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Valley — where bad kids in Escondido are sent

Hard times high school

Megan Gamble (center, rear): “We get the severely damaged kids at Valley."  - Image by Craig Carlson
Megan Gamble (center, rear): “We get the severely damaged kids at Valley."

When he was fourteen years old, Robert Bertheola had an unusual sense of humor. One day he went into a bank in Los Angeles and placed a piece of paper before the teller that read, “You’d better give me $3 million.” For his account number, Robert put “.44 Magnum.” The people at the bank, apparently, weren’t in a good mood that day. “I was only joking,” Robert insists. “They took it the wrong way.” So did the police. They booked him on attempted bank robbery and sent him to jail.

Classroom

He did three months and got out “when the judge decided I was just joking too.” But Robert was destined to be a troublemaker, to be the kind of kid only Father Flanagan of Boys Town could love. Numerous other encounters with the law led to arrests and incarceration in mental institutions. “My parents had some money,” Robert says, “so they would pay to send me to mental institutions to keep me out of jail.”

Phil, Shari, Robert

Three years later, Robert, a slim young man with a bulbous Afro hairstyle , looks back on his past as one might look at a landscape scarred by a long, slow battle. “I’ve been through a lot,” he says. There is an oldness in his dark brown eyes that contrasts strangely with a youthful face that sprouts a Five-day beard and mustache, both of which are sparse as an April field, both of which are probably five weeks old. Today Robert attends Valley High School in Escondido, and he’s turned his life around. He’s got friends, he’s got dreams, and he’s got motivation.

Smoke break

What do you call the place where all the bad boys and girls go? The ones who don’t do their homework? The ones who play hooky? The ones who call the teacher “Daddy-O”?" The ones who are “different,” who aren’t socialized enough to recognize limits, who dress outrageously, whom drugs make dysfunctional? What do you do with the incorrigibles?

No shirt Nick

For students in the Escondido Union High School District, the caboose on the educational train is called Valley Continuation High School, a huddle of squat buildings just off Bear Valley Parkway not far from Interstate 15. It is the place students go when no one else will take them.

Jamie, graduation day

Officially, Valley High is for students who “frequently exhibit disruptive, defiant, defensive, delinquent, apathetic, and/or unmanageable behavior when acting out against the comprehensive school system.” Principal Bob Lewis describes his school in more human terms.

Michael Salzano, Bob Lewis. Salzano: “Okay, we’re going to talk about something you all hate — it’s called love.’’

“Valley is a place for the abused kids, the misunderstood kids, the neglected kids, the kids who have been through a lot of trauma, a lot of pain.” In the shade of a eucalyptus tree near the school’s food stand, a sleepy-eyed stoner, showing the laconic candor non-adolescents can only feign, cuts to Valley’s essential core: “This school,” he says, munching a greasy poor boy sandwich, “is where they send the fuck-ups.”

Head counselor Megan Gamble is the first person most students get to know at Valley. It is her job to make them feel comfortable and to facilitate their re-entry into the classroom. “For the most part,” says Gamble, “we get the severely damaged kids at Valley. We get the walking, crawling wounded.”

Gamble, who is tall, slim, deeply tanned and forty, has been at Valley since 1979. A compassionate woman with large, probing blue eyes, she has worked with kids most of her adult life, not only here but in Australia and in Africa, where she was a Peace Corps volunteer. Essentially she patches up the students emotionally so they can get down to the business of studying. Their emotional problems, according to Gamble, are almost always related to family trauma.

“Occasionally we’ll get a kid who has two supportive parents, but has some genetic problem. However, that’s rare. Most of our students have been wounded at a young age by their environment. I had a seventeen-year-old girl in a class today whose mother woke her up at six in the morning to smoke a bong with her. Now, this girl doesn’t smoke dope, and she’s embarrassed that her mother gets high every day. Out of love for her mother, though, she tells us, ‘Oh, she can quit any time she wants to. ’ Essentially, the message the girl gets from her mother is, ‘If you love me, you’ll smoke dope with me.’ This poor girl came to school early this morning in order to get out of the house. She needed to find a place that was safe."

It is difficult to converse with Gamble anywhere but in her office, because students follow her around as they might a mother duck. She is very popular at Valley High. “She’s from outer space, if you ask me,” says Steve, a former punk. “She can place herself at anybody’s level. You don’t meet too many people like that. Even if she totally disagrees with what you’re saying, she’ll listen to you.”

And then she will probably hug you. Gamble seems determined to make the handshake obsolete; she hugs indiscriminately just about everyone who crosses her path. “These kids have serious self-esteem problems. What we do here is a sort of re-parenting. We try to show them that love can be expressed in ways other than what they’re used to at home. Essentially, the philosophy of the school is, ‘We accept you, so you can accept you.’ ” Jeannie is a “mod.” She is a petite Oriental girl who wears a skirt that is Sixties short, a hair band years out of style. She looks older than her sixteen years. Escondido High School kicked her out for “ditching” (hooky). “I was bored there,” she says, and so came to Valley High.

Her friend is Shari the Punk. Heavy black army boots. Black shirt. Cute and sharp. Her hair looks like something that grows on the ocean floor, some mysterious black plant in which lurks danger, or some dark secret. Each hair has an unruly personality of its own, seeming to go its own independent way. Hers is an anti-hairdo, a hairstylist’s nightmare, calculated organic anarchy. Shari’s soft, peaceful face presents a visual oxymoron, as confusing to the senses as the sound of a wailing siren on a stationary fire truck.

Shari the Punk is fourteen. “I tried to enroll in Escondido High School,” she says, “but the principal took one look at me and said I couldn’t dress like I do or wear my hair like this. They didn’t want me.” She speaks these last words with the self-pitying resonance of a child whose big sister has stolen her toy. Shari’s identity seems to be tied into that theme: “they” don’t want her. “I mean, if they can’t accept me for what I am,” says Shari the Punk, “I don’t want to go there anyway. I don’t want to be like all other people. I don't like the way everybody all looks the same.”

At first glance, the students at Valley High don’t look so different from those in a regular high school, except that they smoke cigarettes on campus, a privilege denied their mainstream peers, and on hot days half the guys are shirtless. The students move and speak with characteristic adolescent awkwardness, though some have raised that awkwardness to the level of unrefined grace. There are punks, mods, new wavers, trendies, breakers, cowboys, stoners, heavy metal rockers, low-riders, a few geeks, and some who vehemently refuse to be labeled. Valley is a potpourri of adolescent weirdness, the kind of place that makes stuffy adults’ skin crawl. Conspicuously absent are the jocks, the cheerleaders, and the “Einsteins” — the clean-cut sons and daughters of suburbia who go to proms and get excited about football. Even the neatly dressed “mods” — imitators of the early-Beatles/Connie Francis look that died twenty years ago — have an edge to them. Their dress is an ambiguous voice that speaks for most Valley students. It says, “We’re not what you think we are.”

“I think Valley is a cool school,” says Rick, a sixteen-year-old Valley student who gazes at the world with bloodshot, tired eyes and has a peculiar habit of repeating questions that are asked of him. “I couldn’t hang in the regular schools,” he says. “I was ditching all the time. I couldn’t conform to their rules,.and besides, I’d rather do what I want. It’s a lot more fun to go off and party than go to school.

“Is school important? Yeah, school is important, but it’s weird,” says Rick, seemingly lost in a vaporous thought. “Once you start ditching and going off and partying, school seems like a total drag.

“What’s partying mean?” he repeats with a laugh that conveys his astonishment at the naivete of the question. “Partying means, I don’t know, going out and having fun. Hanging out. Getting high.”

No-shirt Nick joins the group. “This is a rad school,” says the short, spunky fifteen-year-old who, for once, is wearing his shirt. “The teachers don’t hassle you as much as at regular schools. You can smoke cigarettes where you want. I used to go to Orange Glen, the funkest school in Escondido. It’s a raw deal there, ’cuz the principals, teachers, and security guards hassle you all the time. This place is cool. I mean, if this place wasn’t cool, would they have Jim Morrison over there or what?” On the wall opposite is a mural of Jim Morrison’s head framed in a black star.

Valley High has a very good reputation among educators in the Escondido School District. Everyone is genuinely relieved that a place exists to accommodate troublemakers and other students for whom the standard schools are inappropriate. Pat Ross, principal at nearby San Pasqual High, says, “Valley meets a very real and important need for students who have trouble in schools like mine.” Forest Fouts, Escondido Union High School Superintendent, is very enthusiastic about Valley. “They have a difficult job,” he says, “but you’ve got to hand it to them. They work very well with the kids.”

Because Valley is so small, the students, teachers, and counselers all know one another and address one another by their first names. Contrary to its reputation, it is a very friendly place. Though many students at the school have caused serious trouble elsewhere, Bob Lewis, principal of the school, claims that fighting and vandalism are almost nonexistent at Valley. There is no graffiti in the classrooms, and even the bathroom walls are clean. Unlike other schools in San Diego County, there are no on-site security guards. Nobody can remember a teacher having been threatened.

