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Southern California's Young Faces : Cover Story

Growing Pains

Second Grade Would Be a Blast for Matty Hoffman, If He Didn't Have to Spell or Be Quiet.

April 22, 2001|LISA PALAC

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.

*

"This is a 'baby.' " He makes a fist and hits the red rubber ball very, very gently, just enough for it to bounce once and strike the wall so low that it can barely be saved. Do "babies" count? "In my court? Yes."

Eight-year-old Matthew Hoffman is patiently teaching me the basics of handball on his court, the one he often reaches by ducking out of the dining room window and into the backyard of his Simi Valley home. "Matty" demonstrates the various moves against the brand-new white handball wall he helped build with his dad, Michael Hoffman, a bureau chief for the Ventura County Star newspaper. Matty hits "sliceys" (fast balls covering a lot of horizontal ground before the first bounce at the wall) and "cross-countries" (wall slammers that fly to the other side of the court) and, of course, "babies." "Oh, that's good, Ms. Palac!" He's encouraging of my average shot. And the Ms. Palac thing? Positively charming.

Keeping the ball in motion, he tells me he's in the handball lineup every day at recess and also loves soccer "because there's real positions to play." Baseball? One season, two trophies. Football? No way. "It's too rough," he says, stopping to brush away the damp rose-blond hairs stuck to his forehead. "If I got tackled," his eyebrows rise, eyes widen for dramatic effect, "I'd break my back."

It's just after 2 p.m. and school has been out for an hour, as it is every Thursday. Still, it was an intense day of second grade at Township Elementary. In the last hour, Matty had to deal with the Estimating Jar (today it was filled with 519 pieces of macaroni), complete a double-digit subtraction problem at the board and practice, practice, practice being quiet.

But there was that funny part when the teacher said the word "underwear" and everybody cracked up. Matty thinks school's OK, "except when my teacher makes me do this thing I hate. It's called spelling." He spits out that last word as if it were puke-flavored candy. A deeper investigation, however, reveals that it is not spelling he loathes--he's actually a terrific speller--but a particular activity that involves cutting out a bunch of tiny letters and tediously pasting them over the words he's learning. What's not to hate?

Matty's 6-year-old brother, Joey, wanders onto the court followed by Leo, the family's 9-year-old beagle, who gets clocked by a renegade "cross-country." The court grows quiet as the brothers fall into their own silent conversations with the game. Tha-thump, tha-thump, tha-thump, tha-thump.

Are you two good friends? "We're brothers," they answer in virtual unison and look at me, like, duh. Yes, but are you friends? "Yeah, we're friends," Matty says softly, right before he blasts a shot to the other side and shouts, "Stay on your side of the place, you thievin' varmint."

Joey squeals, dodges, scrambles for a pickup, repeats the directive. The cycle starts over. The hysterics intensify, accompanied by more nutty insults allegedly from the movie "Shiloh 2: Shiloh Season."

"Fudge Popsicle!"

"You fudge Popsicle!"

"You eat them!"

The plot accelerates out of control and temporary exhaustion sets in. On a brightly colored Playskool picnic table, their mom, freelance writer and journalism instructor Joanna Miller, has a snack waiting. With a juice in one hand and popcorn in the other, Matty sits with his back to the table, leans on his elbows and stretches his legs out, as if to say, This Is The Life.

"My best friend is Ricky Andrews," he says, launching into this day's version of a well-told story. "Let's see--I met him at the park when I first moved here. I said, 'Hi,' and he said, 'Hi,' and I said, 'Wanna play?' And he said, 'OK.' And now he's my best friend."

With his blend of social aplomb, wit and that expressive freckled face, Mr. Personality puts me completely at ease. I don't feel like a stranger--or worse, a dorky adult trying too hard to relate. We're buddies now, just shootin' the breeze.

Is there someone you don't like very much? Matty pauses, thinking. No one comes to mind immediately. He tentatively begins to describe a kid who, today, was wearing a blue shirt and is tall--but then stops. "Well, everyone is taller than me, even the girls."

How does that make you feel? Drumming his fingertips on his chin, his gaze drifts up and then zeros in. His celadon eyes get serious. "Kinda mad, actually. Because everyone teases me. Even the girls. One girl said, 'Hey shorty!' and so I said, 'You wanna mess?' And I went like this. . . ." He leaps into a ninja stance, ready to high kick. "And I scared her." He laughs.

"I don't tease him, even though I'm taller than him and I'm in kindergarten," Joey says proudly. "He's just growing late, that's all."

"That's all," Matty agrees, supremely confident that it's just a phase.

Hey, what about your parents not letting you have Nintendo or a Game Boy? "It stinks."

Downing the rest of our juice, we have a burping contest--my idea. Matty flashes me the full-on Vegas, Love Ya Babe sign--index finger out, thumb up--and burps out several decent YOs!, until his mom says it's time for homework.

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