Mike Perez was my idol. He was taller, light-skinned, with curly dark hair and lanky movements, and, exept for his budding acne, he looked just like Greg of the Brady Bunch. He knew everything there was to know about the Beatles, plus, he had a great one-liner for any occasion. In addition to all these qualities, which were usually enough to qualify in my Hall of Fame; he was the one that turned me on to Monty Python's Flying Circus and Benny Hill.
He was a good friend of Santiago 'Sonny' Rivera, a wise guy if ever there was one. Sonny was everything Mike was not. Smallish and overweight, with a razor wit and a passion for ketchup, I met him in the 7th grade in Mrs. Steffoli's class when he still had a cast on his right leg. He broke it jumping off a two story building somewhere in Estrada Courts. The only person who wrote his name on the cast was his older brother, Ralph.
Both of them were in the Gifted\AE program (Academically Enriched), the same one I was in during the 7th grade, but I totally blew it and lost out.
I would still get together with the group; Jose Nolasco, Ron "Y.T" Aguirre,
Derek Han, Sandy "Giggles" Hernandez, and Gilbert Gonzalez as well as the
lesser egomaniacs. I had Sandy in my American History class with Mr. Bres,
probably the funniest teacher I ever had. She was a knockout. I had Ron,
Derek, and Gilbert for my X period PE class with Mr. Shimizo, and we were
awesome during the football, basketball, and baseball inter-PE. tournaments.
Derek and Jose were in my 6th period Spanish class with Mr.
Witt, a teacher with an exensive collection of vintage rock & roll albums, everything from The Flying Burrito Brothers to Love, and who let me borrow various tapes of Three Dog Night.
But when it came to English, all of them had class with Mr. Howland, the semi-guru of the Gif ted\AE program while I had Mr. 'Nose Knows" Valera, a man born in the wrong century.
Mr. Valera was in his third year at Hollenbeck Jr. High. He graduated with a degree in English from Cal State. He was at near 40 years old, roundish, balding with graying curly hair and thin black rimmed glasses he used to chew. I would see him after school on Matthews Street pacing expectantly, waiting for his wife to come in a brown Datsun B210 and wisk him away. He also had a passion for, among other things, cursive handwriting. In fact, everything we wrote in his class was in cursive. I recall the first day in class.
"Welcome to my class of English. I'm Mr. Valera. You shall call me Mr. Valera. When you fill out your class cards, do make sure you write in cursive."
There were grunts and groans. He stopped that with a venomous look. No one complained eversince.
It was a painstaking process, causing stiff fingers and cram ping, especially
since none of us wrote in cursive since the 5th grade. Amelia Aguilar quickly
became Mr. Valera's favorite as she wrote effortlessly the most breathtaking
lines of cursive. The rest of were like medieval monks transcribing books,
a page a day, from Greek to Latin, Latin to Greek, each of us cloistered
in our cubicle, each of us striving for the unthinkable,
Of course, Mr. Valera's own cursive was atrocious, more like chicken-scratch, really unreadable; nevertheless, he continued to make sure our lives were perfectly miserable.
He was a stern teacher, more like a Marine sergeant than a Mother Superior. There was no talking, no gum, no fancy bookcovers; just ordinary grocery bags from the Safeway on 4th & Soto, no pencils, only blue ink pens, preferably Parker, and God forbid if you came into class tardy, the murderous stare he gave off was worse than afterschool detention with Mr. Bohs.
I enjoyed the rigid structure more than I thought. It was certainly
different than in the 7th grade with Mr. Heyland. If anything, he gave
too much freedom, a true flower child of the 60's, and I couldn't cope
the egomaniacs in the classroom. The fact was: I was intimidated. I was among the big fish at Second Street Elementary, but with these guys, I was merely a guppy. I just gave up on myself and was lucky to get a D instead of the F that I deserved.
I knew I didn't belong in Mr. Valera's room, just like I didn't belong with Mrs. Mendoza's 1st period composition class or Mr. Balm's 2nd period drafting class. I was above the level of the other students in those classes, and I strove to showcase my talent. Of all my teachers, only Mr. "Scrooge" Valera was merciless and stingy in praise. I knew that if he was happy, albeit slightly, I had done a really good job.
Toward the end of 8th grade, Mr. "Demi-God" Valera told me that he had spoken to Mr. Heyland and convinced him to allow me back into the Gifted\AE program. I was really thankful, but ultimately turned my back on him and all he taught me. My grade dropped from an A all the way to a C+ and all because I got exited with the idea of going back to compete with all those egomaniacs and showing them what I was made of.