“We take the pressure off the kids and let them be what they are,” says Megan Gamble. “At Valley, they don’t have to play the tough guy or the tough chick. People fight from a sense that they aren’t okay the way they are. Our kids fight when they’re off campus, but since we let them be themselves here, this place has become sort of like a sanctuary, like an embassy.” Among the general public, however, Valley suffers image problems. The school is the object of derision (from students in other schools), fear (from parents who dread their child may end up there), and contempt (from anyone who needs a scapegoat). A staff member once told a woman at her dentist’s office that she worked at Valley. “Goodness,” replied the woman, “how can you stand working there?” A long-haired student, walking innocently along the road one day, was stopped by a cop and asked to present identification. When he learned the boy was from Valley, the officer said, “It figures.”

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“I’ve had people pick me up hitchhiking and freak out when I tell them to drop me off at Valley,” says Robert. “They actually moved toward the driver’s side of the car. People think of us as a subclass, as subhuman.” Robert points to another symptom of Valley’s distorted reputation:

“Some kids actually mess up on purpose so they can get in here. There’s a mystique about us that comes from stories about all the terrible things we do. But most of it is BS. The kids come here for the wrong reason if they want to keep screwing up. We’re here to get out of that, not perpetuate it.”

Both Rick and Nick show anger when reminded of Valley’s poor reputation. “I’d rather be here than in any other school,” says Nick. “And I don’t really care if other schools think of us as fuck-ups.”

“My grandmother doesn’t like me going to Valley High,” says sleepy-eyed Rick. “She’s really conservative and old fashioned and she thinks Valley isn’t good enough for me. She wants me to go to Yale. But that’s not my style.” He looks to Nick as if for confirmation. “I don’t think I’m cut out for Yale.”

Over a Happy Cheeseburger and a Sprite at Carl’s Jr., a sixteen-year-old Valley student — call him Daffy — explains that when he grows up he wants to join the police force and become part of the vice squad.

“But you smoke dope,” says another student.

“So?”

“Well, don’t you think you’ll have to stop smoking dope to become part of the vice squad?” he is asked.

“No, not really, ’cuz I wouldn’t do it when I was on the job. You know, you do what you ’re going to do on the job, but when you’re off work, that’s your own time.”

The other student interjects, “But wouldn’t you feel uncomfortable busting somebody during the day for smoking marijuana, then going home at night and lighting up a bong yourself?”

That thought had apparently never occurred to Daffy. “No, not really,” he replies. “You see, I wouldn’t bust anybody for having less than an ounce or so. I just want to be one of those cops who kicks back. I don’t want to be one of those dicks. I want to be cool.”

Though drugs are considered a problem at Valley, most everyone, teachers and students alike, insists that there is no more drug abuse at Valley than elsewhere. The most common drugs are alcohol and marijuana. Crystal methedrine, a cheap form of speed known as “poor man’s cocaine,” is popular as well. No one knows of any Valley student who shoots drugs intravenously.

One young man insists that ninety-five percent of Valley’s students do drugs regularly and that it is not uncommon for them to get high on campus. “One day I saw two guys snorting coke right in the classroom,” he says. But another student, who makes it clear he gets high regularly, says the active drug users number more like fifty percent of the student body. Principal Lewis does what he can to curtail drug abuse; he has a reputation for “beating bushes” trying to catch kids using drugs on campus. One day recently he caught a student with two bags of marijuana. He called the police and the boy was arrested.

Megan Gamble appeals to the students’ sense of reason. She tells them, “You don’t take your books to parties, do you? So don’t take drugs to school.” One student, who admits he gets high several times a week after classes, says Gamble’s words “make a lot of sense to me.”

Though the staff tries to minimize the extent of drug abuse, the problem is bad enough to have resulted in a schedule change not long ago. Valley used to have a half-hour lunch break at 11:00 a.m., after which students attended their final class of the day. But during the break many would go to nearby Kit Carson Park and smoke dope. ‘‘There would be as many as a hundred kids there every day,” says seventeen-year-old Jennifer. “They’d just be kicking back, getting high. Then they’d return to classes all messed up.” Valley has cut out the lunch breaks, and now most students attend four fifty-minute sessions. With breaks between classes, this keeps them at Valley from eight in the morning until noon.

“One of the most abused drugs on this campus is crystal methedrine,” says Gamble. “Crystal is a major problem; it is cut with so much bad stuff, and when the kids come down off it they experience what they call ‘the melt.’ They experience huge emotional swings, depressions that sometimes look like psychotic breaks.

Parents will sometimes see their kids crying for the first time, for no apparent reason. During a ‘melt’ the kids will swear they’ll never touch the stuff again.”

Gamble estimates that about thirty percent of Valley students get high every day. According to Bob Lewis, an average of two students a year die in drug-related automobile accidents.

Valley’s campus, which covers only a few thousand square yards, is little more than a handful of trailers (“relocatable buildings,” in school administrative parlance) bunched together, and a pockmarked dirt parking lot. Not a classy layout, by any means. Dreary, in fact. It’s been there fourteen years, but still seems to have one foot on the platform, the other on the train. Valley looks unwanted and unloved, as transitory as the lives of its students. A peek into Valley’s classrooms reveals that there are few “classes” in the strict sense of the word. Teachers don’t lecture groups of students studying the same material. Every student has his own self-paced curriculum. The students sit at their desks in individual combat with the history of the American Revolution, Emerson’s Self-Reliance, Algebra One, or Civics. The teachers roam the classroom, checking on students’ progress, offering assistance, providing encouragement, and otherwise meeting students’ specific needs.

The self-paced curriculum has its good and bad points. “I have a girl in a class who can’t divide,” says one math instructor. “Right next to her I got a kid who’s a whiz at percentages. The self-paced curriculum allows that girl to be in the class and not feel bad. She can make progress and feel success without comparing herself to everybody else.”

Students who are very bright can move much more quickly through Valley than they can a typical school. Seventeen-year-old Jamie, for example, plowed through a year’s worth of credits in nineteen weeks. He could have gone faster, though. “For a while my study habits got very bad,” he said. “There’s no pressure on you in this system, and it’s very easy to come home and say, ‘Shine the work.’ ” A phone call from a teacher inquiring about Jaimie’s absences was all it took to get him back on track. He graduates this week and hopes to go on to USC.

Jamie is an exception. Though 600 students enrolled during the academic year, summer vacation will liberate only the bold 350 who remain; the others dropped out either because they could not handle school or because they wanted to work. (A number of students, many of whom graduate, attend Valley solely because the shortened school day allows them to hold down an outside job.) Only forty-five of one hundred eligible seniors will graduate this year. And only one in one hundred will go on to a four-year college.

In a regular high school, the students adjust to the teachers, whose job it is to cover a given amount of material during the course. At Valley, the teachers adjust to the individual needs of each student. Their job is complicated by a number of variables that hinder the learning process: students’ emotional problems; learning disabilities; antisocial, often criminal behavior; drugs; and, as if that weren’t enough, the intrusion of contemporary societal values that depreciate the importance of education. The problem Valley’s teachers face becomes clear in the class entitled “Decisions.”

It’s ten o’clock on a Friday morning, and “Decisions” has just begun. Though the course is required of a few “emotionally disturbed” students, many others choose to come on their own. “Decisions” is based on the principles of school psychologist Michael Salzano’s “decisional model,” a process the students can use to help them “think before they act.” Salzano presides over the discussion, which has turned to “adults.”

“They think they know it all,” one boy says. “They try to teach you something, but they want to shape you. That’s the wrong approach. Everyone should be their own self. When someone is always nagging you, it gets on your nerves.”

“But they think they’re helping us,” a shy young man points out.

“Yeah,” interjects a pretty brunette with a stuffy nose, “but look how screwed up they are.’’ Everyone laughs.

“My stepdad thinks he’s the big guy with authority,” puffs a small guy with a look of tight-chinned contempt. “He’s got this big image. He thinks, you know, ‘I’m a dad now, and I can tell this kid what to do.’ He thinks he’s the big all-time dude. He’s an asshole.”

No-shirt Nick can’t sit still. He stands up, sits down, stands up again, chats with his neighbor. Fiddles with his pencil, and taps his fingers on the desk. When he finally gets settled in his chair, his head darts from one side to the other, trying to find something that interests him. Apparently the discussion can’t hold his attention for more than a minute or so.

“I don’t think parents do anything to consciously hurt kids,” says the shy boy. “It’s just that parents and kids are talking two different languages. Parents talk about love, but they’re really afraid. They just don’t want us to get massively into drugs, drop out of school, and get arrested. They have a point, but they deal with the problem in the wrong way.”

