their college applications out of the way, it's treading water. Most schools spend a great deal of time finding things to keep seniors interested and in school."

Early Graduation

Senioritis is so widespread at Marlborough that the administration decided to hold graduation early this year, on May 20, instead of in June, as in the past.

The school's 70 seniors report varied symptoms. Dena Crowder of Ladera Heights found herself going home at 10 in the morning more and more often (which is permitted by the school, if the senior's classes are over and her parents approve).

Suzan Pruter said she began making her plans for the next weekend on Monday morning.

Many seniors said they cut class only to reconvene at Gelati Per Tutti, a popular ice cream parlor on Melrose Avenue.

Hilarye Johnson stopped going to physics class. She did not like physics first semester either, but she went, because she knew the Ivy League colleges to which she had applied would look askance on her cutting class.

Endemic Apathy

Apathy is endemic among second-semester seniors. As Kathy Durousseau succinctly put it: "It just doesn't matter."

Sara Golding, who lives in Los Feliz, was more specific. "Colleges will never see our second-semester grades," said Sara, who has been accepted at Yale.

(That's not strictly true, according to Wenneker. Colleges occasionally rescind their acceptances of students who perform abominably during the second semester of their senior year, but not often.)

What does suddenly matter to the seniors are their friends and even those other students they did not really get to know and will probably never see again after graduation.

"There is nothing left but friendship," Kathy said.

"I hate the school more than I ever did, but I love the people," another senior observed.

Surprising Sisterhood

The intense feeling of sisterhood among the Marlborough seniors comes as a surprise to some. It is an extremely competitive institution, where most students are aware that they are scrambling for a handful of places at Ivy League and other highly selective colleges and universities.

However, as Lori Matloff said: "The competition between us is gone, and we care about each other. I couldn't be happier about some of the things that have happened to people if they had happened to me."

Ambivalence is another common characteristic of seniors. As Lori noted, "You're torn because you want to get out of school, but your friends are here."

This feeling of being divided is common among seniors, according to psychologists.

Herbert J. Freudenberger, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst who treats many adolescents in New York City, describes the senior year of high school as a time fraught with anxiety, not unlike that faced by people on the verge of retirement.

Substance Abuse

"Sometimes kids begin using more dope and alcohol as a way of not facing the anxieties and stresses and pressures they're going to face by going out in the world," Freudenberger said.

In Freudenberger's view, a major concern for seniors is that their world will no longer be highly structured.

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