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ROBERT is a versatile student, not unlike many I used to know at Central Union High School. Positioned strategically near the back of the classroom, and wearing sunglasses against the fluorescent glare, he lightly taps a rock-and-roll beat with his pencil on his desktop. He doesn't miss a beat, while he simultaneously extracts a stick of gum from a nearby buddy, tosses the wadded wrapper at a pretty girl two aisles away, and correctly answers algebra questions put to him by his teacher.

Startling from an adult perspective, though familiar from my own days of learning tied inextricably to adolescent fun, this seems to be a typical classroom scene at CUHS, my alma mater. Only styles, attitudes have changed

Like Robert's, the faces here seem the same to me as a decade ago. I recognize the intellectuals, the jocks, the cheerleaders, the student politicians, the clowns, the surfers (though the nearest beach is 100 miles away).

And the memories-in-the-making here today seem very similar to my own memories suspended in that gym smell that lingers in the hallways. The tough chemistry tests, practical jokes, impossible crushes, a debate to wrestle with in social studies class, a good, solid English assignment all look and feel the same today, 11 years after I graduated.

But while the experiences are the same, the style and attitudes with which students respond are different.

The Class of 1974 parted its collective long hair down the middle and wore its collective faded Levi's on the hips. The Class of 1985 has short, styled hair combed straight back or straight up, and some girls wear hose, and some boys wear ties under their letter jackets. The mandate in gym wear in my day was a polyester turquoise tunic; today ``Flashdance'' style in sweats and headbands are allowed.

My Class of 1974 had dances every Friday of the fall, our favorite song of the night was always the last, and longest -- ``Stairway to Heaven,'' by Led Zeppelin. The Class of 1985 doesn't dance, I'm told -- nothing beyond the traditional dress-up balls.

One-third of the CUHS freshman class is flunking this semester, and expected back as frosh next year. Flunking in 1974 meant you dropped out or went to a continuation school. Some say today's problem is keyed to the stricter standards education reforms have created. Others say the children of the flower children haven't been given a strong push from home to excel.

Willy Loman was the most complex character I found in my advanced English class back then, and he caused me more concern than excitement. Today the advanced English classes seem to be on the edge of their seats over new approaches to Willy and the injection of Freudian and existential thought to such standards as ``Flowers for Algernon.'' (That excitement, many agree, may be due as much to a dynamic teacher as dynamic students.)

Calculators weren't allowed anywhere near a math class in 1974. Today those who fashion budgets make big allowances for computers.

It was not hip to a ride a bike to school in 1974. Central had to build bike racks this year to accommodate the new mode in fitness and transportation.

One high-achiever from the Class of 1985 calculates quite seriously that she wants to make $65 an hour -- or over $100,000 annually -- by the time she's 25. I was a high achiever from the class of 1974, and my calculations were aimed not at wages but at being allowed to work in a traditionally male profession. Kinship with students remains

Alcohol use in 1974 was fairly common among students -- ``keggers'' in the isolated fields of our rural agricultural community were a tradition. But this year, when a car accident after one of those traditional parties took the lives of four CUHS students and one former student, the Class of 1985 was suddenly imbued with a new sense of responsibility that my class never had.

The kinship I have with the students at Central today arises from the fact that we came from a small town. El Centro was always something less than 25,000 -- the population waxing and waning with the migrant workers who came and went with harvest seasons. The haste to bust out of town upon graduation sometimes eclipses the emotional debt we owe to this school. Isolated geographically, El Centro is the small pond that nurtures big fish.

``The throes of education that have hit the big city schools'' don't hit here on the Mexican border and 100 miles from the closest US urban center, says Chris Gay, who was my first journalism teacher. On the other hand, he notes, ``the rhythm of the farm community just doesn't have the sense of urgency, the sense of wonder of the grand things that can be done. But once they get a glimpse of a life style, they [students] have a goal.'' Individualism is allowed to grow here unthwarted by big-city fads or sheer overwhelming numbers of students.

I remember students being allowed their eccentricities -- I was allowed to write rebuttals to record reviews and feminist tracts on everything from powder-puff football to cheerleading tradition. My younger sister was allowed to join the boys' swim team because that team wasn't strong -- her times were better than many of the boys' and the administration saw fit to let her join without the kind of legal battles being waged at that time over similar issues in urban areas.

The isolation here, though, can be frustrating for each new generation of students. It primed me and my friends for the opportunities of college and the big city. Today Richie Collins, a bubbly senior here, reminds me of the best in what this small-town high school elicits from good students.

She is enrolled for the fall at the University of Southern California and wants a telecommunications degree. (Richie is the student who wants to make $65 an hour.) She has equal parts of small-town innocence, elegant confidence, and shrewd maturity. ``I don't doubt myself; I know I can make it [in whatever field I choose],'' says Richie, whose favorite book to date is, not inappropriately, ``The Great Gatsby.''

Enrolled in the Gifted and Talented Education program, which makes the English courses I took in high school look remedial, Richie has had some challenges to her beliefs, but they haven't shaken her. ``The books we read say God is dead, and that's dumb. . . . I'm a Christian, and that doesn't just mean I go to church every week,'' she says. But she notes that she has never felt put down for her feelings in the intense literary discussions, because the teacher, Chuck Tally, a mustachioed favorite here for more than a decade, ``somehow makes sure he's on both sides all the time.''

Indeed that brand of mental gymnastics required from teachers is a startling realization -- one that, as a student, I never had. Playing to the adolescent attention span demands extremes in patience and wit. Discipline, it seems, means striking a delicate balance of credibility with students: I was amazed and, in an old-fashioned sense, disappointed to realize that the teaching title alone does not buy respect among students.

Of all the comparisons and observations of my high school with today's, one detail stands out as a small, even self-satisfying, heartwarmer that should in no way influence today's youth:

Algebra -- better known to me as ``Factor x2 + 3x - 28, if you can'' -- never helped me get a job.

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