A baby-faced fourteen-year-old has been trying to voice his opinion since the discussion began. It’s obvious that all this frivolous talk has been boring him. It skirts the real issue, which was clear to him from the start. “Hey,” he says, “we just want to party, that’s all.”

In response to a question about how many of the twenty-five students have been arrested, three-quarters of the class raise their hands. The charges? No problem getting answers from these kids. A swell of criminal accusations rises from all comers of the room: burglary, assault and battery, petty larceny, grand theft, MIP (minors in possession), dealing in controlled substances, shoplifting, truancy, possession of firearms, disorderly conduct, and so on. Conspicuously silent is Phil, a sixteen-year-old with long, straight blond hair, combat pants ripped at the knee, a bandanna tied warrior-style around the head, and the hardened look of someone who’s seen the world from behind bars more than once.

Phil is asked what he has been arrested for. He shifts in his seat. “Burglary,” he says. ‘‘And buds [marijuana]. And grand theft auto. And stealing a gun.”

The proud din of defiance in the room has turned to deferential silence. Phil has established himself as the heavy. “I also have six drunk-in-publics,” he adds, his head bowed, hiding a coy smile. When he looks up, his classmates respond with a polite round of applause.

Phil looks like a teenage Country Joe McDonald, a hippified anachronism displaced in the year of Big Brother. His long, straight hair, his bandanna, and his combat pants evoke images of militant peaceniks back in the Sixties. But Phil is 1980s “heavy metal” through and through, and a typical Valley student — a trouble -maker, an outsider, a victim of a broken home.

“When he arrived at Valley three years ago,” says Michael Salzano, “you couldn’t get near him. He hated all authority.” Phil has been in a lot of trouble. The reasons are classic. His parents were divorced; he fought often with his father; at age nine he was hanging around with kids as old as eighteen, who introduced him to drugs. He developed a liking for alcohol. “I’ve got problems with the bottle,” he says. “I get violent when I get drunk. My doctor says I have an allergic reaction to it. Not long ago I got drunk in a Boll Weevil and I just got wild, breaking pool cues, throwing pool balls, trying to hurt people.”

Phil knows he’s got to change. “I just figure I gotta straighten my ass up. I’m sixteen years old, and I don’t want to go to jail. If I get one more felony, I get fourteen months.”

However, Phil is no more willing than Shari the Punk to change his appearance. “When I walk into a store with my mom, I feel bad for her sake, because I know it’s embarrassing for her. But I’m not going to change the way I look. I say, ‘Shine ’em.’ I like this look, I like long hair. I am what I am whether others like it or not. You shouldn’t judge people by the way they look.”

Phil attributes much of his progress in the past three years to Salzano. “He helped me a lot,” says Phil. “He showed me how to think, rather than react. If I’m doing something wrong, I stop, take five seconds to think about it, then decide if I should do it or not. Sal provides guidelines.

“This school makes you look at your responsibilities. Responsibilities and decisions are mostly what this school is all about. It’s getting you prepared for the world you’ll be living in when you get older. That’s what this school means to me.”

The discussion in “Decisions” class turns to the value of the humanities. For the most part, the students’ attitudes are negative. English, history, foreign languages, and the great works of Western literature are not on their list of priorities in life (not that they would be in a regular high school). “It’s nice to go to school and learn all that stuff,” says one fellow, “but once you get out what are you going to do with it?

“History is a waste of time,” he continues. “We’re so into the future with computers and stuff, why are we looking back on the past?” The class echoes almost unanimous approval.

A black student, who makes it known he has been no stranger to racism, complains that history has failed blacks. “Black people were in history,” he says, “but they weren’t in the history books very much.” Salzano asks him if he has studied the history of black people. “Not to the fullest extent,” he answers. Someone suggests that perhaps he could be the person to give his people their due. “Well, yeah,” he replies thoughtfully.

The pretty brunette with the stuffy nose risks an unpopular view. “I think history is important,” she says. “They say that history repeats itself, so that knowing the past can help us understand the present and the future.” “Bah,” interjects a young man. “What do we care about some dead person?”

Sentiment is building in the room for the brunette’s point of view. “What about rock and roll?” says a bright-eyed teenybopper. “What about the history of rock and roll? Isn’t that important?”

In the midst of thoughtful silence, several wrinkled brows turn to the fellow who thought history was a waste of time. With reluctant sheepishness, he admits what everyone knows is true: “Yes, the history of rock and roll is important.”

The Valley High Schools of the world need a Father Flanagan. Valley has one, a Fifty-two-year-old man with a mission. His name is Michael Salzano, a tall, firmly built Italian with curly gray hair, a silver-streaked beard, and a deeply lined face that looks as if it has been chiseled from solid rock. His friends call him Sal. All the kids at Valley High call him Sal.

Salzano wants to change the world, and he has decided to start in an educational shantytown in Escondido. The oldest staff member at Valley High, Salzano was there when it all began in 1970 with nineteen students. For fourteen years he has been the school psychologist, helping rejects readapt, making misfits fit, reminding the forgotten that they count too. “I’ve seen so many things and heard so many stories that I don’t even know what’s extraordinary anymore,” says Salzano. “I used to react to the ugliness, to the kids getting knocked around by their parents, to little boys and girls being used by their parents for sexual favors, to the neglect, and so on. I’d get angry and want to save the kids. But it doesn’t really make me angry any more. It makes me sad.”

He tells of a boy he had at Valley years ago whose father allegedly forced him to perform homosexual acts. “The man had the boy convinced he’d kill him if he talked. The wife and family knew about it and ignored what was going on. The kid ended up committing suicide. He OD’d on downers and alcohol, then got into a Jacuzzi and drowned. It may have looked like an accident, but that kid knew what he was doing. He wanted to die.”

Salzano knows that there is still a lot of abuse going on. And he knows that Valley is an obvious dumping ground for the victims of sick adults. “Oh, they ’re out there, but I don’t hear much about them,” he says. “You see, if a kid comes to me with a problem. I’m required by law to report it to the police. I’ll only encourage a kid to tell me something if I think he or she can handle it. Normally, I try to get the kids to a place where they feel strong enough to reveal what’s going on.”

"The kids in the regular schools are going to make it. But the kind of kids we get at Valley can undermine everything we’ve got in this society. They are the ones the police departments exist for. They’re going to be on the welfare rolls, or in the prisons. They’re going to be the drunks, the drug addicts, the dealers, the abusers. They are a force we don’t want to reckon with because they are potentially so destructive. The thing is that if we don’t reckon with them, they will become destructive.”

The students at Valley love Salzano. Bob Lewis, the principal, half-jokingly refers to him as Valley’s “guru.” His office is constantly filled with the buzz of adolescent chitchat. When he walks out into the main quadrangle he is immediately surrounded by students. Some don’t even address him; they just want to be near. Salzano is a role model. He’s got something the kids at Valley want.

Salzano likes to tell his students the story of the “one-hundredth monkey. ” It goes like this: An anthropologist had been observing a group of chimpanzees on an island for some time. One day a chimp dropped a recently picked sweet potato into a stream he was crossing. He picked it up and ate it, noticing, no doubt, that it tasted better because it wasn’t covered with dirt. The next time he ate a sweet potato he went to the stream and washed it first. Soon the other ninety-nine chimps on the island began imitating his behavior. Then, inexplicably, chimps on nearby islands, who had no contact with their enlightened neighbors, began washing sweet potatoes as well.

“I try to tell the kids that they are the one-hundredth monkey, the one who first discovered the secret,” Salzano says. I try to convince them that we could change the world. I have great faith in each individual; each person is part and parcel of everything that goes on in this world. It’s like Charles Manson said: ‘I don’t know what you people are complaining about, you created me.’ He was telling us something; he was saying, ‘Your anger, your hatred, your prejudice created me. I bought it and I killed somebody with it.’

“The point in the one-hundredth monkey story is that somehow the message about washing sweet potatoes was conveyed to nearby islands spontaneously. If there was a way to expand positivity to the point where it was contagious, to the point where it could be conveyed spontaneously, what kind of a world might we have?”

Robert is one student for whom Salzano’s monkey story seems particularly appropriate. When he was small his adoptive parents split up, and Robert spent his childhood “hopping between my mother and my father. My attitude was that life sucked and that everybody was out to ax my head and that if I couldn’t get what I could right now, then I wasn’t going to get anything. I just felt like nobody gave a fuck what happened to me, that I wasn’t important.”

In his early teens Robert took to the streets, where he panhandled and played the street con. “We had great scams worked out,” he said. “Me and this guy I knew would park the car on the street, open the hood, and tell people we were outta gas. I’d give them the whole spiel and they’d give me ten or fifteen bucks. It was incredible.”

Robert got involved with bikers, who exposed him to drugs. He also became adept at the martial arts, which he used to “thrash” people. “I guess I broke some people up,” admitted Robert, “but I never wanted to kill anybody.” In one fight, Robert got broken up himself. “I threw a guy down on the ground,” he explained, “but he pulled a gun and I took a .22 in the leg and in the hip.