The annual Gifted\AE trip that year was to Griffith Park. I got my tripslip
from Mr. Heyland himself. I went to his class to pick It up. "Michael,
how are you?" he asked In an even tone. I was one of the students
that tormented him in the 7th grade. I really believed he hated my guts. "I'm doing much better now." I said, but my courage was faltering. "So Mr. Valera says. You're here for the tripslip, right?" He mentioned that he wouldn't be my teacher next year, Mr. Tione would. Mr. Tione was looking forward to having me in his class. I had heard of Mr. Tione, a teacher who was more than a little effeminate. I distinctly recall walking pass his room and hearing a student blurt out to his friend after Mr. Tione had yelled at him to return, "Let's go to the boy's restroom, he won't follow us there."
The date was the same one Mr. "Steel Grip" Valera had for the final
to which there was no makeup short of death.
"Mr. ('Oh, Revered One') Valera, sir, I would like to go to Griffith Park."
"I don't see why not. But you have to make a choice, Michael, because life is full of choices. You're a young adult and capable of making up your own mind."
"Does that mean I'll get a makeup test?"
"I won't allow that for obvious reasons. I think you will do well on it if you decide to forgo the trip and present yourself. I have told you before you are one of my topflight students, but you and you alone will make that decision."
My sister Grace made me a couple of ham sandwiches, put an apple, and a can of Coke. Plus my sister Titi gave me 45 cents (a virtual fortune) just in case. I couldn't sleep the night, not knowing what to expect, not knowing if someone would eat my lunch before morning.
I climbed on the bus and sat down next to Mike Perez.
"What are you doing here, Mike? I really should stop talking to myself." he said. We shook hands and got down to the particulars of last night's Monty
"I still can't believe the melange won Wimbledon." one of us said. Mike had a great mock British accent and soon I was cracking up with laughter. I saw
others climb aboard: Javier "You Give Me Asco" Nolasco, Louie 'Baba-Lou' Garcez, Sandy Hernandez, Carmina Cervantes, Manuel 'Howdy-Doody' Diaz, Luis
Sahagun, Marcelino "Cho-Chop" Rivera, Gloria Maldonaldo, Genie Herrera, Willy "The Mad Russian" Volkov, Ron, Gilbert, Sergio "Sir Joe" Firez, Manny
Fernandez, and Mr. Heyland. This was the cream of the crop, and there I was, swapping lines with Mike.
The bus driver told us the usual: no standing, no loud talking, keep all appendages inside the bus, and most of all, no mooning. We all laughed at that last line.
He started up the bus, turned on the radio, and the first song we heard was 'I Can't Smile Without You' by Barry Manilow and I overheard Sandy tell Gloria it was her favorite song. I couldn't believe it! I was a Manilow fan for a couple of years and here one of the prettiest girls in all of Hollenbeck Jr. High saying she liked him, too.
Of course, I couldn't tell Mike Perez I liked Manilow, he would never speak to me again.
"Oh, kill me now!" he cried when the driver turned up the volume to comply with Sandy's request. The Beatles were like a religion to him. If John, Paul, George, and Ringo didn't sing or write it then it didn't matter much to him. I knew a few Beatles songs like Helter Skelter, Yesterday, Ob-bla-di, Ob-bla-da, Hey Jude, and Help!, and I liked them alot, but I really didn't understand what all the fuss was about. Here Manilow was hot, the Beatles had broken up long ago, and it seemed only Paul had any success to speak of. But I knew Mike, and I'm sure he had his reasons, however twisted they seemed.
The busride was fun. Sonny rambled over to start capping on Mr. Heyland, who seemed unperturbed by the anarchy happening around him. He was a cool cucumber nose assbite, I mentioned to Mike and Sonny, while Sonny said there was nothing "cool" about Whit and we laughed like Banshees.
In Mr. "4th Period" Valera's class I had the pleasure of sitting next to two of the prettiest girls in the 8th grade. Amelia Aguilar and Lydia Ruiz. Amelia came from Sheridan Elementary while Lydia graduated from Utah Street. Amelia was dark-skinned with shimmering, long jet-black hair. She had deep penetrating brown eyes. She had a stunningly beautiful round face and fine curves, and she was smart. I recall the day of student lDs, the second week of class, she came to school dressed in a flowing white dress, the epitome of a Mexcan senorita. Plus she had the best penmanship in the class.
