Pushing Boundaries with Youthful Ardor: A Review of K-12

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“The Reagan White House was one in which great expectations were allowed into play,” reflected Joan Didion in 1989. “Ardor, of a kind that only rarely survives a fully occupied Oval Office, flourished unchecked.” The former California governor, building on the work of Richard Nixon before him, successfully stitched together an unwieldy coalition of a fractious conservative America; one that today we see has reached its social and political limits. Peggy Noonan recognized the awkward alliance at the heart of Reagan’s presidency. “There were libertarians whose girlfriends had just given birth to their sons, hoisting a Coors with social conservatives who walked into the party with a wife who bothered to be warm and a son who carried a Mason jar of something that daddy grew in the backyard,” she wrote. “There were Protestant Fundamentalists hoping they wouldn’t be dismissed by neocon intellectuals from Queens and neocons talking to fundamentalists thinking: I wonder if when they look at me they see what Annie Hall’s grandmother saw when she looked down the table Woody Allen.”[1]

Reagan’s “Fisher King” persona, as Didion describes the late president, bedazzled them all; serving as a glittering center that for a period held a tangle of expectations, aspirations, dogmas, and passions. Yet, it would be Noonan who would craft his most enduring speech in which Reagan bid farewell to the astronauts aboard the ill fated Challenger, admonishing the nation to not shrink back in fear but to aspire to reach beyond ourselves, past our ineffable limits, no matter the consequence. “The future does not belong to the faint hearted; it belongs to the brave,” he told the nation. The Challenger’s passengers “’slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’” Despite her rhetorical eloquence, Noonan would soon be expelled from the White House the same year, 1986, for being “too dogmatic”, “too conservative”, and “too hard line.” She too had exceeded her limits in providing Reagan with a language that had sometimes eluded him; the Fisher King pushed past his oratory into new realms. However, her passions no longer aligned with that of his administration.

It is fitting therefore, that writer Carribean Fragoza begins her latest work, a chapbook entitled K-12, with Noonan’s famous quote from the January 1986 Challenger Explosion speech. Just as they sought to escape the bonds of earth, so to do we all seek to reach beyond our limits: physically and emotionally. “I have seen the older kids on their playground swinging high and I feel something slip inside my stomach,” notes K-12’s narrator during the 1st grade. She fears the swing’s eventual disintegration: “I can picture the whole thing flinging into the air, poles, chains, arms, and legs in a slow weightless tangle.” But “the only way to feel the sky is to let go. They fly high into brief arch before they come crashing down to the dirt.” The narrator watches knowing, even at the young age of six, “it’s something we all must do.” Later in 8th grade national boundaries, come into play. “Prop 187 like bad moon pulls kids out of classrooms, sends them in flocks, moving together like birds, it’s hard to tell where they are going or if they even know.” Our limits exist within and without.

Few places provide the boundaries and the opportunities to exceed them like school and adolescence. Rarely in life, are we as passionate about causes and ideas than when we are still forming our own identity within a larger culture that, as Fragoza’s narrator demonstrates, shapes who we are as much as we do ourselves. Nor are we as adventurous in our friendships later in life as we are in youth; throughout, Fragoza illustrates how time can reveal differences between individuals, even those once attached at the hip. During 11th grade, the narrator and her long time friend Veronica cut out clippings from magazines, the former all of Subcomandante Marcos (leader of the Zapitista Army of Liberation, the EZLN, who functions as an unlikely sex symbol) and the latter “big frothy wedding dresses with so much lace, ruffles and sequins that I can’t hide my aversion to it.” In that moment, she realizes “things are changing.”

marcos collage k-12

In these ways and others, through K-12, Fragoza traverses personal, California and national history utilizing various lenses including coming of age tropes, pop culture, and political events/upheavals beginning with kindergarten in 1986 and concluding with senior year of high school in 1999. The Iraq War, the rise of cable news, Rodney King, the L.A. Riots, among other examples all play a role in the chapbook’s narrative.

