Purple haze

A mom worries when her kid falls in with the ‘right’ crowd

Alison Rood, our foothills correspondent, still from the wrong side of the tracks

Senior prom. It’s a glitzy spring bash, a thrilling milestone in the long evolution from child to adult and a symbolic rite of passage as high school ends and “real life” begins. As I helped my 18-year-old son with his tuxedo rental, I couldn’t help but feel gratified that he was taking part in this celebratory event.

Many of his unfavorable impressions of high school have reminded me of circumstances I encountered decades ago at McClatchy High, but at least he was going to his prom. As an insecure teenager from a low-income family, there was no way I would have been asked to an important dance, not when the majority of my peers were the affluent offspring of the Land Park elite. A city bus literally transported me “across the tracks” from my home in South Sacramento to that school nestled in an exclusive suburb.

My mother sewed my clothes to save money, and trendy shoes and handbags were considered luxuries, so even if I’d had the chance to attend a prom, it would have required garb and accessories we couldn’t afford. And while I wasn’t the only student at McClatchy with a humble background, if a boy from my side of the tracks had asked me to a prom, no way would I have said yes. I already knew I was an outsider; the last thing I would have wanted to do was align myself with another misfit.

Unwittingly, I ended up throwing my son to the same lions I faced as a McClatchy Lion by moving him to El Dorado Hills when he was 11. Call me clueless, but I had no idea it would become an enclave for the privileged. We were looking for a rural setting, somewhere off the beaten path of sterile subdivisions, and the Realtor showed us a house that needed work in an old neighborhood with tree-lined streets. A year after we moved in, San Francisco Bay Area families began surging to the area, and gated communities with pricey homes soon enveloped our haven. My vision of a rustic lifestyle evaporated, and my son’s classmates became the kids who lived in the new mansions dotting the hillside. Fortunately, he hasn’t seemed intimidated by the excessive financial advantage he’s observed.

“Sure, I see those kids getting handed cars, instead of having to work for them,” he told me. “I see them floating through life with everything handed to them. But it doesn’t really affect me. It doesn’t even offend me. I just don’t really care.”

He showed the same equanimity a couple of weeks before his graduation ceremony when we discovered that students bound for a four-year college would be awarded “purple cords” for their gowns as opposed to kids headed elsewhere.

My son is registered with a community college, so he wasn’t eligible for a purple cord, but he shrugged it off. Putting high school behind him was the only thing on his mind.

My response wasn’t quite as blasé. Assigning a color symbol to celebrate students who had the academic prowess and financial backing to attend a university was an elitist move. Even the crème de la crème from Land Park hadn’t received a distinguishing cord all those years ago.

What about kids who aspire to be firefighters, attend a trade school or enlist in the military? Some kids join the armed forces hoping to gain skills that will enable them to find work in civilian life. Would their equivalent of a purple cord be a Purple Heart? Community college, with a transfer to a university, is another option.

Isolating non-purple-cord kids was the equivalent of branding them low-achievers, and the e-mail I sent to the school administration reflected my ire.

A few days later, the principal called and told me he understood my concerns and agreed with my complaint. He even admitted that the purple-cord procedure wasn’t fair to kids with learning disabilities. But he insisted that the school was an “academic” institution and that seniors who had satisfied the scholastic program required for higher learning should be rewarded.

My head is still spinning, trying to think of a high school that’s not an academic institution.

He went on to say that school officials had belatedly realized the system for granting purple cords was flawed. Apparently, all of the students who had completed a curriculum worthy of acceptance to a four-year college, whether they attended one or not, would be awarded a purple cord at graduation. In fact, he said, tossing me a final olive branch, cords of various colors would be issued for excellence in industrial arts, band and other non-academic fields in order to include more students in cord recognition.

But parents and their students know which color counts. Purple.

My son is a practical, good-hearted kid, and I think he’ll do OK with or without a purple cord. I’m delighted that he went to prom with a pretty girl and had a blast. He overcame a social hurdle that blocked me when I was his age, and the limo that he shared with his friends didn’t even turn into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight. But a purple cord is still a concocted gauge of success that doesn’t extend to low-income families or students who do their best in school but can’t come up with the right grades.

It doesn’t always take a set of railroad tracks to separate people.