Tony Chahine, a senior at La Canada High School in La Canada Flintridge, was playing poker the other day in his honors English class.
Tony did not get straight A's at La Canada by playing cards in class. But, as Chahine explained, the last few months have been difficult for him. Like most of his classmates, he has a bad case of "senioritis."
"I worked hard to get the grades to go to UCLA," Tony said. "Now it's over, and I deserve a break."
Classmate Shawn Brown has the disorder, too.
"I've forgotten how to study," lamented Shawn, who will be going in the fall to California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. This semester, she said, her physics grade has slipped from an A to a D. "You breeze through things, and then you get your grade and you can't believe how low it is. And then you begin to worry."
Most of the 320 members of La Canada's Class of 1987--indeed, most high-school seniors everywhere--are counting the days until graduation.
At La Canada, commencement is June 18. Meanwhile, preoccupied with the prom and uncertainty about what life holds after high school, the seniors keep forgetting why they must concentrate on calculus and English composition.
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.
People who never before failed to study the night before a test now cram during lunch and the class before the test.
"I feel like it's a waste of time to go to class," said Karen Stoller, another straight A student at La Canada. "You figure: Why be here? Let's go to the beach!"
Karen, who will attend the University of California, San Diego, in the fall, still has a paper to do on the novel "Lord of the Flies" for her honors English class. "I don't know when I'm going to do it," she said. "I'm going water skiing this weekend and to the prom next weekend."
Although 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.
According to Eugene Vamos, the only senior at La Canada who will be going to prestigious Stanford University in the fall, senioritis is epidemic on campus. "In some of the honors classes," he said, "you know that 50% of the kids don't even open their backpacks."
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 High School in Palos Verdes Estates, 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."
Liz Beckenbach, who graduated earlier this month from Marlborough School in Hancock Park, said she, too, underwent a dramatic transformation. Before, she said, "I was such a geek. I turned everything in on time. I never ditched."
But 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. "Once I found out I was accepted, I came in the next day out of uniform!"
"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."
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.
Symptoms vary but most afflicted seniors say they would rather do almost anything than study, including sleep and watch soap operas. Seniors are given to nostalgic conversations about the distant days when they were freshmen and couldn't imagine ever being old enough to graduate. And the beach, always a disruptive factor in education locally, was never more alluring.
Apathy is endemic among second-semester seniors. As Marlborough's Kathy Durousseau succinctly put it: "It just doesn't matter."
Classmate 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.
Brooke Frewing, treasurer of the student body at La Canada, felt the same way. "The grades don't count," said Brooke, who has been accepted at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. "We're already into college."
But that's not strictly true, according to some school officials. Colleges occasionally rescind their acceptances of students who perform abominably during the second semester of their senior year.