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Athens of the Antelope Valley
By Dave Shulman
First published in L.A. Weekly, December 1, 1999.
“Real farmers castrate sheep with their teeth” was the first complete sentence I ever heard uttered by a student at Quartz Hill High School. My father had just sentenced me to 26 months in north L.A. County’s Antelope Valley to punish me for not having the sense to run away from home after hearing he’d accepted a job there.
Beginning with our Ozark Airlines turboprop commuter flight from Champaign-Urbana to O’Hare and continuing through almost two weeks of shared residency with my parents in a dilapidated motel room there in the most empty and godforsaken peckerwood wasteland it has ever been my excruciating horror to behold, the muscles in my throat refused to allow the passage of solid food — a last-ditch attempt to deny the reality of my new desert-prison. I was starving. I could chew, but I couldn’t swallow anything thicker than saliva.
Thus, animated only by apple juice and multivitamins, the translucent stick figure of my body was led into a 10th-grade English class at Quartz Hill High School and seated beside one enormous Frank Vemi. Vemi, a fidgeting and overstuffed boy, his face a piglet-pink galaxy of pimples and freckles, beheld me briefly through thick, greasy glasses before delivering the aforementioned sheep-castration quip to the boy seated behind me, Allen Haddad.
“No way” was Haddad’s response.
“It’s true,” Vemi insisted, and went on to describe the reasons for — and niceties of — this method, in nauseating detail.
The teacher, who’d been sorting through paperwork at her desk, asked the students to open some particular book to some particular page. She called on Haddad to read a paragraph to us. He could not, but did. Same thing with the next student. And the next. Everyone in the class, it turned out, could not read, but did, one paragraph each, aloud. A whole roomful of 15- and 16-year-olds formed sounds into words, phoneme by phoneme, never coming close to creating the inflections and cadences associated with actual reading. It was as if each of them was reciting from a list of syllables:
After each recitation, the teacher would say the word good, then call on someone else to continue. I sat there listening, waiting to wake up in my bedroom, two weeks and 2,000 miles away. Because the notion that real waking life now included two out of 30 illiterate high school students discussing sheep testicles (in the middle of a desert where each and every bumper has a Jesus fish and where one classmate later admitted to me that he thought Jews had horns) had convinced me that waking up was, in fact, a reasonable aspiration.
Two years later, conceding the evil that relocation had perpetrated on what was left of our family, my father moved us “down below” — Antelope Valley jargon for L.A. — just two days after my graduation. By then I‘d absorbed entire meals, learned to snort coke and drink Early Times and memorized fully half the Skynyrd catalog. Antelope? The only antelope I saw during my incarceration was the one whose freshly decapitated head a bunch of Antelope Valley High School jocks had placed in the Quartz Hill High School ticket booth, as a show of team spirit.