Sunday, April 22, 2001

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.
 
Grounded

    Melissa Rakowitz Threw a Party While the Parents Were
Away. Her Secret Was Safe, Until Mom Noticed the Thermostat. 

By ALLISON ADATO

     Melissa Rakowitz is grounded. 
     Two months, with the possibility of parole after six weeks if
she writes eight pages on "The Dangers of Being a Teenager." Her
crime? Throwing a party while home alone, and lying about it. 
     As a prison, her room isn't spartan. Its outlets are juicing a
stereo, computer, TV, VCR, cell phone, regular phone and
answering machine. On the ceiling, phosphorescent stars. On the
floor, schoolbooks. She loves science, and would like to become
a psychologist, but not before dancing in music videos. On one
wall is a calendar, with Xs marking time served. On another
hangs an artificial lei. "I've never been to Hawaii," explains the
14-year-old ninth-grader. "My mom threw a Hawaiian party
once." 
     Melissa's mom, Cindy, knows the value of a well-timed party.
As corporate vice president of public relations and promotions
for Playboy, she's helped make a septuagenarian's bachelor pad
hip again by throwing bashes there for Limp Bizkit and Howard
Stern. But don't think that that atmosphere extends to her home
in a gated Calabasas community, where Melissa is allowed no
more than three friends over at a time, and no boys in the
bedroom with the door closed. 
     On the weekend in question, her mom and stepdad, David
Adelman, were in Las Vegas, and Melissa was in the care of her
father, Mark Rakowitz, who lives just 15 minutes away. Though
she had permission to sleep at a friend's, she instead returned
to her mother's empty house, and by 7:30 Friday evening, she
was greeting the first of 15 guests. 
     "I don't know if I want to say everything that happened," she
offers cautiously. "People started blasting the music, and got
really hyper, sliding on the hardwood floors in their socks,
having pillow fights." For refreshment, she served up the
contents of the pantry least likely to be missed. "My parents
wouldn't notice if the doughnuts were gone." But then people
helped themselves to real food. "Chicken, cheese, tortillas. My
mom knows I wouldn't eat a whole chicken by myself." 
     She declared the party a success, though two guests got sick.
"They didn't throw up, but one had to go to sleep." She can't say
for certain, but allows that drinking could have played a part. "I
stayed completely clean that night, because if I wasn't aware of
what happened, I'd wake up the next morning and things would be
broken." 
     Most people left by midnight, though a few slept over. On
Saturday, Melissa returned to her father's apartment. Her mother
came home Sunday to find a very clean house, save for a few
details that drew suspicion, which she recounted in a
conversation with Melissa and a reporter a few weeks later at
the scene of the crime. 
     Mom: Usually the baby-sitter . . . 
     Melissa: Housekeeper, not baby-sitter. 
     Mom: Oh, OK. The housekeeper usually turns off the heat. It
was up to 75. And Rosa always takes out the garbage. I called
Melissa and said, "Something went on here, I want to know right
now what happened." I didn't know I was on the speaker phone.
But then I heard her dad's voice saying, "I want to know too." Oh,
God. I would rather have talked to her alone instead of the two
of us ganging up on her. What's a father's worst nightmare?
Having a teenage daughter have boys sleep over. I knew Melissa
and I were going to have to have a girlfriends talk later. 
     Melissa: I don't have a problem telling my mom about this,
but any other parent in my life, no. 
     Mom: I wanted you to learn the lesson of responsibility. If
they were drinking or smoking cigarettes--it's not the act of
smoking that would upset me, because some teenagers smoke. 
     Melissa: Not my friends. It's, like, way not in style. It's so
'80s, you might as well have a part on the side of your head. The
only people I've seen smoking are, like, 46. 
     Mom: So if it was cigarettes or pot, it's not so much the act
itself, as the consequences. My concern would be for the house
burning down, not because of the house burning down but
because they could get hurt. Safety first. 
     Melissa: Mom, you sound like a fire-person. 
     Mom: There were, what, seven kids here? 
     Melissa: Uh, yeah. 
     Mom: Am I going to read in this article that there were 20? 
     Melissa: There weren't 20. My friends think my mom is really
a laid-back, cool mom. I think her job has something to do with
that. But after the party they learned that my mom is pretty
much like everyone else's. 
     Mom: The lesson I learned from this is that probably if I
hadn't been so prohibitive--if I would let her have a party that
was supervised--perhaps that would have been a precautionary
measure. When you give birth to somebody, you always feel like
you want to protect them. Oh, she's getting all embarrassed. 
     Melissa: Bored. 
     Mom: Should I go back up to my room now? 
     When we are alone, I point out that at least her mom seems
open to the idea of a supervised party in the future, but Melissa
can't get too excited. "It's more fun without parents, even if
you're not doing anything completely bad. If they had been there,
we would just be sitting around like this"--she stiffens her
back--"and being nervous about being judged by my parents." 
     How her parents see her turns out to be important to Melissa.
"My dad completely trusted me, and he doesn't trust me anymore.
My mom and my step-dad were more disappointed than angry
'cause they thought I'd never do something like that. But I did." 
     Now she's turning her attention to her essay. "My dad thinks
every time I go out I'm in danger. He cares so much, but it makes
me feel like I'm in a cage. Parents picture everything going
wrong, rather than things that could go wrong, but didn't. Kids
are like, 'It probably won't happen, so don't worry.' 
     "Maybe my opinion will change when I'm a mom. But I'm going
to remember how angry I get when I think of all my friends who
are allowed to have a party and I'm not. I don't want my kid to
have that kind of anger toward me. I want them to have a
relationship with me like me and my mom, but I'll let them do a
little bit more. I'm going to be a cool parent. Of course, my mom
probably thought that when she was a kid." 
                                               - - -