Lydia liked to dress in Levi's and tennis shoes, with knit blouses. She had light brown eyes that saw right through bullshit. She had short hair, in shades of brown, the short and sassy look. She had a small mole by the side of her lips which made them appear bigger than they were. While other girls were in their first make-up syndrome, piling it on, Lydia was into less is more, a philosophy which summed up our rivalry. She was very pretty and very smart. She was also tough, not taking nonsense from anybody. I should know. I had her in my homeroom with Mr. Muller. She was the bossy type. I ran against her twice for homeroom president, losing both times.
Lydia seemingly always had a piece of gum in her mouth, and that put
her on Mr. Valera's hitlist from the start.
"I ain't going to stop chewing gum just because big nose wants me to." she said in homeroom.
"You're going to get detention."
"It won't be the first time. I'm not afraid of him."
But she put away her gum while in class, only chewing when there was a substitute.
I fgured I could never get Amelia interested in me. How did you impress a goddess? I wouldn't know what to do with a girlfriend if I had one, anyway. I never thought about Lydia in the same way, prefering not to give her any reason to get the wrong idea, so I contented myself just to be around them. I really didn't have a choice.
Once my cantankerous brother John saw me walking with Lydia toward Mr.
Valera's class. It must have made an interesting sight, me walking with
a knockout like Lydia. He whistled at us. When I looked toward over to
where he was, I was filled with dread, all my worst fears materializing
before my eyes.
"Ask her if she has a sister" he barked.
I acted as if I didn't know who he was. If anything, I knew how to cut
"Who's that guy?" asked Lydia in a voice dripping with venom.
"Who?" But I knew she was not convinced. "That guy who whistled. Are you playing dumb?"
She was positiv'ely livid. Her eyes flashing in anger. I had the feeling she was going to stomp our there and cream John. I would have paid to see that. Just then John yelled out.
"Looking good'." in his best Freddie Prinz' imitation. I dissolved into nothingness. Hot pink rushed to my cheeks. We who are about to die...
But by that time we were in the room. Lydia never mentioned it again, but I was sure she was ready to throw it in my face at a moments notice.
Lydia and I were always in competition. She was stubborn, I was stubborn, and invariably, we would go head-to-head.
I had her in my 3rd period math class with Mrs. Molnes, along with Vincent Ruiz, also in our homeroom, we vied for supremacy. I usually came out on top, but many times Lydia would beat me out by two or three points, and then even Vince would pull out a test or two. I only recall once when someone else beat all three of us: Bertha Roman, the tallest and the most stacked girl in all the 8th grade.
Mrs. Molnes was always trying to us together. She was from Cuba and
had a thick accent. She was smallish, put on too much mascara, droved a
sky blue convertible VW Karman Ghia, and if she liked you, you had it made.
If she didn't, you could sell your soul to the Devil and it still it wouldn't
do you any good.
"Just think, Miguelito if you and Lydia get married and have children, they would be very intelligent." She was the only person in the world that called me, Miguelito, and it drove me crazy. She knew this, and kept on calling me, Miguelito.
I blushed every shade of pink. Lydia was unfazed. "I'm never going to
marry him; I'd rather die first!" she spat the words in disgust. My heart
fell into the abyss.
"You say that now, but soon, who knows?" said Mrs. Molnes. Obviously she knew something I didn't know. I felt I should say something, anything, otherwise Lydia would think I really cared for her. I opened my mouth, but could not say a word. I just chewed on my pencil's eraser. "But Lydia, my darling, don't be so choosy. Miguelito is a fine young man. He's so handsome, any girl here in this classroom would be glad to marry him." she said, then winked at me.
I felt like I was on display. Bertha looked toward me as if to size me up. Et tu, Bertha.
I still couldn't get in a word edgewise.
Lydia grimaced and went back to her work. Mrs. Molnes winked at me as
if to say You handle it from here. Then she shifted her focus and started
in on Vincent.
"Now, if you got married with Lydia, your children will also be very intelligent." teased Mrs. Molnes.
Vincent went white. I was only a couple of seats away and I could swear
he stopped breathing.
"I'll kill myself before I marry him!" snapped Lydia in no time. She probably anticipated the point and pounced.
