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Southern California's Young Faces : Cover Story

'Til I Drop

Nine Stores in One Hour. At the Mall, That's Child's Play for Myriah Harris.

April 22, 2001|DUKE HELFAND | Duke Helfand is a Times education writer

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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She races into the mall and bops down the escalator with a cherry lollipop in her mouth. She's carrying a little plastic purse with a picture of a kitty on the side. Myriah Harris loves this place--the Sherman Oaks Fashion Square--and she's got serious business to conduct.

She skips into a store called Pajama Party and hugs a stuffed elephant named Lola. She dashes into The Disney Store and spies a giant pile of Winnie the Pooh bears. She heads for a boutique called Claire's and grabs a glittering tiara that makes her look like Cinderella--in pink tank top and shorts.

If a world record existed for speed shopping, 10-year-old Myriah would hold it. She has just hopscotched her way through nine stores in 60 minutes. "My most favorite place is the mall because I can shop 'til I drop."

Lately, Myriah hasn't been doing much shopping. She had to leave behind her life in the Valley a few months ago. Business has been slow for Myriah's mother, Heather Bennett, a consultant to a real estate investment company. In January, mother and daughter left the two-bedroom apartment they had shared in Valley Village for five years and moved in with a friend near Los Angeles International Airport.

Myriah hasn't liked the change. It's far away and she doesn't know any kids. "I'm just not used to it." She has missed the Winnie the Pooh stickers on her old bedroom wall, her dresser that's packed away in storage, the bike rides with her mom at the park, the walks through the leafy streets of Valley Village, the sushi bar where they used to eat a couple times a month. Most of all, she has missed the mall. So has her mom.

"We lived in the mall," Bennett says. "That's why we were in an apartment for so long, 'cause I couldn't save anything. We definitely shop a lot."

Myriah and her mother didn't leave their Valley life altogether. They returned to the old neighborhood twice a week--on Wednesdays for gymnastics and Thursdays for computer class. Then things started looking up again. Myriah's mother found a house to buy on a bushy street that rubs up against the 101 Freeway, about a mile from their old apartment. It's a two-bedroom, with gray peeling stucco, set back from a generous front yard overtaken by weeds. "It's really small, but it's cute and has lots of potential," her mother says.

The neighborhood sports front yards with swing sets and orange trees; the streets are as wide as Ventura Boulevard but as quiet as the forest. Myriah is excited about the house, about the big bedroom where she can jump on the bed. "When I get carpet in and the sun is shining onto it, I'll sit in that space," she says.

Now Myriah will only be five minutes away from gymnastics, computer class and the mall. The fashion square, that's where she's happiest. She steps into Sephora and smells the sweet raspberry bath beads. She heads for Sanrio Surprises to fiddle with doodle pens and other trinkets. She bounces through the Limited Too, running her hands over the brightly colored clothes. She isn't buying, just browsing. And she isn't walking. She's dancing to imaginary music, her little purse bobbing at her side.

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