“It got to the point where I was seeing people getting shot all the time. I saw a guy get his face beat with a ratchet so bad that he had to have thirteen hours of reconstructive surgery. At that time I was saying, ‘What’s the difference?’ I didn’t care about anything anymore. A buck’s a buck. Anyone’s life didn't really matter.

“I spent a lot of time in mental hospitals. I used to get off on that scam. Those places are like Holiday Inns. You can just kick back, take it easy, and get drugs when you want them. We used to get violent with the staff. I remember a riot we had once where we were throwing the staff through Plexiglass windows, the kind that are supposed to be unbreakable.”

Last September Robert enrolled at Orange Glen High School in Escondido. He didn’t last long. ‘‘I got mad at a teacher and punched out a window,” said Robert. “They claimed I intended to punch the teacher, so they sent me to Valley.”

When Robert came to Valley last October he dressed in black leather, wore dark sunglasses, and called himself “Conan.” “I was into badmouth-ing teachers,” he says. “I had no friends. I was threatening. Nobody ever saw Robert; they just saw Conan. But slowly Sal coaxed me out of my shell.”

Robert, who says he wants to enter a graduate program in psychology, preferably at Berkeley, makes no secret of his admiration for Salzano. “He turned my life around completely. I know where I was heading when I came here, and I know I’d have gotten in a lot more trouble. For some reason I listened to him. I think people hear him more than they hear others. He talks to us kids in a different way. Maybe it’s because he’s been there, because he has had the experiences himself.”

In his twenties Salzano was part of a car-stealing ring in New Orleans..“I was a thief and an exploiter,” he says. “I had eighteen arrests and thirteen convictions, five of which were felonies. At that time of my life my attitude was ‘Hey, they owe it to me,’ so I went out and got it. Ripping people off was no problem for me.”

After three years in jail, Salzano decided to straighten himself out. Though he had no degree at the time, he managed to get a job teaching part time at a high school. When someone quit unexpectedly during the year, Salzano was asked to take over. "There was an incredible shortage of teachers in Louisiana at that time, so I got the job,” he says. ‘‘But I was learning the material right along with the kids, staying just a few chapters ahead of them.” He loved teaching, and noticed he was very good at it, so he started taking classes to finish up his bachelor’s degree. He has been working with kids ever since, trying to get young people like Robert to change. “These kids don’t realize that they don't have to behave as they do. Drawing from my own experience, I try to show them that they have choices.”

The subject today in Salzano’s “Decisions” class is “love experiences,” and the class is being conducted by Lydia Bettig, who works as a counseling intern at Valley. Salzano assists. The idea is that since most Valley students come from broken homes, they probably haven’t experienced much love during their childhoods. Bettig hopes to help them better understand how their upbringing has affected them. “Some of these kids,” she explains, “have never been given so much as a word of encouragement in their lives. Nobody has ever told them they did something right, or that they were good people.” The class gets off to a rocky start because half the group has forgotten to bring pencils. Phil is leaning back on his chair, tapping his fingers to cerebrally composed heavy metal, looking as though he would rather be just about anywhere else. His neighbor whispers, “Hey, have you got an extra pencil?”

As if breaking bread, Phil, without a moment’s hesitation, splits his pencil in half and hands the splintered stub to his chum.

Bettig plays a tape of the soundtrack from the final scene of the film The Rose, with Bette Midler, a story based loosely on the life of Janis Joplin. Midler’s character has just shot her last fix before going on stage. She stands in front of her audience muttering incoherently like a lost child, as if trying to spit out a pathetic, lamenting farewell to a world in which she never found love. Midler is brilliant, but the students respond with blank faces that conceal their churning emotions. Before she gets to the song she intended to sing, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,’’ the Rose falls and dies of a drug overdose. Then the voice of Midler singing the title track cuts in: “Some say love, it is a river that drowns the tender reed/Some say love, it is a razor that leaves your soul to bleed.’’

Teenagers do not like to talk about love. When Bettig turns off the tape, the nervous, adolescent energy hangs in the air as thick as tar; it’s there in the fidgeting and the creaking chairs that fill the room like an anxious, subterranean hum. For most of these fourteen-to sixteen-year-olds, having to deal with this is punishment. They keep looking at the clock, but it’s at least twenty minutes till the buzzer will sound to end the session.

Bettig scans the room and asks for reactions to the song. There is none.

Salzano speaks up. “Okay, we’re going to talk about something you all hate — it’s called love.’’ Comic relief.

Bettig goes to the blackboard. She reads what she’d written earlier: “In order to understand why I experience love the way I do, I need to identify what I believe love is. I realize that my understanding of love is based on my past experiences. To see the situation clearly, I need to examine these love experiences, to identify how they have programmed me for either a positive or a negative love life.’’ She asks if anyone would like to tell the class of a time in the past when he or she felt loved.

The students bow their heads. No one responds.

“Come on,’’ says Salzano. “Don’t wait around for someone else. Take a chance.’’

No one does, so both Salzano and Bettig relate experiences from their own pasts when they felt loved. The nervousness in the room subsides and the kids all look up, listening attentively and empathetically.

“Now,” says Bettig, “who would like to share a love experience?” Heads dip like dive bombers and the fidgeting recommences like the sound of crickets stirred unexpectedly in the night. Salzano calls on a couple of people, but no one can think of a suitable event to share.

“Take a risk,” insists Salzano. “Don’t worry about ...”

The buzzer sounds, interrupting him in midsentence, and before you can sigh with relief, two-thirds of the class is out the door. The razor touched the skin, but no blood was spilt in third-hour “Decisions" class today.

Afterward Salzano and Bettig discuss why the students didn’t respond very well. “When you’re talking about an area as conflictual as love, you have to expect that,” says Salzano. “Even adults don’t like to talk about love. We were asking the kids to do some heavy introspection and they may not have been ready for that.

“Besides, that is a particularly tough group, those kids between fourteen and sixteen years old. They’re in such a state of flux that they don’t know whom to believe. It’s much easier to work with kids who are a little older.”

At Carl’s Jr., several students talk about the morning ’s "Decisions" class that didn’t seem to work.

“Sal and Lydia are human too,” says Robert.

“Sometimes what happens in there touches everyone in a little way,” says Jennifer, another student and Robert’s girlfriend. “I know with me that things click later on.”

“That song affected me,” Daffy admits.

“I could tell everyone in that room was affected,” insists Jennifer. “They put on an act to make it look like it didn’t touch them, but it did.”

Daffy, Robert, and Mike all concur: “Yeah, everybody was moved.”

The following day five students came to Bettig and asked her to play the tape again at the next class meeting.

“What you see at Valley High is an indictment of our society," says Valley High principal Bob Lewis. “These kids are the product of broken homes, of family trauma, of the media, of the drug culture, of a society that places more value on entertaining its children than educating them.”

Indeed, the children of Valley High seem to embody everything that is most ephemeral in American culture.

They are to adults what the nouveaux riches are to the gentry — embarrassing in their guileless excess: hyperbolic in their use of drugs, in their thirst to be distracted and entertained, in their ignorance, and in their narcissism. They even have the nerve to flaunt what they are — with pride, honesty, and vitality. Certainly Julie is one of them. She is energetic and talkative, and though she is only sixteen years old, she speaks with a combination of wisdom and cynicism that belies her age.

“I hate authority,” Julie says. “I’ve been rebellious since fifth grade.” She used to go to Orange Glen High School but she left because, she says, the students and teachers refused to accept her. “Everybody used to call me a dirthead. That means a stoner. I don’t think of myself as a stoner, though. I just think of myself as a person who likes to party. I like to go out and get blazed listening to heavy-metal music. I don’t usually get high at school, though. But do I smoke every day? Sometimes. Well, yeah, a lot.”

Julie claims that her attitude toward school has changed dramatically since she’s come to Valley. “They treat you like an adult here,” she says. “They let you make up your own mind. If you don’t want to work, that’s your choice; you just graduate later.”

Several other students gather around and join the discussion as Julie continues. “At Orange Glen, you go to school all day and you come home totally burned out,” she complains.

“Yeah,” says another student only half in jest, “you’re so burned out you can’t even party.”

“Then you have homework,” continues Julie. “I don’t see the point in doing school work after school. I mean, they give you enough while you’re there. That’s what turned me off at Orange Glen. We were overworked.”

“And the teachers there [at Orange Glen] were so boring,” says another girl. “All they do is lecture you, and if you didn’t buy what they were saying, they’d get all upset.”

“They’d make us diagram sentences,” says Julie. “I mean, what are you going to do — go around the rest of your life diagramming sentences? I know a girl who had to write a composition, so she wrote the whole thing in diagrammed sentences. She got an F. I mean, what do these teachers want? And it’s not that I don’t know how important education is. It’s the only thing you get in life that’s free.”

