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Growing Up Is Fun -- Right?

Childhood loosens its grip as a girl readies for a key role in a school play against a backdrop of the kind of humor and pain only a teen knows.

August 12, 2006|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

The joke that broke Hiba Hariri's 14-year-old heart goes like this.

She tells her boyfriend over the phone that she pushed a kid off his scooter at Taco Bell and broke his arm. She tried to run, but the police caught her. "I got arrested," she says. And she's in jail.

"Swear?" asks eighth-grader Sean Guerrero. Could it be?

"Yes," Hiba replies.

"Swear on our relationship?"

"Yes."

A pause. Hiba shrieks: "I'm kidding!"

Sean is not amused. He is hurt. He tells her that she is not his girlfriend anymore, and he hangs up.

Hours later, Hiba can't sleep. At 3 a.m., she calls a friend, crying. Hiba and Sean have been together for a month, and she never liked a boy as much as she likes him. He is 13, goofy, gifted and surprisingly romantic. He writes notes to her on Myspace.com: "Every second my love grows for you." Now it is over, and Hiba is bereft.

And what about the school play? She and Sean perform opposite each other in important roles. Can she still bring herself to do it?

The play, a comedy, must succeed. Hiba and Sean attend John Muir Middle School in Burbank. At John Muir, productions like this one have flopped, and Hiba knows it. Neither the teachers nor the students want another failure. Two of the teachers, both schooled in comedy, have invested hours. They wrote this play themselves.

John Muir's mascot is the Mustang. The play is a spoof on old westerns, with middle-schoolers in mind. It is set in the ramshackle town of Los Doritos. It features "yo momma" jokes, a belching game and a hopeless romance. It also spoofs middle school punishment. The play is called "The Good, the Bad and the Detained."

In middle school, humor dances with heartache, brilliance with bad jokes. Every morning, well-meaning adults show up and try to figure it out. It can be as complicated as algebra. Why do kids giggle at any mention of passing gas? Mimic teachers? Stuff one another into trash cans? How does Sean, who cannot sit still, write beautiful poetry? Will Hiba, who blows soda bubbles through straws, ever taste maturity?

In the morning, word of their breakup spreads online.

At 10:14 a.m., a girl named Angel writes to Sean: "you deserve better then someone who swears on your R.S. [relationship]"

At 10:41 a.m., Hiba writes to Sean: "SorrySorrySorrySorry SorrySorrySorry.......and wat angel said is true u do deserve better than someone like me"

At 2:59 p.m. Sean writes back: "I do beleive in second chances and maybe we can work it out."

Hiba clings to Sean's words.

*

Juggling Kittens

The opening curtain is just a month away.

Yesterday's rehearsal started with Sean yelling, "Josh, I bet you can't do this!" Sean ran down an aisle in the auditorium and leaped headlong onto the stage, which is as tall as he is.

"Sean!" said Stephen James, the drama teacher. "How many times have I told you not to get on the stage like that?"

Nearby, two stagehands began a noisy dispute.

"Hey, hey, hey," James said. "Laurel. Hardy. Don't argue."

James, one of the playwrights, is a trained actor and comedian. He can cry on cue. His class revels in it. "Cry, cry, cry!" they chant. "C'mon, Mr. James, cry!" He obliges. He stands with a silly grin, tears trickling down his face. The kids cheer.

As a poetry major, James had pictured himself teaching English literature to appreciative high school students. Today he turns 30. His birthday gift: yet another day of comedy rehearsal for kids in middle school.

The cast, trying to make this day better for him than the day before, sings "Happy Birthday." Off key.

Hiba notices that Sean isn't singing. He is scrubbing grass stains off his black-and-white sneakers with damp paper towels. Hiba wishes he would pay as much attention to her as he does to his sneakers.

Since their breakup, he has hardly acknowledged her.

"Haaa-p-eeey B-iiii-rthdaaay, Mr. Jaaa-aaa-messss!"

James cringes, then smiles. "Whew," he says, when they finish. "Like listening to angels chewing on broken bottles." Then he turns serious. Only 30 days more. He cannot have a repeat of yesterday's chaos.

"I can't keep stopping like I was," he says. "It was like trying to juggle kittens yesterday. Far too difficult and awfully cruel." Today, each time he has to yell at someone it will mean 10 push-ups for the entire cast.

In character, Sean struts across the stage, wearing his signature tight-fitting black jeans. He plays Mr. Black, a mean cowboy in a trench coat. Sean is confident and dazzling under the spotlights.

"I ya'm lookin' for Muuuuy Tarde," Sean says, in his best manly drawl.

His eyes click to Hiba.

She has swept up the sides of her dark brown hair and styled her choppy bangs to the side, just so. But inside, she is falling apart. Already petite, she is slouching, as if she were trying to shrink. She is supposed to be Muy Tarde, a strutting, growling, lying boyfriend who is always late. She tries hard to pull off a swagger, but her legs feel like licorice.

Worse, she swallows her lines in a girlie grumble:

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