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Living Past the Party

Intoxicated about the future, some Marshall High seniors snub drugs and drink


A deafening Eminem rap is ricocheting off the walls of the John Marshall High School gym packed with 850 partying teenagers in Hawaiian garb--girls in coconut bras and low-slung sarongs; guys in pink and yellow hibiscus-popping shirts and leis. For Marshall students, this is the party of the season--the Aloha Dance--a farewell fete for seniors making the jump into the real world.

Whether it's college or moving out of the house or nailing down a job--or in many cases, all three--the class of 2002 is outta here June 27, graduation day. But right now, on a recent late Friday night, all that matters is get-your-freak-on dancing 'til midnight.

For many soon-to-be grads, the annual dance is a much-anticipated get-together--affordable at $10 a pop and free of the stress associated with last month's prom at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel. Prom night easily costs a couple more than $500 for the right look, limousine, dinner tickets and after-party fun.

A little more than two weeks after Marshall's May 4 prom, an 18-year-old Tustin high school senior named Cathy Isford died after taking Ecstasy for what she told her sister would be the last time and mixing it with alcohol at a prom after-party. The tragedy struck fear in the hearts of parents and educators, but, perhaps predictably, didn't seem to hit home with as much force among the prom-going public.

At Marshall, which straddles Silver Lake and Los Feliz, news of Isford's death "just kind of flew by," said 18-year-old student body president Sherllene Aquino. "Things like that seem to be so common nowadays. It's sad that we accept it just as it is. But people make choices."

Here, at the Aloha Dance, where at least two armed campus police officers are on duty, soda and fountain water are as good as it gets. But no one is complaining. Ten administrators and staff have their radar on, always moving, dropping into cliques of kids, scanning the crowd for anything suspicious or anyone who shouldn't be there--like the kid who jumped the fence and had to leave when he couldn't produce ID.

Once inside the darkened gym, students are packed shoulder to shoulder at a close-encounters dance-athon fueled by deejays spinning everything from techno to salsa under a spinning strobe light that hovers in a corner like a UFO. Eau de high school spirit--that funky, dance sweat smell--fills the space.

At about 10 p.m., the house lights come up. It's time for the evening's main attraction, the coronation of the Aloha King and Queen. Students shout for their favorites and go wild--jumping, shoving, clapping, hugging each other--when Jeff Maniego and Idalia Hernandez are crowned the royal duo. Away from the crush, they both agree their idea of a good time is dancing and being drug-free.

"Ecstasy? I would never do it. Never," 17-year-old Maniego says as he adjusts a newly placed straw hat on his head as the crowd's favorite. Maniego plans to study criminal justice at Cal State Northridge and hopes to become an FBI agent. "I'm the wussiest person in the world. I will not drink. I will not smoke," he says. "Sure, the pressure is there to do all that, but none of that interests me. I would never let my parents down."

Neither would Hernandez, also 17, and set on a career in the music industry. "There's definitely a lot of people who want to bring you down, but you have to be strong on the inside," she says. "If you're not strong enough, then you only have yourself to blame for going down that destructive road."

Other seniors agree. But, hey, this is a full-throttle dance--and seriously, not the right time or place to talk seriously. Not when you want to act silly and find friends and hug them and gossip and pose for photos and then get lost in the music that is making your socks fall to your ankles.

On the day of the dance, half a dozen seniors--who like 80% of their 700 classmates are college-bound--gathered to talk about the pressures they have faced as high schoolers. The Cliffs Notes version? Growing up is hard (although their language is much crasser), but you can get through it if you lead, not if you follow. Be yourself. Don't show off, don't procrastinate, make friends with your teachers. Have fun, but act responsibly. Know your limits and the consequences when it comes to drinking and drugs. And even though they get frustrated with their nosy parents, a lot of them credit the adults in their lives with keeping them out of trouble.

"I'm pretty much a clean teenager. I don't drink, don't smoke," says Geri Sadek, 17, who plans to study broadcasting at Cal State Northridge. Sadek says she's been around friends that "have drank too much and say offensive things when I try to be a good friend and help to keep them out of harm. But what does that do to you? You're being a mother. But if you go to a party and find out that your friend has gotten drunk--or worse--you naturally want to try to take care of them."

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