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Southern California's Young Faces : Cover Story

Innocence

At a Time When L.A. Forces Children to Grow Up Fast, Silke Schroeder Savors a Joyous Childhood.

April 22, 2001|SUSAN BASKIN | Susan Baskin last wrote for the magazine about confronting illness

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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Silke Schroeder is tired. You would be too if you were at a sleepover last night, and this morning your mother picked you up to drive you and your sister about 20 miles to Costa Mesa, where every Saturday you attend German school from 9 to noon. So Silke, all 5 feet, 5 inches and 92 pounds of her, is stretched out on the floor of her bedroom in the Rossmoor ranch house she shares with her parents, Brigitte and Hartmut, her younger sister, Simone, and Silly, their Siberian husky.

It's OK to be here, munching on Pepperidge Farm Goldfish and hugging a stuffed Winnie the Pooh bear. It's cold and raining outside. So we're stuck inside, which is no big deal because just last summer, as a reward for not watching TV for six months, Silke got to redecorate her room. Silke wanted animal prints. She chose a snow leopard fabric for the curtains. Zebra stripes emblazon the chairs, throw pillows and area rug.

From her backpack, Silke takes out her sleeping companion, Mangani, the oldest of seven stuffed camels in her collection. Silke used to have 30 stuffed animals, but after a successful garage sale, she now has 15. In her self-contained and soft-spoken manner, Silke recites the merits of each camel, as if each one recaptures a moment in life that still exists for her. Even in the sixth grade, she's not self-conscious about holding onto friends from an imaginary world.

After the camels go back on their shelf, Silke opens a drawer and removes a cardboard box. An ink drawing has been pasted on top. Above figures of a boy, a girl, a cat and dog are the handwritten words, "Silke's Arts and Illustrations." With quiet pleasure, Silke lays out the boldly colored drawings, many of them from years before consisting only of her name, printed in crayon, in block letters, against abstract backgrounds. These name drawings are like a series of signs for herself: Here I am.

If the spaces we create for ourselves are a lens on our inner lives, it's Silke's room, with its wild animal signature, that provides a glimpse of what lies beneath her natural reserve. Exotic beasts in the jungle are the antithesis of Silke's world, an imaginative expression of the self she defines beyond her suburban existence.

But Silke's room plumbs more than a measured demeanor. The objects in it achieve a critical mass--from the daisy earring holder to the Cherry Lipsmacker lying on the carpet alongside a pair of Silke's favorite pink-laced Jack Purcells. They tell us that Silke Schroeder, at 11, upends our assumptions about growing up in Los Angeles. She has achieved what we're told is no longer possible. She has remained a girl, even living here in the heart of the volcano, where popular culture demonizes our children as effectively as the Victorians idealized theirs. Navigating her way through the films, fashions and social expectations that are aimed her way, she has emerged with her innocence intact. She likes to ride her Razor around the neighborhood, she loves her parents, she's looking forward to showing her rabbit at the 4-H club.

As Silke puts away the box of drawings, she tells me, matter-of-factly, that everyone she knows says she should be an artist. But Silke doesn't agree. What if her paintings don't sell? Van Gogh and all those artists didn't have a very good life. At a time when the preschool you attend can take on biblical proportions as far as future success, it doesn't matter to Silke that she doesn't know what she wants to be. In fact, when asked where she sees herself a year from now, she pauses and shrugs.

It's a hard question. Taking a seat in her zebra-striped chair, she's not in the mood to contemplate her future. She'd rather log on to Neopets, her favorite Web site, where she raises four virtual pets in Neopia and roams cyberspace as "deeevagerl."

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