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Learning life skills the LAUSD way

January 02, 2007|Dinah Lenney | DINAH LENNEY plays nurse Shirley on "ER" and is the author of "Bigger Than Life: A Murder, A Memoir," to be published in March.

MY DAUGHTER, Eliza, goes to the magnet at Marshall High School in Los Feliz, where she is enrolled in four APs, French 3 and Cooking (which satisfies her technical art requirement). According to Eliza, according to her like-minded peers, according to her college counselor, she has no choice but to take every Advanced Placement course she can if she wants to compete for a spot in selective colleges across the country, the top UCs included. What's more, she'll have to fulfill her art requirement over the summer because she thinks that she can't drop science or math in her senior year.

"Colleges want to see four years of both," she says.

"I can't believe that," I say.

"Mom, I don't want to talk about this right now. I'm already stressed."

Look, I'm grateful for the Los Angeles Unified School District, or I was until recently -- thankful for the magnets and charters without which we'd have been unable to navigate the system. But now I have a junior in high school, a kid caught in a snare of requirements and extracurriculars, stooped and trudging under the weight of competing expectations -- those of the UCs, of private colleges and of public high school! -- not to mention her backpack straining at the zipper, hanging off her bony shoulders, forcing her neck forward at a 60-degree angle.

Do I beg her to eat breakfast before she heads out with that load on her back every morning? You bet. Do I worry about her posture? Often. Out loud. I'm her mother; that's my job, to worry about her health, to prepare her for her day, her week and the rest of her wonderful life.

But it seems the LAUSD doesn't trust me to do my part. That's why, on top of everything else, Eliza has to take Health and Life Skills, both of which are required for graduation and neither of which fits into her school day (which starts at 7:25 a.m. and ends at 3:13 p.m.). That's why we're here, now, at Belmont Adult School, where she has to take a test to determine if she's eligible to collect the course materials and capable of completing the work on her own time.

Well, of course she's stressed! They all are! Any residual passion for learning all but stifled by the demands of tests, by teachers who've been constrained by those same demands, by the expectations of parents and counselors and colleges, and now this arbitrary assignation from the LAUSD! We won't let you out until you hear about Health and Life Skills according to us!

What hubris is this on the part of district officials -- to assume that we parents agree with their assessment of the Life Skills our children need to move forward in life? Or, for that matter, with their choice of food pyramid? Isn't it bad enough that our kids don't have time for art and music and drama?

It's unconscionable that in spite of longer days, shorter semesters, diminishing resources and disenchanted educators, the LAUSD demands that these kids take Health and Life Skills; as if they didn't have sex education in the fourth and seventh grades (can the powers that be really think they have anything to teach our teenagers about sex after seventh grade?), as if they'll eat any better because they've colored in the food pyramid (all by themselves), as if -- diverse as they are, versed in the rituals of multiple cultures and religions -- they don't already know the importance of identity, tradition and tolerance. No doubt some families need support in these areas, but is it the job of the LAUSD to pick up the slack, alienating the likes of my daughter and me?

Tell me about Life Skills, I say to Dylan C., also a junior in the magnet, who did the required hours on campus last year.

"We made family trees.... We drew a picture of a flag -- that was a group project; we had to pick a flag from a different country, draw it, color it in, like in second grade...."

"What else?"

"There was a list of values; we had to rate them in importance.... "

"Values?"

"Loyalty, truth, honesty, beauty, wealth, power.... "

"I heard there was a job interview.... "

"Oh yeah, that was the final project, you had to like, dress up, and smile."

Laura P., another of Eliza's friends, described Health as "busy work."

"What'd you cover?"

"Nutrition. Hygiene. Like brush your teeth twice a day. And, yeah, those STDs all over again."

Convince me, somebody, that these courses aren't a waste of precious time. If they don't know to floss in 11th grade, will Health make the difference? And must I drive to CVS for poster board so my 17-year-old can make a flag?

As for values, that's a lesson straight from kindergarten. These kids know by now to put loyalty and love above wealth and power, whether they really believe it or not. They're on to us; they know very well it's the A's that matter, as opposed to intellectual curiosity. That's the real lesson of their education.

Now Eliza's coming out of the test, bleary-eyed after 40 minutes of filling in the Scantron with a No. 2 pencil. We pay the fee and sign her up.

"Now, about next year," I say when we're back in the car. "What about art?" Am I whining?

"Mom, not now. I'm starving. Can we stop at Jack in the Box?"

"Oh, honey," I say, "you don't want that junk."

"But I do. I crave grease. I crave it now. Please, Mom."

Some kids bite their nails. Or mumble. Pick their pimples or chew their hair. Eliza, when she's nervous, pulls her sleeves over her hands, working her thumbs between the seams until, over time, she makes holes in the cuffs. It's my job to foster the emotional health that will allow her to let go of her sleeves and put her hands in her lap. And her nutrition, that's up to me, too, for the time being.

But this is about compromise and negotiation, life skills in the making; Jack in the Box will make her happy for 10 minutes. She'll push up her sleeves for those chicken nuggets -- and I'll peel her a carrot when we get home.

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