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Megan Gamble (center, rear): “We get the severely damaged kids at Valley."  - Image by Craig Carlson
Megan Gamble (center, rear): “We get the severely damaged kids at Valley."

When he was fourteen years old, Robert Bertheola had an unusual sense of humor. One day he went into a bank in Los Angeles and placed a piece of paper before the teller that read, “You’d better give me $3 million.” For his account number, Robert put “.44 Magnum.” The people at the bank, apparently, weren’t in a good mood that day. “I was only joking,” Robert insists. “They took it the wrong way.” So did the police. They booked him on attempted bank robbery and sent him to jail.

Classroom

He did three months and got out “when the judge decided I was just joking too.” But Robert was destined to be a troublemaker, to be the kind of kid only Father Flanagan of Boys Town could love. Numerous other encounters with the law led to arrests and incarceration in mental institutions. “My parents had some money,” Robert says, “so they would pay to send me to mental institutions to keep me out of jail.”

Phil, Shari, Robert

Three years later, Robert, a slim young man with a bulbous Afro hairstyle , looks back on his past as one might look at a landscape scarred by a long, slow battle. “I’ve been through a lot,” he says. There is an oldness in his dark brown eyes that contrasts strangely with a youthful face that sprouts a Five-day beard and mustache, both of which are sparse as an April field, both of which are probably five weeks old. Today Robert attends Valley High School in Escondido, and he’s turned his life around. He’s got friends, he’s got dreams, and he’s got motivation.

Smoke break

What do you call the place where all the bad boys and girls go? The ones who don’t do their homework? The ones who play hooky? The ones who call the teacher “Daddy-O”?" The ones who are “different,” who aren’t socialized enough to recognize limits, who dress outrageously, whom drugs make dysfunctional? What do you do with the incorrigibles?

No shirt Nick

For students in the Escondido Union High School District, the caboose on the educational train is called Valley Continuation High School, a huddle of squat buildings just off Bear Valley Parkway not far from Interstate 15. It is the place students go when no one else will take them.

Jamie, graduation day

Officially, Valley High is for students who “frequently exhibit disruptive, defiant, defensive, delinquent, apathetic, and/or unmanageable behavior when acting out against the comprehensive school system.” Principal Bob Lewis describes his school in more human terms.

Michael Salzano, Bob Lewis. Salzano: “Okay, we’re going to talk about something you all hate — it’s called love.’’

“Valley is a place for the abused kids, the misunderstood kids, the neglected kids, the kids who have been through a lot of trauma, a lot of pain.” In the shade of a eucalyptus tree near the school’s food stand, a sleepy-eyed stoner, showing the laconic candor non-adolescents can only feign, cuts to Valley’s essential core: “This school,” he says, munching a greasy poor boy sandwich, “is where they send the fuck-ups.”

Head counselor Megan Gamble is the first person most students get to know at Valley. It is her job to make them feel comfortable and to facilitate their re-entry into the classroom. “For the most part,” says Gamble, “we get the severely damaged kids at Valley. We get the walking, crawling wounded.”

Gamble, who is tall, slim, deeply tanned and forty, has been at Valley since 1979. A compassionate woman with large, probing blue eyes, she has worked with kids most of her adult life, not only here but in Australia and in Africa, where she was a Peace Corps volunteer. Essentially she patches up the students emotionally so they can get down to the business of studying. Their emotional problems, according to Gamble, are almost always related to family trauma.

“Occasionally we’ll get a kid who has two supportive parents, but has some genetic problem. However, that’s rare. Most of our students have been wounded at a young age by their environment. I had a seventeen-year-old girl in a class today whose mother woke her up at six in the morning to smoke a bong with her. Now, this girl doesn’t smoke dope, and she’s embarrassed that her mother gets high every day. Out of love for her mother, though, she tells us, ‘Oh, she can quit any time she wants to. ’ Essentially, the message the girl gets from her mother is, ‘If you love me, you’ll smoke dope with me.’ This poor girl came to school early this morning in order to get out of the house. She needed to find a place that was safe."

It is difficult to converse with Gamble anywhere but in her office, because students follow her around as they might a mother duck. She is very popular at Valley High. “She’s from outer space, if you ask me,” says Steve, a former punk. “She can place herself at anybody’s level. You don’t meet too many people like that. Even if she totally disagrees with what you’re saying, she’ll listen to you.”

And then she will probably hug you. Gamble seems determined to make the handshake obsolete; she hugs indiscriminately just about everyone who crosses her path. “These kids have serious self-esteem problems. What we do here is a sort of re-parenting. We try to show them that love can be expressed in ways other than what they’re used to at home. Essentially, the philosophy of the school is, ‘We accept you, so you can accept you.’ ” Jeannie is a “mod.” She is a petite Oriental girl who wears a skirt that is Sixties short, a hair band years out of style. She looks older than her sixteen years. Escondido High School kicked her out for “ditching” (hooky). “I was bored there,” she says, and so came to Valley High.

Her friend is Shari the Punk. Heavy black army boots. Black shirt. Cute and sharp. Her hair looks like something that grows on the ocean floor, some mysterious black plant in which lurks danger, or some dark secret. Each hair has an unruly personality of its own, seeming to go its own independent way. Hers is an anti-hairdo, a hairstylist’s nightmare, calculated organic anarchy. Shari’s soft, peaceful face presents a visual oxymoron, as confusing to the senses as the sound of a wailing siren on a stationary fire truck.

Shari the Punk is fourteen. “I tried to enroll in Escondido High School,” she says, “but the principal took one look at me and said I couldn’t dress like I do or wear my hair like this. They didn’t want me.” She speaks these last words with the self-pitying resonance of a child whose big sister has stolen her toy. Shari’s identity seems to be tied into that theme: “they” don’t want her. “I mean, if they can’t accept me for what I am,” says Shari the Punk, “I don’t want to go there anyway. I don’t want to be like all other people. I don't like the way everybody all looks the same.”

At first glance, the students at Valley High don’t look so different from those in a regular high school, except that they smoke cigarettes on campus, a privilege denied their mainstream peers, and on hot days half the guys are shirtless. The students move and speak with characteristic adolescent awkwardness, though some have raised that awkwardness to the level of unrefined grace. There are punks, mods, new wavers, trendies, breakers, cowboys, stoners, heavy metal rockers, low-riders, a few geeks, and some who vehemently refuse to be labeled. Valley is a potpourri of adolescent weirdness, the kind of place that makes stuffy adults’ skin crawl. Conspicuously absent are the jocks, the cheerleaders, and the “Einsteins” — the clean-cut sons and daughters of suburbia who go to proms and get excited about football. Even the neatly dressed “mods” — imitators of the early-Beatles/Connie Francis look that died twenty years ago — have an edge to them. Their dress is an ambiguous voice that speaks for most Valley students. It says, “We’re not what you think we are.”

“I think Valley is a cool school,” says Rick, a sixteen-year-old Valley student who gazes at the world with bloodshot, tired eyes and has a peculiar habit of repeating questions that are asked of him. “I couldn’t hang in the regular schools,” he says. “I was ditching all the time. I couldn’t conform to their rules,.and besides, I’d rather do what I want. It’s a lot more fun to go off and party than go to school.

“Is school important? Yeah, school is important, but it’s weird,” says Rick, seemingly lost in a vaporous thought. “Once you start ditching and going off and partying, school seems like a total drag.

“What’s partying mean?” he repeats with a laugh that conveys his astonishment at the naivete of the question. “Partying means, I don’t know, going out and having fun. Hanging out. Getting high.”

No-shirt Nick joins the group. “This is a rad school,” says the short, spunky fifteen-year-old who, for once, is wearing his shirt. “The teachers don’t hassle you as much as at regular schools. You can smoke cigarettes where you want. I used to go to Orange Glen, the funkest school in Escondido. It’s a raw deal there, ’cuz the principals, teachers, and security guards hassle you all the time. This place is cool. I mean, if this place wasn’t cool, would they have Jim Morrison over there or what?” On the wall opposite is a mural of Jim Morrison’s head framed in a black star.

Valley High has a very good reputation among educators in the Escondido School District. Everyone is genuinely relieved that a place exists to accommodate troublemakers and other students for whom the standard schools are inappropriate. Pat Ross, principal at nearby San Pasqual High, says, “Valley meets a very real and important need for students who have trouble in schools like mine.” Forest Fouts, Escondido Union High School Superintendent, is very enthusiastic about Valley. “They have a difficult job,” he says, “but you’ve got to hand it to them. They work very well with the kids.”

Because Valley is so small, the students, teachers, and counselers all know one another and address one another by their first names. Contrary to its reputation, it is a very friendly place. Though many students at the school have caused serious trouble elsewhere, Bob Lewis, principal of the school, claims that fighting and vandalism are almost nonexistent at Valley. There is no graffiti in the classrooms, and even the bathroom walls are clean. Unlike other schools in San Diego County, there are no on-site security guards. Nobody can remember a teacher having been threatened.

