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Southern California's Young Faces : Cover Story

Fading Fantasies

The Fairy Houses Don't Beckon as They Once Did, for Joel Smith Is Moving Toward Reality.

April 22, 2001|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | Christopher Reynolds is a Times travel writer. He last wrote for the magazine about African safaris

What's it like to come of age in a place defined by outsiders and their cliches: surf, gang turf, Hollywood, Vine, the land of milk and honey? Do our children grow up too soon? Is Southern California the great springboard to a life of opportunity? On the following pages you'll find 17 children who are moving toward adulthood. Their stories are not the stuff of headlines or extremes: young criminals, star athletes, child movie stars. Rather, we went in search of "typical" kids. We talked to teachers, parents, tutors, coaches, counselors and school officials. Scores of names tumbled out. We then asked a dozen writers to spend time with these kids, and to try to find the small slice of each one that said something about their lives in Southern California. It is, we hope, a telling collage.

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Joel Smith, newly 9, stands astride two worlds. Turns out that's easy, if your inseam measures 22 inches.

One world contains fairies, talking animals and Santa Claus. The other contains facts and numbers and the sort of thinking it takes to put somebody's king in check. Keeping a foot in each realm is what Joel does, like attending Lowell Elementary School in Long Beach or sipping Ovaltine at bedtime or ducking violin practice.

Just watch him now, darting from room to room as his parents welcome a passel of dinner guests to their house. It's a Saturday night. The big people cluster in the living room, chattering about books and movies and tenure and guitar construction and the social damage being done by something called Eminem.

Joel is more interested in the imminent arrival of the pizza guy. He circles the living room, dodging belt buckles and back pockets, trailed by his 4-year-old sister, Claire, and their dog, Ginger. Then Joel leads you to a quiet corner and explains about the fairies and their world.

"Some of them have wings and some of them don't," Joel says. "And they live in England. And they're naked, some of them, like the queen. They live in trees, in mushrooms or underground. And some of them are mermaids."

With his father's help, Joel has built two fairy houses in the garage, the most recent of which features a gazebo made of pine nuts and a pool lined with foil. It's a three-story home, with stick ladders between floors that look like part of a miniature Pueblo cliff dwelling. Sometimes Joel leaves notes in it.

"What do you eat?" he asked in December.

"They answered 'roses and honeycombs' on a little paper in purple ink, like they used something from flowers," he says.

Since then, Joel's dad has explained to him that the fairies are out of town for the season. It's unclear if they'll return. In his last note, unanswered, Joel wrote:

"Dear Queen Mab, Long time no see. How was your birthday and what did you get? Love, Joel Smith. PS -- In life did children see fairies if did why I can't? "

Joel is a third-grader. He stands 3-feet-10 and weighs 51 pounds. He was born in the Philippines. When you ask where in the Philippines, he hesitates.

"It starts with an L," Joel says. "I forget, though, because there are more than 2,000 islands in the Philippines. But it's one of the biggest."

He approves of chili, fish sticks, scrambled eggs and quesadillas. He disdains cake and believes it unreasonable that he is limited to one hour of television on weeknights. Also, he's an athlete, a veteran of swimming and gymnastics classes. Strolling through the dining room, he may, for no reason, launch a great leap straight up and kick out both legs, like a pint-sized Cossack performing a saber dance.

Joel's father, Michael Smith, works for the IRS and writes books and poetry. His mother, Suzanne Greenberg, is a professor at Cal State Long Beach, specializing in creative writing. When they adopted Joel in December 1992, the orphanage in Manila passed along a collection of baby photos (beaming Joel in the arms of various beaming nurses) and a note that the boy came from "Marillac Hills, Alabang, metro Manila."

About five years later, his mom delivered Claire the old-fashioned way. And on Jan. 11 of this year, she delivered their little brother, Noah, which means, among other things, a new alignment of kids and bedrooms. Instead of sharing a room with Claire, Joel has been installed between the kitchen and the laundry room, in an exclusive, bathroom-adjacent domain of perhaps 70 square feet.

He sleeps on a high bunk bed with his clothes closet underneath, and he can gaze down upon his framed certificates from school, his bookshelves and toy shelves and new blue iMac computer. Santa brought that.

Joel's school is three blocks from the house. Next year, fourth grade, he gets to walk there on his own. For now, he is escorted by one of his parents every morning at 9. Except on Wednesdays . Wednesday is chess club.

Joel's dad introduced him to the game, and then his third-grade teacher, Mr. B, started the chess club last September. Every Wednesday at 8 a.m., 15 to 20 tiny combatants troop into Mr. B's classroom.

In late January they had their first school-wide tournament. First Joel beat another third-grader, then he dispatched a fourth-grader. Suddenly he was seated at the first table, confronting a fifth-grade boy who'd been campus chess champion for two years running. In that contest, Joel crashed and burned. But still . . . .

While the big people talk on in the living room, Joel sits down to a computer game of MacChess (set to the easiest level) and battles through 73 moves in eight minutes before being defeated. Next he takes on his 12-year-old friend Sean Mazzapica, whose parents are in the other room. In short order, Sean is in check.

Suddenly, Joel doesn't look or sound like a kid who corresponds with Queen Mab. He slaps his hands together like Minnesota Fats about to run the table. When Sean's not looking he points to the cluster of four squares in the center of the chessboard.

"You control the game," Joel whispers, "if you're in here."

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