Perhaps, one of K-12’s most enduring aspects lay in its sense of humor. Looking back retrospectively, inserts an indispensible sense of mirth. When reflecting on her 11th grade fascination with Jurassic Park’s Ian Malcolm – “Living systems are never in equilibrium … In a sense everything is on the edge of collapse.” – the narrator finds such instability “comforting” but follows up with a sartorial comment on Malcolm’s penchant for black. “I think it’s a very sensible choice in fashion. Especially if your family can’t afford to buy you a lot of clothes, then you can just wear a lot of faded black and tell people to fuck off.” When the narrator gets placed in a counseling group for troubled teens rather than mope she quickly realizes it beats having to stay in English class:

“Forsooth! I’m happy to leave reenactments of Romeo and Juliet, there’s like 10 giggling Juliets laid out on bunched up desks, squeezing their eyes shut. Boy’s perspiration caught on peach fuzz lips. I’m out of here, forsooth!”

Identity, a staple of any work about childhood and adolescence, unsurprisingly makes its way into the story. With San Gabriel Valley as the setting, there is a longing for recognition, even a model upon which to build such recognition. After a classroom exercise in identifying role models and subsequent conversations with classmates in which she realizes she has none to speak of; her admiration of Frida Kahlo too much for the famed Mexican artist to bear and her peers identifying with the likes of Axl Rose, she envisions herself as a Chicano inspired avatar: “I pictured my face looking out into the universe as the face of a feathered dragon, my long fangs smiling greatly, also ready to rip into meat, both my hunger and something new and angry, satisfied and grateful.” Fragoza slips aspects of Chicano history and feminism into K-12 but avoids being pedantic or overbearing.

In several places, the narrator desires recognition for herself and her community, but does so in humorous yet poignant fashion. Upon hearing of the demise of Sublime lead singer, Bradley Nowell, the narrator admits “His death is bad news,” but the excitement from having the chance to recite their favorite songs momentarily eclipses the sense of tragedy such that “we’re all pretty pumped by the time we leave at the end of the session.” Perhaps more revealing however is how the narrator discusses Sublime’s famous song about the LA. Riots “April 26, 1992”. She finds herself singing the line “Let it burn, wanna let it burn, wanna wanna let it burn” all the time, thinking about the song’s roll call of national urban riots and wishing Nowell could have included El Monte. “I wanted to see something here burn. I wanted to see the sky go red and the sky go black,” she tells the reader. “I wanted to see flames, not just smoke. I wanted the flames here. I wanted to see something burn.”

One could chalk this up to the nihilism that sometimes lay at heart of adolescence, but considering the rise of Donald Trump and the recent Brexit debacle, perhaps its something more. Maybe, as organisms we seek to exceed the limits of acceptable society in moments of desperation whether 17 or 70. In a chapbook, that begins with a quote from a Ronald Regan speech and ends with a reference to Nirvana’s “Smell Like Teen Spirit”, all passionate movements, or those filled with the kind of ardor that Didion attributed to the Regan White House must burn out; limits will be reached, exceeded, and shrunk.

By infusing her work with numerous pop culture touchstones and icons – in addition to those already mentioned throw in 1980s action star, staunch Republican and 21st century meme Chuck Norris, Sean Penn, the film Colors, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Reginald Denny, Duck Hunt, Bart Simpson and numerous others — and placing them in interaction with the likes of Plath, Alan Watts,  and Jacque Costeau, K-12 successfully elucidates the life of an inquisitive child of the 1980s and 1990s. Admittedly, Fragoza has not created a new genre here, nor is it necessarily “groundbreaking” but it’s an engaging thought provoking work that balances humor, pathos, and profundity in equal portions. Moreover it’s relative short length, makes it ripe for revisits, which deliver new insights each time.

An oddly paternal looking Unabomber Ted Kaczynski circa 1990s by Caribbean Fragoza

An oddly paternal looking Unabomber Ted Kaczynski circa 1990s by Caribbean Fragoza

In the end, by combining 1980s/1990s pop culture, and politics, a child’s fascination with animals and an adolescent’s intense focus on ideas such as feminism and race with iconic figures like Plath and Marcos, Fragoza successfully crafts a humorous, insightful and ultimately entertaining narrative depicting the boundaries that pen us in, those we choose to embrace, and those we hope to escape.

[Editors note: Folks can buy K-12 at Eohippus Labs at http://eohippuslabs.com/tract-series/ K-12 is #12 of Eohippus Lab’s Tract Series.]

[1] Joan Didion, After Henry, (New York: Vintage House, 1992) 26, 27-28.

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