“We take the pressure off the kids and let them be what they are,” says Megan Gamble. “At Valley, they don’t have to play the tough guy or the tough chick. People fight from a sense that they aren’t okay the way they are. Our kids fight when they’re off campus, but since we let them be themselves here, this place has become sort of like a sanctuary, like an embassy.” Among the general public, however, Valley suffers image problems. The school is the object of derision (from students in other schools), fear (from parents who dread their child may end up there), and contempt (from anyone who needs a scapegoat). A staff member once told a woman at her dentist’s office that she worked at Valley. “Goodness,” replied the woman, “how can you stand working there?” A long-haired student, walking innocently along the road one day, was stopped by a cop and asked to present identification. When he learned the boy was from Valley, the officer said, “It figures.”

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“I’ve had people pick me up hitchhiking and freak out when I tell them to drop me off at Valley,” says Robert. “They actually moved toward the driver’s side of the car. People think of us as a subclass, as subhuman.” Robert points to another symptom of Valley’s distorted reputation:

“Some kids actually mess up on purpose so they can get in here. There’s a mystique about us that comes from stories about all the terrible things we do. But most of it is BS. The kids come here for the wrong reason if they want to keep screwing up. We’re here to get out of that, not perpetuate it.”

Both Rick and Nick show anger when reminded of Valley’s poor reputation. “I’d rather be here than in any other school,” says Nick. “And I don’t really care if other schools think of us as fuck-ups.”

“My grandmother doesn’t like me going to Valley High,” says sleepy-eyed Rick. “She’s really conservative and old fashioned and she thinks Valley isn’t good enough for me. She wants me to go to Yale. But that’s not my style.” He looks to Nick as if for confirmation. “I don’t think I’m cut out for Yale.”

Over a Happy Cheeseburger and a Sprite at Carl’s Jr., a sixteen-year-old Valley student — call him Daffy — explains that when he grows up he wants to join the police force and become part of the vice squad.

“But you smoke dope,” says another student.

“So?”

“Well, don’t you think you’ll have to stop smoking dope to become part of the vice squad?” he is asked.

“No, not really, ’cuz I wouldn’t do it when I was on the job. You know, you do what you ’re going to do on the job, but when you’re off work, that’s your own time.”

The other student interjects, “But wouldn’t you feel uncomfortable busting somebody during the day for smoking marijuana, then going home at night and lighting up a bong yourself?”

That thought had apparently never occurred to Daffy. “No, not really,” he replies. “You see, I wouldn’t bust anybody for having less than an ounce or so. I just want to be one of those cops who kicks back. I don’t want to be one of those dicks. I want to be cool.”

Though drugs are considered a problem at Valley, most everyone, teachers and students alike, insists that there is no more drug abuse at Valley than elsewhere. The most common drugs are alcohol and marijuana. Crystal methedrine, a cheap form of speed known as “poor man’s cocaine,” is popular as well. No one knows of any Valley student who shoots drugs intravenously.

One young man insists that ninety-five percent of Valley’s students do drugs regularly and that it is not uncommon for them to get high on campus. “One day I saw two guys snorting coke right in the classroom,” he says. But another student, who makes it clear he gets high regularly, says the active drug users number more like fifty percent of the student body. Principal Lewis does what he can to curtail drug abuse; he has a reputation for “beating bushes” trying to catch kids using drugs on campus. One day recently he caught a student with two bags of marijuana. He called the police and the boy was arrested.

Megan Gamble appeals to the students’ sense of reason. She tells them, “You don’t take your books to parties, do you? So don’t take drugs to school.” One student, who admits he gets high several times a week after classes, says Gamble’s words “make a lot of sense to me.”

Though the staff tries to minimize the extent of drug abuse, the problem is bad enough to have resulted in a schedule change not long ago. Valley used to have a half-hour lunch break at 11:00 a.m., after which students attended their final class of the day. But during the break many would go to nearby Kit Carson Park and smoke dope. ‘‘There would be as many as a hundred kids there every day,” says seventeen-year-old Jennifer. “They’d just be kicking back, getting high. Then they’d return to classes all messed up.” Valley has cut out the lunch breaks, and now most students attend four fifty-minute sessions. With breaks between classes, this keeps them at Valley from eight in the morning until noon.

“One of the most abused drugs on this campus is crystal methedrine,” says Gamble. “Crystal is a major problem; it is cut with so much bad stuff, and when the kids come down off it they experience what they call ‘the melt.’ They experience huge emotional swings, depressions that sometimes look like psychotic breaks.

Parents will sometimes see their kids crying for the first time, for no apparent reason. During a ‘melt’ the kids will swear they’ll never touch the stuff again.”

Gamble estimates that about thirty percent of Valley students get high every day. According to Bob Lewis, an average of two students a year die in drug-related automobile accidents.

Valley’s campus, which covers only a few thousand square yards, is little more than a handful of trailers (“relocatable buildings,” in school administrative parlance) bunched together, and a pockmarked dirt parking lot. Not a classy layout, by any means. Dreary, in fact. It’s been there fourteen years, but still seems to have one foot on the platform, the other on the train. Valley looks unwanted and unloved, as transitory as the lives of its students. A peek into Valley’s classrooms reveals that there are few “classes” in the strict sense of the word. Teachers don’t lecture groups of students studying the same material. Every student has his own self-paced curriculum. The students sit at their desks in individual combat with the history of the American Revolution, Emerson’s Self-Reliance, Algebra One, or Civics. The teachers roam the classroom, checking on students’ progress, offering assistance, providing encouragement, and otherwise meeting students’ specific needs.

The self-paced curriculum has its good and bad points. “I have a girl in a class who can’t divide,” says one math instructor. “Right next to her I got a kid who’s a whiz at percentages. The self-paced curriculum allows that girl to be in the class and not feel bad. She can make progress and feel success without comparing herself to everybody else.”

Students who are very bright can move much more quickly through Valley than they can a typical school. Seventeen-year-old Jamie, for example, plowed through a year’s worth of credits in nineteen weeks. He could have gone faster, though. “For a while my study habits got very bad,” he said. “There’s no pressure on you in this system, and it’s very easy to come home and say, ‘Shine the work.’ ” A phone call from a teacher inquiring about Jaimie’s absences was all it took to get him back on track. He graduates this week and hopes to go on to USC.

Jamie is an exception. Though 600 students enrolled during the academic year, summer vacation will liberate only the bold 350 who remain; the others dropped out either because they could not handle school or because they wanted to work. (A number of students, many of whom graduate, attend Valley solely because the shortened school day allows them to hold down an outside job.) Only forty-five of one hundred eligible seniors will graduate this year. And only one in one hundred will go on to a four-year college.

In a regular high school, the students adjust to the teachers, whose job it is to cover a given amount of material during the course. At Valley, the teachers adjust to the individual needs of each student. Their job is complicated by a number of variables that hinder the learning process: students’ emotional problems; learning disabilities; antisocial, often criminal behavior; drugs; and, as if that weren’t enough, the intrusion of contemporary societal values that depreciate the importance of education. The problem Valley’s teachers face becomes clear in the class entitled “Decisions.”

It’s ten o’clock on a Friday morning, and “Decisions” has just begun. Though the course is required of a few “emotionally disturbed” students, many others choose to come on their own. “Decisions” is based on the principles of school psychologist Michael Salzano’s “decisional model,” a process the students can use to help them “think before they act.” Salzano presides over the discussion, which has turned to “adults.”

“They think they know it all,” one boy says. “They try to teach you something, but they want to shape you. That’s the wrong approach. Everyone should be their own self. When someone is always nagging you, it gets on your nerves.”

“But they think they’re helping us,” a shy young man points out.

“Yeah,” interjects a pretty brunette with a stuffy nose, “but look how screwed up they are.’’ Everyone laughs.

“My stepdad thinks he’s the big guy with authority,” puffs a small guy with a look of tight-chinned contempt. “He’s got this big image. He thinks, you know, ‘I’m a dad now, and I can tell this kid what to do.’ He thinks he’s the big all-time dude. He’s an asshole.”

No-shirt Nick can’t sit still. He stands up, sits down, stands up again, chats with his neighbor. Fiddles with his pencil, and taps his fingers on the desk. When he finally gets settled in his chair, his head darts from one side to the other, trying to find something that interests him. Apparently the discussion can’t hold his attention for more than a minute or so.

“I don’t think parents do anything to consciously hurt kids,” says the shy boy. “It’s just that parents and kids are talking two different languages. Parents talk about love, but they’re really afraid. They just don’t want us to get massively into drugs, drop out of school, and get arrested. They have a point, but they deal with the problem in the wrong way.”

