“Look!” cried a student in my class at Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley Juvenile Hall. He pointed to the corner of the art room, to an unused potter’s wheel. Except, it was being used. A scrawny kid named Lopez had climbed onto the wheel. Some classmates were pushing him in mad circles, head down, fanny in the air, hands gripping the wheel’s edges. “Faster!” he hollered, “C’mon, faster!”
“Get down!” I yelled. “Now!”
“I can’t,” Lopez gasped, grinning. “These kids won’t stop!” He was about as alarmed as a panda bear munching on fresh eucalyptus.
I figured my teaching career was over. The classroom door would fly open, an administrator would rush in. I would be unemployed, after everything I had done to keep the class in order – six colored markers distributed to each student, collected and counted at the end of the hour, when everyone lined up to march to the next class. I could really handle a class. You bet!
No one came. Apparently no one heard us. Lopez disengaged, jumped down and began to explain that he never exactly meant to cause a scene, “But that thing was there, y’know. How did I know I wasn’t supposed to get on it?”
“Right, Lopez. Just one of those unlucky circumstances, huh?”
The events leading to the classroom where Lopez took his joyride began in the Los Angeles public schools. In 1975, after teaching for 16 years, I was ready for a change. I was not going to spend more sleepless nights worrying about currirulum, state tests, angry parents and wimpy administrators.
I signed on with a temporary secretarial service. Eventually I landed at a Los Angeles County probation camp where I was to fill in for six weeks as secretary to the principal. The camp was for boys who were locked up by the Los Angeles County Probation Department for up to a year. Camp was to educate him and turn him toward better ways of behaving. Young people who were too hard-core for camp went to the California Youth Authority, which harbored some very scary teens – murderers and such.
After a few days of watching me with the students who came in and out of the office, the principal said, “You belong in the classroom.”
“No, I’m done with teaching,” I told her.
“Just try substituting. You’ll enjoy it. Really.”
Eventually she prevailed, and I entered the world of juvenile offenders. I saw not only their lives in jail, I dealt with probation personnel who were their legal parents while they were in custody. Occasionally I heard about their real parents, some good, some not so good, many non-existent.
My first substitute teaching assignment was at the probation camp where I had been secretary. It was a link in the chain of county juvenile facilities which included three large jails and six or seven smaller ones, called camps. I immediately began to notice ways in which this population differed from kids on the “outs” (outside the probation system).
On my second or third day of substituting, my class asked if they could draw. We decided to open an imaginary diner, and they could draw signs advertising menu items, including prices. I could rationalize the project as a math exercise, maybe.
They posted their signs for “slob burgers,” “cole slob,” and other things with the word “slob” worked in. “Just a little joke,” said DeLeon. “Kind of an inside joke.”
Manuelo lingered a moment after class. When everyone was gone, he said softly, “Mrs. Teacher, that’s gang writing. Slobs are the other gang. This is real bad.” He scurried to catch up with the class.
Knowing my next class was minutes away, I rushed to rip those signs off the wall. I had just witnessed only the smallest hint of the depth of the gang problem - how invasive it was, how much a part of a ghetto kid’s life.
Before the incident with Lopez many months later, I had learned a lot. By the time he climbed down from the potter’s wheel, I was fairly savvy about gang writing, graffiti and other behaviors in this population. I knew that one missing colored marker, washable though it was, meant a nightmare of graffiti somewhere in the facility. Graffiti caused fights.
Over 17 years of teaching with the county, I grew to love the job. My clients were like any school population in that their most basic need was to be valued. I tried to make the school room a place where that could happen. I’m sure that over the years I learned much more than I ever taught.
I plan to share some of the stories about these teens, who at botttom were simply boys – and girls – trying to survive.