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How 1976 graduations felt in San Diego

Braving the new world

“Five years ago the valedictorians would get up and blast the administration. Now they get up and bless everyone with Jesus.”

“Five years ago the valedictorians would get up and blast the administration. Now they get up and bless everyone with Jesus.”

In a 1958 issue of San Diego Magazine, Associate Editor James Britton described white, middle-and upper-middle-class Grossmont High School this way: “Symbolically, Grossmont High School is on a hill just below Mount Helix, the point from which on a clear day one gets a commanding view of the whole metropolitan complex . . . Grossmont High also rises above the average of secondary schools in academic reputation, largely because of a favorable balance of intelligent parents in the district.”

This week, as the Grossmont class of '76 wanders out into the street and wonders which way to turn, the view does not seem so clear or so commanding.

The overall impression of a group of these graduates is one of somber resignation: forgive the world for what it does, for it will never have the spirit of high school. It is unlike the feeling that dominated the classes of ’68, ’69, and ’70; in those years graduating seniors generally felt that the world was handed to them on a cracked platter, and it was up to them to find the epoxy. They had hope, spirit, and a sort of excited expectation that yes, they could fix the damn thing; they hadn’t asked to be born into this world, but as long as they’re here, somebody find the clamp, somebody find the glue, and soon it’ll be as good as new. Better, actually.

Now, however, the dominating mood among the middle-class graduates is one of passive acceptance of a decayed world, handed to them on a platter beyond meaningful repair. The platter might make a good frisbee, but nothing more.

While the middle-class kids tend to view themselves as day nurses in a terminal ward, the Third Worlders in foreign lands like Logan Heights and points southeast are beginning to view the world as theirs. Their time is just beginning. Let the middle-class kids have their ennui. They don’t know what street wisdom is. It’s survival.

Juan Perino, who first entered the Golden Hills area to steal a car battery and stayed to become a counselor at the Neighborhood Outreach Program, was sitting in the stands at the San Diego High commencement ceremonies. Perino was kicked out of San Diego High School in 1972 for, among other things, truancy. In his slightly threatening way, he wondered aloud about the developing attitudes among the Chicanos and Blacks crossing the stage to receive their diplomas.

“Depression and pessimism are running wild all through the people,” he says, “and it’s not dominant in any one economic group. But there’s a feeling down here that we and everybody else in the Third World are coming up to bat. There’s been too much luxury for too few, and we’re all equal in the dark, you know, all equal when the fuse box blows, but I’ll bet you this: a kid down on Market Street is going to know how to get along in the dark a lot better than some kid who has been brought up to believe the world was his, and never bothered to learn how to fix a fuse box or siphon gas.”

What did Perino learn while he was truant, compared with the Grossmont student who sat in Study Hall preparing himself for a Ph.D. he might never be able to use?

Perino says, 'Those kids in the middle and upper class, I think they’ve been spoiled by all this expectation. Now maybe they’re giving up easy. Now maybe they’re not as tough as the kid in Logan Heights, who’s damned determined he’s going to make it.”

The Grossmont commencement ceremony was punctuated by water balloons. The seniors were christened with bottled water stolen from the science labs. Graduation caps were decorated with messages like, “Hi, Mom,” “The Catholic Three,” and the American flag. One row of senior graduation caps spelled out “Long Live the Spirit of 76.” Graduate David Peters, who calls himself a “Choir Queer,” (as opposed to the other groupings of “Stoners,” “Jocks,” and “Band Faggots”), says the graduation ceremonies have become increasingly more peaceful during the past few years. “Five years ago the valedictorians would get up and blast the administration. Now they get up and bless everyone with Jesus.” Religion is back. The Christians are in so much control now that one Jewish girl wrote an editorial in the school paper complaining that every other consciousness was obscured in a cloud of Christian bliss. (She later had a nervous breakdown,) Dave Peters, as one of “The Catholic Three,” genuflected as he crossed the stage to receive his diploma. It might have indeed been a needed prayer.

San Diego High School’s ceremoney, in contrast, was loudly serious. The Blacks and the Browns and a few Whites exuded a feeling that, even with the knowledge that their academic education was below average, their diplomas stood for something.

“I get the feeling,” says Juan Perino, "that they are really going to use those diplomas. They’re serious about their education. They know what is out there waiting for them, because they’ve been living in it for years.”

The Grossmont graduate may just now be getting a taste of real economic competition. Scott Lancaster, Grossmont’s student body president and a football player, says that the San Diego High team hit, gouged, kicked to the groin, anything to win. Football was for keeps, while the Grossmont players were tutored in the esthetics of sportsmanship.

Competition at Grossmont was chiefly for grades. Cindy Waddell says that the majority of her Grossmont classmates learned the subtleties of cheating, in their breathless race for grades. To them, grades were for keeps. Rosemary King agrees. She says she used to copy off of Cindy’s tests. And both of them resent the fact that what scholarships there are, are more available to the minorities. So much for grades.

Superintendent of Schools Thomas L. Goodman recently remarked on a shift in the attitude toward academic education. “The 7,000 students graduating from city high schools are not lock-stepped into college attendance and getting degrees. They see value in working for a year or two,' or traveling and getting a different perspective on the world before going for more formal education.”

Along with the slackening interest in college, because of the dubious value of degrees, interest in vocational training has soared. For instance, interest in vocational agriculture among high school students is the highest it has ever been in San Diego County, says Tom Swanson, an agricultural field officer for Security Pacific Bank. “The vocational agriculture program in county high schools has doubled in the last five years. Seven schools taught vocational agriculture in 1971 ;now there are 14 offering it.”

Other programs, like the school district’s Cooperative Office Program, a federally funded pilot program involving 30 Morse and San Diego High School students, are moving students into vocations as an alternative to college.

The thing to remember here is that for most of the black and brown high school graduates, college was never much of a possibility, at least not past junior college. The new phenomenon is that more students from high schools like Grossmont are heading directly for vocations instead of college. So the competition is getting rougher at the bottom. The question yet to be answered is who will win this competition, the academically neglected but street-wise graduates of San Diego High, or the better schooled but generally disillusioned graduates of Grossmont. If a high level of energy and a will to survive have anything to do with the outcome, the San Diego High School graduates may yet surprise themselves, their parents, and the academicians.

A few nights after graduation, Scott Lancaster, whose family lives in the Grossmont area, but owns a frequently burglarized liquor store in the black part of town, felt the sudden sense of loss that most high school graduates encounter. Everything that had made him something—football, academic achievement, the student body presidency—all of that was coming to a sudden close. “I was at this party, sitting there with my girlfriend and suddenly I didn’t know what I was going to do next. I broke down, I fell apart. I ran out the door and kept running. I mean, I’m going to college and everything, but I don’t know what for.”

Meanwhile, far from Mount Helix, there are dark rumblings on Market Street. A foreign country is getting up from its knees, and it knows what it wants.

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