"I'm not one of the more drastic cases," said Heather Spencer of the senioritis that is epidemic in her class at San Marino High School.
But Heather, who is secretary of the student body, finds herself behaving in ways she never did before as she and her classmates count the days until their June 19 graduation.
Last week, she had a chemistry test. Did she study for it the night before? She did not. Instead, she recalled, "I went to bed. I studied for it during lunch before the test."
Heather, who will be going to Brigham Young University in Utah in the fall, is not the sort of student who normally waits until the last moment and crams for tests. But like most of the 270 members of San Marino's Class of 1987--indeed, like high school seniors everywhere--she keeps forgetting why she should concentrate on chemistry and English composition.
Something is ending forever, something exciting is about to begin, and that seems more important than perfect attendance or spot quizzes or even term papers, all matters that formerly loomed large.
"Everybody has it," Tim Hall, a senior at Palos Verdes High School in Palos Verdes Estates, said of senioritis. "Everybody says, 'Don't study. I'm not going to study. Let's go to a movie.' "
Wednesdays are the worst at Palos Verdes: Admission to a nearby movie theater is only $2. And even when there is no film to tempt the eminently temptable seniors away from their studies, there are pickup games of baseball and basketball. The girls, Tim said, are lured by soap operas. At San Marino, Heather said, seniors would rather sleep than study.
While the term senioritis does not appear in textbooks, psychologists contacted by The Times described it 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 Southland school official pointed out, it is highly contagious: "It's as bad as seasickness," he said. And it is an annual trial for teachers and school administrators who find that their once diligent, even driven, students are suddenly as distractable as 3-year-olds.
Jim Kinney, director of student activities at Palos Verdes, said the condition is as predictable as graduation. "It starts the same time every year--the moment the colleges send their acceptances out in mid-April," he said. "You can almost set your watch by it. Then the weather gets nice. It's a deadly combination."
Asked to describe the syndrome, Kinney said: "It's like cruise control in a car. The kids put themselves on automatic pilot."
Liz Beckenbach, who graduated last 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 with a frog in her pocket. But that was before senioritis struck.
"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."
Senioritis was so widespread at Marlborough this year that the administration decided to hold graduation early, on May 20, instead of in June, as in the past.
The school's 70 seniors reported varied symptoms. Dena Crowder of Ladera Heights found herself going home at 10 in the morning more and more often (permitted by the school, if the senior's classes are over and her parents approve).
Many seniors said they cut class only to reconvene at Gelati Per Tutti, a popular ice cream parlor on Melrose Avenue.
Apathy was endemic among second-semester seniors. As Kathy Durousseau 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.
At San Marino, school officials try to keep seniors in line by telling them the cautionary tale of a recent graduate whose acceptance to a prestigious university was almost rescinded when her second-semester senior grades plummeted, said Charles Johnson, assistant principal for instruction. The high school received a copy of a letter sent to the student in which the university expressed doubts about her ability to meet its standards of performance. She cleaned up her act and did well at the university, Johnson said.