Vincent was terribly shy, and when Mrs. Molnes began like this, he was the incredibly Shrinking Mexican. He was a terribly nice guy. That was his problem, if any. More thin than tall, made darker by his dark thick glasses. He wore too much polyester to be considered more than just another Tijuanero. We were good friends and played a lot of chess matches, but he was on his own now. Lydia knew she could bully him, and appeared to relish it.
Poor Vincent, I thought, but befter him than me!
Carter was going up against Ford for the presidency that November. My 5th period American history teacher, Mr. Bres (with a name like that I should stop now), assigned all of us a report on the elections, using sources from all available media. I really got involved in it, going over to the Benjamin Franklin library on 1st & Chicago to rummage through the newspapers and magazines. I took a personal liking to Carter and hoped he could pull the election off. It didn't seem likely; no one seemed to know anything about him, and no one seemed to care that they didn't know jack shit about him. He was a former governor from Georgia, a Southern state, and he had that toothsome smile. It was so easy to make him the butt of jokes, that, all of a sudden, it wasn't worth the effort.
We often asked who Mr. Bres preferred, but like the artful dodger, he claimed that anyone of the two would face four years of problems. I should be President, he often stated, and then this country would get back on track.
He put up bold newspaper headlines on he chalkboard proclaiming, 'Bres
Wins in Landslide' and 'Unknown Bres Takes Election' which Eddie Munoz
to read, 'Bres Dies in Landslide' and 'Ungrown Bres Fakes Erection'. Mr. Bres turned every imaginable shade of pink and then red hot in anger with the whole class, since no one would snitch on Eddie, and he gave us two weeks of triple homework.
Maria Montoya, a student from 3rd period, turned in the best job. She really went to great lengths to do a stellar job and Mr. Bres went overboard in his praise. Her report was well over twenty pages, mine was less than ten. Plus hers was typed and mine was written with a pen running out of ink.
"It looks as if your pen bit the dust." Mr. Bres gave me the sideways
look, meaning, you could have done better than this.
"I couldn't find another one." I said, knowing it was the truth, but still thinking I should have made up an outlandish lie. He shook his head.
"Look at this. This is what I had in mind." he said as he reached for a thick report. I marveled at the contents. There were newspaper clippings galore, magazine covers from Time and TV Guide, a list of previous presidents, and a bold prediction that Carter would win.
"Who did this?" It was Maria's.
I still got an A, but Maria got an A+. I was glad I got an A, but I knew Mr. Bres was notorious as an easy grader. In fact, almost half the class got an A, and only one got less than a C+, and that was only because he was two weeks late.
It was Maria that rocked my world. I saw her in a different light after
that. I couldn't believe she was the same girl that had a crush on me back
in the 4th grade.
She had changed considerably. Back in the 4th grade, she hardly spoke any English, and only then with a thick accent. Now I couldn't tell the difference, her English was almost flawless. She had turned into a budding woman, with tight jeans and vivid red lipstick on her fleshy lips. She still wore her hair long, but there were streaks of sunshine whereas before it was a deeper brown. What she had become, according to Ruben Rodriguez, was a fox, pure and simple, and Ruben was hitting on her like crazy.
When we got to Griffith Park, we went on tour of the Gene Autry Museum
and then had lunch. There were Twinkles galore while I munched my apple.
lunch, Mr. Howland let us run free. I joined Mike and Sonny as we exlored the surrounding area. We followed paths and blazed some new trails. Mike
would disappear into brambles and we'd follow his lead. At the foot of a steep hill, he urged us to climb to the top. "Let's go to the top. The view must be worth something." "Maybe a heart attack." said Sonny. "Then it would be worth it." I added. Sonny shot me a look, then started cracking up. We began climbing. The afternoon sun beat down on us. Sonny was sweating buckets. Mike was grim in determination. I wondered what it would be like at the top. I wondered if there was a higher hill to climb after that. The ground was soft, leaving our footprints behind. Off in the distance we heard the shouts that it was time to head back to the bus. Mike had to get to the top, even if it meant withstanding Heyland's tirade. Sonny sat to rest. "You guys go on. I'll catch you on the rebound." Once at the top, we got a good look at the surrounding hills. There was so many of them, all worth the effort if we only had the time "You got a pencil?" Mike asked.
"Yeah, here go." He pulled out a piece of paper and scribbled the following: WE MADE ITI M.P., M.R., S.A. Then he attached it to a bush. "Who knows? We might find that note next year.' he said through squinted eyes. "That would be something." I murmured. "Let's go." he said as he moved downhill. I never left.
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