Lucero Lorenzo, 18, spent many hours of her childhood reading and drawing in the cozy confines of the Cahuenga branch of the Los Angeles Public Library.
This summer, the city sharply reduced library hours and closed all the branches every Monday. But Lorenzo is still keeping to her old routine. This Monday I found her outside the closed library in East Hollywood, huddled with a sketchpad and a notebook beside the front steps' concrete banister.
"This is my refuge," she said quietly. "I've been coming here since I was 8. Just looking at all the books, I fell in love with it."
Sitting under the pepper tree outside while traffic zipped past on Santa Monica Boulevard wasn't quite the same.
"You get used to these things," she said. "It's hard to break from them."
For many L.A. Unified students, it was the first Monday with homework since the new library cuts. And in the course of just under an hour, Lorenzo and I watched as a dozen people, nearly all of them teenagers, arrived at the branch's front steps.
Each would-be library patron stood momentarily perplexed by the large pink Xs the librarians had placed over the now-obsolete schedule affixed to the glass doors.
Standing there, listening to their stories, I could tangibly feel the loss of L.A. brain power.
Nancy Recinos, 16, arrived to check out "The Reptile Room," the second installment of "A Series of Unfortunate Events." She wanted to read it to her 7-year-old brother, who ate up the first book's weirdness and wordplay.
"I just started to really like reading myself," Nancy said. Reading books to her brother, she explained, was her way of keeping him from watching too much television.
The life of Frederick Douglass interested Maria Gonzalez, a 16-year-old at Marshall High, who admitted to being a few days behind on a history report. Mary Sanchez, a 17-year-old Hollywood High student, arrived in search of Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" for her English class.
"I came here Sunday to look for it, but they were closed," she said.
All those intellectual yearnings were frustrated Monday. The emotional entanglements of Russian literature and the drama of the abolitionist movement would have to wait for another day.
"Closed?" asked Jessica Ramirez, a 17-year-old continuation school student. "On a school day? That sucks!"
Darkened public libraries weren't the only assault on learning in these first few days of school.
On Sept. 14, just as L.A. students were getting their first assignments, a massive new distraction arrived in their midst. That was the day Microsoft released the newest installment of its wildly popular Halo series for the Xbox game console.
Millions had awaited that date with great anticipation. And the sudden appearance of Halo: Reach caused many a tug-of-war between students and parents, both here and elsewhere.
"People get addicted to the Xbox," Eduardo Linares, 15, explained on the front steps of the Cahuenga library. "Especially when a new game comes out, you want to keep playing and playing."
Microsoft boasted that sales of Halo: Reach totaled $200 million on the game's launch day, a greater one-day haul than any game or movie so far this year.
Several studies, including one by the Kaiser Family Foundation, show increased game usage correlates with lower academic performance. And on various gaming blogs, I found parents and students struggling to balance the lure of the new game, and its midnight launch at stores, with the demands of schoolwork due the next day.
One dad said he'd allowed his kids to play until 2.a.m. that Tuesday. A high school student wrote: "I want to go, but since I got a ton of homework to do, I don't know … "
"You are entitled to have fun in your life," another poster replied. "One missing assignment that you can turn in later will not hurt your grade — unless it's a super-duper test or something." (The student said he did, in fact, have a test — in calculus.)
It's probably impossible to measure the impact of closed libraries and new video games on a city and its educational system. But the subtle subtraction from our learning culture may become apparent in the weeks and months that follow — when all those school kids sit down for the next round of standardized tests.
In all the hubbub over education reform — over whether, for instance, our teachers are making the grade — we're often losing sight, I think, of a larger, societal dysfunction.
"We expect more from kids than ever before, and yet we provide them with more distractions than ever before," said Enrico Gnaulati, a Pasadena psychologist specializing in children and families.
Young people today have double or triple the homework their parents did, Gnaulati explained. And today's classroom environment favors the highly organized, "busy bee" student. "For boys, especially, that's a hard sell," Gnaulati said.
At home, meanwhile, on their game consoles, kids are offered heroic triumphs in virtual worlds, Gnaulati said. "It gives them a false sense of self-esteem, without truly being tested in the real world."
The library is one refuge from the game console. But we're willing to slice away at its hours, as well as other refuges such as summer school and after-school programs.
Game publishers make millions. School systems cut millions. Libraries lock their doors.
Obviously, there's something wrong with this equation.