A baby-faced fourteen-year-old has been trying to voice his opinion since the discussion began. It’s obvious that all this frivolous talk has been boring him. It skirts the real issue, which was clear to him from the start. “Hey,” he says, “we just want to party, that’s all.”

In response to a question about how many of the twenty-five students have been arrested, three-quarters of the class raise their hands. The charges? No problem getting answers from these kids. A swell of criminal accusations rises from all comers of the room: burglary, assault and battery, petty larceny, grand theft, MIP (minors in possession), dealing in controlled substances, shoplifting, truancy, possession of firearms, disorderly conduct, and so on. Conspicuously silent is Phil, a sixteen-year-old with long, straight blond hair, combat pants ripped at the knee, a bandanna tied warrior-style around the head, and the hardened look of someone who’s seen the world from behind bars more than once.

Phil is asked what he has been arrested for. He shifts in his seat. “Burglary,” he says. ‘‘And buds [marijuana]. And grand theft auto. And stealing a gun.”

The proud din of defiance in the room has turned to deferential silence. Phil has established himself as the heavy. “I also have six drunk-in-publics,” he adds, his head bowed, hiding a coy smile. When he looks up, his classmates respond with a polite round of applause.

Phil looks like a teenage Country Joe McDonald, a hippified anachronism displaced in the year of Big Brother. His long, straight hair, his bandanna, and his combat pants evoke images of militant peaceniks back in the Sixties. But Phil is 1980s “heavy metal” through and through, and a typical Valley student — a trouble -maker, an outsider, a victim of a broken home.

“When he arrived at Valley three years ago,” says Michael Salzano, “you couldn’t get near him. He hated all authority.” Phil has been in a lot of trouble. The reasons are classic. His parents were divorced; he fought often with his father; at age nine he was hanging around with kids as old as eighteen, who introduced him to drugs. He developed a liking for alcohol. “I’ve got problems with the bottle,” he says. “I get violent when I get drunk. My doctor says I have an allergic reaction to it. Not long ago I got drunk in a Boll Weevil and I just got wild, breaking pool cues, throwing pool balls, trying to hurt people.”

Phil knows he’s got to change. “I just figure I gotta straighten my ass up. I’m sixteen years old, and I don’t want to go to jail. If I get one more felony, I get fourteen months.”

However, Phil is no more willing than Shari the Punk to change his appearance. “When I walk into a store with my mom, I feel bad for her sake, because I know it’s embarrassing for her. But I’m not going to change the way I look. I say, ‘Shine ’em.’ I like this look, I like long hair. I am what I am whether others like it or not. You shouldn’t judge people by the way they look.”

Phil attributes much of his progress in the past three years to Salzano. “He helped me a lot,” says Phil. “He showed me how to think, rather than react. If I’m doing something wrong, I stop, take five seconds to think about it, then decide if I should do it or not. Sal provides guidelines.

“This school makes you look at your responsibilities. Responsibilities and decisions are mostly what this school is all about. It’s getting you prepared for the world you’ll be living in when you get older. That’s what this school means to me.”

The discussion in “Decisions” class turns to the value of the humanities. For the most part, the students’ attitudes are negative. English, history, foreign languages, and the great works of Western literature are not on their list of priorities in life (not that they would be in a regular high school). “It’s nice to go to school and learn all that stuff,” says one fellow, “but once you get out what are you going to do with it?

“History is a waste of time,” he continues. “We’re so into the future with computers and stuff, why are we looking back on the past?” The class echoes almost unanimous approval.

A black student, who makes it known he has been no stranger to racism, complains that history has failed blacks. “Black people were in history,” he says, “but they weren’t in the history books very much.” Salzano asks him if he has studied the history of black people. “Not to the fullest extent,” he answers. Someone suggests that perhaps he could be the person to give his people their due. “Well, yeah,” he replies thoughtfully.

The pretty brunette with the stuffy nose risks an unpopular view. “I think history is important,” she says. “They say that history repeats itself, so that knowing the past can help us understand the present and the future.” “Bah,” interjects a young man. “What do we care about some dead person?”

Sentiment is building in the room for the brunette’s point of view. “What about rock and roll?” says a bright-eyed teenybopper. “What about the history of rock and roll? Isn’t that important?”

In the midst of thoughtful silence, several wrinkled brows turn to the fellow who thought history was a waste of time. With reluctant sheepishness, he admits what everyone knows is true: “Yes, the history of rock and roll is important.”

The Valley High Schools of the world need a Father Flanagan. Valley has one, a Fifty-two-year-old man with a mission. His name is Michael Salzano, a tall, firmly built Italian with curly gray hair, a silver-streaked beard, and a deeply lined face that looks as if it has been chiseled from solid rock. His friends call him Sal. All the kids at Valley High call him Sal.

Salzano wants to change the world, and he has decided to start in an educational shantytown in Escondido. The oldest staff member at Valley High, Salzano was there when it all began in 1970 with nineteen students. For fourteen years he has been the school psychologist, helping rejects readapt, making misfits fit, reminding the forgotten that they count too. “I’ve seen so many things and heard so many stories that I don’t even know what’s extraordinary anymore,” says Salzano. “I used to react to the ugliness, to the kids getting knocked around by their parents, to little boys and girls being used by their parents for sexual favors, to the neglect, and so on. I’d get angry and want to save the kids. But it doesn’t really make me angry any more. It makes me sad.”

He tells of a boy he had at Valley years ago whose father allegedly forced him to perform homosexual acts. “The man had the boy convinced he’d kill him if he talked. The wife and family knew about it and ignored what was going on. The kid ended up committing suicide. He OD’d on downers and alcohol, then got into a Jacuzzi and drowned. It may have looked like an accident, but that kid knew what he was doing. He wanted to die.”

Salzano knows that there is still a lot of abuse going on. And he knows that Valley is an obvious dumping ground for the victims of sick adults. “Oh, they ’re out there, but I don’t hear much about them,” he says. “You see, if a kid comes to me with a problem. I’m required by law to report it to the police. I’ll only encourage a kid to tell me something if I think he or she can handle it. Normally, I try to get the kids to a place where they feel strong enough to reveal what’s going on.”

"The kids in the regular schools are going to make it. But the kind of kids we get at Valley can undermine everything we’ve got in this society. They are the ones the police departments exist for. They’re going to be on the welfare rolls, or in the prisons. They’re going to be the drunks, the drug addicts, the dealers, the abusers. They are a force we don’t want to reckon with because they are potentially so destructive. The thing is that if we don’t reckon with them, they will become destructive.”

The students at Valley love Salzano. Bob Lewis, the principal, half-jokingly refers to him as Valley’s “guru.” His office is constantly filled with the buzz of adolescent chitchat. When he walks out into the main quadrangle he is immediately surrounded by students. Some don’t even address him; they just want to be near. Salzano is a role model. He’s got something the kids at Valley want.

Salzano likes to tell his students the story of the “one-hundredth monkey. ” It goes like this: An anthropologist had been observing a group of chimpanzees on an island for some time. One day a chimp dropped a recently picked sweet potato into a stream he was crossing. He picked it up and ate it, noticing, no doubt, that it tasted better because it wasn’t covered with dirt. The next time he ate a sweet potato he went to the stream and washed it first. Soon the other ninety-nine chimps on the island began imitating his behavior. Then, inexplicably, chimps on nearby islands, who had no contact with their enlightened neighbors, began washing sweet potatoes as well.

“I try to tell the kids that they are the one-hundredth monkey, the one who first discovered the secret,” Salzano says. I try to convince them that we could change the world. I have great faith in each individual; each person is part and parcel of everything that goes on in this world. It’s like Charles Manson said: ‘I don’t know what you people are complaining about, you created me.’ He was telling us something; he was saying, ‘Your anger, your hatred, your prejudice created me. I bought it and I killed somebody with it.’

“The point in the one-hundredth monkey story is that somehow the message about washing sweet potatoes was conveyed to nearby islands spontaneously. If there was a way to expand positivity to the point where it was contagious, to the point where it could be conveyed spontaneously, what kind of a world might we have?”

Robert is one student for whom Salzano’s monkey story seems particularly appropriate. When he was small his adoptive parents split up, and Robert spent his childhood “hopping between my mother and my father. My attitude was that life sucked and that everybody was out to ax my head and that if I couldn’t get what I could right now, then I wasn’t going to get anything. I just felt like nobody gave a fuck what happened to me, that I wasn’t important.”

In his early teens Robert took to the streets, where he panhandled and played the street con. “We had great scams worked out,” he said. “Me and this guy I knew would park the car on the street, open the hood, and tell people we were outta gas. I’d give them the whole spiel and they’d give me ten or fifteen bucks. It was incredible.”

Robert got involved with bikers, who exposed him to drugs. He also became adept at the martial arts, which he used to “thrash” people. “I guess I broke some people up,” admitted Robert, “but I never wanted to kill anybody.” In one fight, Robert got broken up himself. “I threw a guy down on the ground,” he explained, “but he pulled a gun and I took a .22 in the leg and in the hip.