 

Overachiever 

    Lauren Kubota Never Stops. Her College Applications Reflect
Her Impressive Extracurricular Work. Still, Admissions Officials
Won't Truly Know Her. 

By ALLISON ADATO

    Based on how she filled out their applications, here is what
the admissions boards at 10 universities know, and don't know,
about Lauren Kubota, 18-year-old senior at Glendale's Herbert
Hoover High. Columbia asks what books she has read recently.
Among others, she mentions "The Fountainhead," "The Hot Zone,"
"The Kitchen God's Wife" and "My Year of Meats," a novel about a
Japanese American filmmaker hired to market U.S. beef in Japan.
     What the board won't find out from this list is that Lauren
tears through pulpy medical fiction. "Those kind of books you can
read in two days and teachers don't approve of," she says. 
     On Harvard's scale from 1 to 5 measuring how definite she
considers her academic plans, Lauren's dedication to journalism
is a 3. It seems an uncharacteristic hedge from someone who
has wanted to be a writer since she was 4, when adoptive
parents Tom and Nancy Kubota divorced--another fact the
universities have not sought out. 
     Barnard's application lists some of its notable alumnae: Zora
Neale Hurston, Suzanne Vega, Margaret Mead, Twyla Tharp and
Anna Quindlen, then asks what contributions she has made to her
family or community. "I don't know what they want me to have
done!" Lauren says. She writes a few lines about her volunteer
work. The neatly lettered response belies her insecurity about
this answer. It conceals also that she had never heard of three
of the five women. 
     All of the schools will hear extensively about
extracurricular activities. Lauren is captain of her cheerleading
squad and a co-editor-in-chief of her school newspaper. They
won't hear about how, when those two activities' schedules
conflict, she will blow off cheerleading every time. Nor will
they know how the newspaper's faculty advisor occasionally
trusts her to run things in his absence, or how she makes a point
not to give preferential editing treatment to her boyfriend, who
is also on the paper's staff. 
     They'll see she was vice president of the debate club. That
she is the publications editor of the Native American Awareness
Team, which means she is documenting the group's construction
of a monument on Hoover's campus, and writes their newsletter.
That she ran track. That she was a member of the Key Club. That
she volunteered to help send Adam Schiff to Congress. That last
summer she spent two weeks as a CNN intern in Atlanta. 
     What they won't see is the videotape of her first on-camera
interview, or how nervous she was. 
     They will learn that Lauren coached an elementary school
drill team--they won't know how much she loved the kids she
met there. They will learn that she once held a job in the bag
room of a country club--but won't know that it required rising
at 5 a.m. on weekends throughout the summer and much of the
school year. 
     They will read that she is president of the Glendale
Symphony Orchestra Preludes, a girls group that greets
symphony patrons, passes out programs, serves cookies at the
women's committee meetings and visits hospital patients. They
won't know that she got involved only at her mother's urging. "Do
I enjoy it? Not particularly. In ninth grade I didn't have that
many extracurriculars, only one or two, and my mom was getting
on my case for getting into college. Everything else I did
because I liked it." 
     But do Lauren's answers add up to an accurate portrayal?
"They get a pretty good idea of you, but I don't think they have an
entire picture," says Lauren, who is also a snowboarder, an
"X-Files" devotee and the recipient of a hand-me-down Cadillac
the size of a tank. "Some of the questions seem a little bit
irrelevant. They don't ask about other parts of your life besides
school." 
     Where each application asks her race, Lauren has checked
both Asian (her biological father is Japanese American) and
white (her biological mother). But the boxes don't indicate that
this is precisely the racial makeup of her adoptive father and
mother too. She will talk about being adopted in her personal
essays. 
     "I am left to wonder about the self-knowledge that nearly
everyone else takes for granted," she writes. "I don't know when
my hair will begin to show traces of gray. I don't know where I
got my freckles. . . . Where most are given their identities by
being born and raised surrounded by like individuals, I have
found that I have created my own identity." 

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Allison Adato last wrote for the magazine about the late singer
Darby Crash.