“It got to the point where I was seeing people getting shot all the time. I saw a guy get his face beat with a ratchet so bad that he had to have thirteen hours of reconstructive surgery. At that time I was saying, ‘What’s the difference?’ I didn’t care about anything anymore. A buck’s a buck. Anyone’s life didn't really matter.

“I spent a lot of time in mental hospitals. I used to get off on that scam. Those places are like Holiday Inns. You can just kick back, take it easy, and get drugs when you want them. We used to get violent with the staff. I remember a riot we had once where we were throwing the staff through Plexiglass windows, the kind that are supposed to be unbreakable.”

Last September Robert enrolled at Orange Glen High School in Escondido. He didn’t last long. ‘‘I got mad at a teacher and punched out a window,” said Robert. “They claimed I intended to punch the teacher, so they sent me to Valley.”

When Robert came to Valley last October he dressed in black leather, wore dark sunglasses, and called himself “Conan.” “I was into badmouth-ing teachers,” he says. “I had no friends. I was threatening. Nobody ever saw Robert; they just saw Conan. But slowly Sal coaxed me out of my shell.”

Robert, who says he wants to enter a graduate program in psychology, preferably at Berkeley, makes no secret of his admiration for Salzano. “He turned my life around completely. I know where I was heading when I came here, and I know I’d have gotten in a lot more trouble. For some reason I listened to him. I think people hear him more than they hear others. He talks to us kids in a different way. Maybe it’s because he’s been there, because he has had the experiences himself.”

In his twenties Salzano was part of a car-stealing ring in New Orleans..“I was a thief and an exploiter,” he says. “I had eighteen arrests and thirteen convictions, five of which were felonies. At that time of my life my attitude was ‘Hey, they owe it to me,’ so I went out and got it. Ripping people off was no problem for me.”

After three years in jail, Salzano decided to straighten himself out. Though he had no degree at the time, he managed to get a job teaching part time at a high school. When someone quit unexpectedly during the year, Salzano was asked to take over. "There was an incredible shortage of teachers in Louisiana at that time, so I got the job,” he says. ‘‘But I was learning the material right along with the kids, staying just a few chapters ahead of them.” He loved teaching, and noticed he was very good at it, so he started taking classes to finish up his bachelor’s degree. He has been working with kids ever since, trying to get young people like Robert to change. “These kids don’t realize that they don't have to behave as they do. Drawing from my own experience, I try to show them that they have choices.”

The subject today in Salzano’s “Decisions” class is “love experiences,” and the class is being conducted by Lydia Bettig, who works as a counseling intern at Valley. Salzano assists. The idea is that since most Valley students come from broken homes, they probably haven’t experienced much love during their childhoods. Bettig hopes to help them better understand how their upbringing has affected them. “Some of these kids,” she explains, “have never been given so much as a word of encouragement in their lives. Nobody has ever told them they did something right, or that they were good people.” The class gets off to a rocky start because half the group has forgotten to bring pencils. Phil is leaning back on his chair, tapping his fingers to cerebrally composed heavy metal, looking as though he would rather be just about anywhere else. His neighbor whispers, “Hey, have you got an extra pencil?”

As if breaking bread, Phil, without a moment’s hesitation, splits his pencil in half and hands the splintered stub to his chum.

Bettig plays a tape of the soundtrack from the final scene of the film The Rose, with Bette Midler, a story based loosely on the life of Janis Joplin. Midler’s character has just shot her last fix before going on stage. She stands in front of her audience muttering incoherently like a lost child, as if trying to spit out a pathetic, lamenting farewell to a world in which she never found love. Midler is brilliant, but the students respond with blank faces that conceal their churning emotions. Before she gets to the song she intended to sing, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,’’ the Rose falls and dies of a drug overdose. Then the voice of Midler singing the title track cuts in: “Some say love, it is a river that drowns the tender reed/Some say love, it is a razor that leaves your soul to bleed.’’

Teenagers do not like to talk about love. When Bettig turns off the tape, the nervous, adolescent energy hangs in the air as thick as tar; it’s there in the fidgeting and the creaking chairs that fill the room like an anxious, subterranean hum. For most of these fourteen-to sixteen-year-olds, having to deal with this is punishment. They keep looking at the clock, but it’s at least twenty minutes till the buzzer will sound to end the session.

Bettig scans the room and asks for reactions to the song. There is none.

Salzano speaks up. “Okay, we’re going to talk about something you all hate — it’s called love.’’ Comic relief.

Bettig goes to the blackboard. She reads what she’d written earlier: “In order to understand why I experience love the way I do, I need to identify what I believe love is. I realize that my understanding of love is based on my past experiences. To see the situation clearly, I need to examine these love experiences, to identify how they have programmed me for either a positive or a negative love life.’’ She asks if anyone would like to tell the class of a time in the past when he or she felt loved.

The students bow their heads. No one responds.

“Come on,’’ says Salzano. “Don’t wait around for someone else. Take a chance.’’

No one does, so both Salzano and Bettig relate experiences from their own pasts when they felt loved. The nervousness in the room subsides and the kids all look up, listening attentively and empathetically.

“Now,” says Bettig, “who would like to share a love experience?” Heads dip like dive bombers and the fidgeting recommences like the sound of crickets stirred unexpectedly in the night. Salzano calls on a couple of people, but no one can think of a suitable event to share.

“Take a risk,” insists Salzano. “Don’t worry about ...”

The buzzer sounds, interrupting him in midsentence, and before you can sigh with relief, two-thirds of the class is out the door. The razor touched the skin, but no blood was spilt in third-hour “Decisions" class today.

Afterward Salzano and Bettig discuss why the students didn’t respond very well. “When you’re talking about an area as conflictual as love, you have to expect that,” says Salzano. “Even adults don’t like to talk about love. We were asking the kids to do some heavy introspection and they may not have been ready for that.

“Besides, that is a particularly tough group, those kids between fourteen and sixteen years old. They’re in such a state of flux that they don’t know whom to believe. It’s much easier to work with kids who are a little older.”

At Carl’s Jr., several students talk about the morning ’s "Decisions" class that didn’t seem to work.

“Sal and Lydia are human too,” says Robert.

“Sometimes what happens in there touches everyone in a little way,” says Jennifer, another student and Robert’s girlfriend. “I know with me that things click later on.”

“That song affected me,” Daffy admits.

“I could tell everyone in that room was affected,” insists Jennifer. “They put on an act to make it look like it didn’t touch them, but it did.”

Daffy, Robert, and Mike all concur: “Yeah, everybody was moved.”

The following day five students came to Bettig and asked her to play the tape again at the next class meeting.

“What you see at Valley High is an indictment of our society," says Valley High principal Bob Lewis. “These kids are the product of broken homes, of family trauma, of the media, of the drug culture, of a society that places more value on entertaining its children than educating them.”

Indeed, the children of Valley High seem to embody everything that is most ephemeral in American culture.

They are to adults what the nouveaux riches are to the gentry — embarrassing in their guileless excess: hyperbolic in their use of drugs, in their thirst to be distracted and entertained, in their ignorance, and in their narcissism. They even have the nerve to flaunt what they are — with pride, honesty, and vitality. Certainly Julie is one of them. She is energetic and talkative, and though she is only sixteen years old, she speaks with a combination of wisdom and cynicism that belies her age.

“I hate authority,” Julie says. “I’ve been rebellious since fifth grade.” She used to go to Orange Glen High School but she left because, she says, the students and teachers refused to accept her. “Everybody used to call me a dirthead. That means a stoner. I don’t think of myself as a stoner, though. I just think of myself as a person who likes to party. I like to go out and get blazed listening to heavy-metal music. I don’t usually get high at school, though. But do I smoke every day? Sometimes. Well, yeah, a lot.”

Julie claims that her attitude toward school has changed dramatically since she’s come to Valley. “They treat you like an adult here,” she says. “They let you make up your own mind. If you don’t want to work, that’s your choice; you just graduate later.”

Several other students gather around and join the discussion as Julie continues. “At Orange Glen, you go to school all day and you come home totally burned out,” she complains.

“Yeah,” says another student only half in jest, “you’re so burned out you can’t even party.”

“Then you have homework,” continues Julie. “I don’t see the point in doing school work after school. I mean, they give you enough while you’re there. That’s what turned me off at Orange Glen. We were overworked.”

“And the teachers there [at Orange Glen] were so boring,” says another girl. “All they do is lecture you, and if you didn’t buy what they were saying, they’d get all upset.”

“They’d make us diagram sentences,” says Julie. “I mean, what are you going to do — go around the rest of your life diagramming sentences? I know a girl who had to write a composition, so she wrote the whole thing in diagrammed sentences. She got an F. I mean, what do these teachers want? And it’s not that I don’t know how important education is. It’s the only thing you get in life that’s free.”

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