Encouraged to talk about it

It was the middle of the night. I was asleep. My mom came in and started punching me. She said I didn't fold my clothes right. I threw her off of me. She was real drunk. She started on me again. The police came. She said: 'What? I'm just kicking my son's ass.' Just another night.

-- Carlos, 17

The little school in South Los Angeles is the end of the road, reserved for those who have bombed out of the rest of the system. The mildest cases were merely kicked out of their last school. The toughest are parolees -- ex-cons, some of them still in no need of a shave.

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Earlier this year, they began receiving an unusual visitor. Stan Bosch was a shaggy-headed, motorcycle-riding Catholic priest who'd played college football and had the broad shoulders and busted knees to prove it.

Bosch told them he would never judge them -- and unlike many before him, he held to his pledge. It seemed they could talk about anything with him, so they did. They talked about smoking pot, about getting drunk with their mothers, about being left alone for days at a time. One confessed to a string of burglaries; he said he felt rotten about it but had to find a way to bring home some money. Another said he'd rather be back in jail, where he could be assured meals and a bed.

All the priest asked was that they refrain from calling him "homie." That didn't seem too much to ask.

Bosch, a member of Missionary Servants, an order whose mission is to care for the poor and abandoned, had been a pastor in nearby Compton. The 11 years he'd spent there weighed heavily on him; at times, it seemed the entirety of his ministry was trudging from one hospital to the next in the middle of the night, tending to the grieving relatives of another dead gangbanger.

"I had developed a deep inner sadness," said Bosch, now 54. "I just couldn't do it anymore."

Bosch, seeking a fresh start, accepted an invitation to move into a small rectory at St. Michael Catholic Church on West Manchester Avenue, next door to the school in South L.A. There were 140 students there, give or take. They scored at the bottom of every academic index, according to school administrators. Many were gang members. Some were homeless, some alcoholics. Many had raised themselves, or close to it.

"These are the ones who are not wanted," said Cesar Calderon, director of Soledad Enrichment Action, the nonprofit that operates the school and 18 other charters in L.A. County. "They are the worst of the worst," Calderon said, with great affection somehow.

Bosch had also gone back to school; this spring he earned a doctorate in psychology from the California Graduate Institute of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology in Westwood.

He had spent much of his doctoral studies investigating the troubles he'd seen. He came across a condition called alexi- thymia: the inability to understand or enunciate one's feelings. Bosch knew that psychologists who'd studied teens in the core of L.A. had found epidemics of post-traumatic stress and depression. This, he felt, was the final piece of the equation: kids who were not just shell-shocked but deeply ashamed, convinced that their peers could not possibly relate to their pain.

Bosch decided he wanted to start holding group therapy at several of the Soledad Enrichment Action campuses, including the Manchester Avenue site. The idea was met with surprise, even derision; Bosch had to acknowledge that next to the profound problems in the neighborhood, touchy-feely therapy seemed like a silly luxury. But Bosch was determined that he could make the biggest difference by asking the kids the simplest questions: "How are you? How do you feel?"

"No one asks them stuff like that," Bosch said. "Not parents. Not teachers. No one."

Bosch had also been asked to supervise the city's gang-reduction programs in two pockets of South L.A. His therapy idea dovetailed with what City Hall views as the future: "wrap-around" services that envelop the toughest cases like a blanket. That means adding new services to a gang-reduction program that has historically careened from one crisis to the next -- all triage, no healing.

Though the shift is still in its infancy, there are proposals to add a host of services that would seem related only peripherally to troubles with gangs and the law: anger management, parenting classes, sex education, arts programs and mental health therapy like what Bosch offers.

"This is a systemic way of looking at health and healing -- not treating symptoms but looking at root causes," Bosch said. "You can't deal with one area of life without asking: Why? Why do kids join gangs? What are the realities of the streets?"

A dizzying descent

"I don't got people around me."

"Go on."

"When I go home, I'm alone. I find my own way. To eat. Wash my clothes. I've been finding my own way since I was 5."

"How old are you?"

"17."

Karla Valencia is one of Bosch's students. She landed at the charter school, she said, after a dizzying descent into alcohol abuse, crystal meth addiction and affiliation with a local gang.

It's a Wednesday, and 12 students have assembled on the second floor. Administrators let Bosch put the room together as he saw fit, to foster feelings of comfort. In an otherwise austere school where the walls are lined only with gray lockers, the decor seems as incongruous as the mission. There are woven rugs in beige and burgundy, dried flowers and cattails in tall vases.

"What is the purpose of what we do here?" Bosch asks.

"Get stuff out," a 17-year-old named Charles volunteers. "So it don't burn inside you."

"Beautiful," Bosch replies, smiling.

(The Times was allowed to observe the sessions with the permission of every participant, provided that the participants were not identified. Karla Valencia is the only participant identified in this article, because she asked, with her mother's consent, that her story be made public. All other first names are fictitious.)

Karla's story is typical for Bosch's program. Her mother raised four children without child support, working as a floral arranger for quinceanera celebrations. Rent money ran short, and the family was forced to move time and again.

Unsupervised and lonely, Karla fell into the wrong crowd; she began drinking, then smoking pot, and spent almost two years addicted to crystal meth. Recently, she has kicked her addiction and boosted her grades. Much of her journey, she said, has come because of these sessions.

"Around here, we don't talk about our stuff," she said. "I used to cry every day. I can't explain the relief."

Karla and Bosch both know that her problems have hardly vanished. There is rarely food in the house, Karla said. A woman who lives down the street gives Karla a bit of money to get by. Karla is a talented artist, and she earns a few dollars by selling pencil drawings, mostly portraits, to her friends.

She still has to fight her way through the neighborhood; a classmate recently punched her in the face in a dispute over whose turn it was to use a computer. On days like that, she said, she draws only for herself -- self-portraits, typically, showing how she looked before she shaved her head, with long hair that would cover her face and hide her from the world.

During one recent session, Karla also told the group that she and her girlfriend had recently broken up, leaving her deeply wounded. (In general, she said, her sexual orientation has rarely been an issue at home or school.)

"Are you discovering anything about yourself?" Bosch asked her.

"That I'm weak. I thought I was hard. I'm not."

"That must be liberating."

"I guess."

"Loneliness is a part of life," Bosch told her. "We never escape it completely."

Getting 'props'

Bosch's sessions are rooted firmly in the dark reality of South L.A. He offers no pretense that life here will magically improve, just the hope that his young clients will survive and, perhaps, find some solidarity in other people's pain.

When he tries to remind the students that he is obligated to file a report in the event that someone discusses child abuse or elder abuse in the sessions, one student says: "So you'll snitch."

"It's not 'snitching,' " Bosch tells her tersely.

"Whatever."

At one session in June, a 16-year-old named Antonio held out his palm for the others to see; he revealed that he'd brawled with his older brother after the brother had ripped a stereo out of their car. The brother wound up chasing Antonio with a knife, cutting him on the hand.

"He can't handle his drinks," Antonio said. "I told him: 'You're dead to me.' "

"What does that feel like?" Bosch asked.

"It sucks."

"What's another word for 'sucks'?"

"I don't know. But it ain't cool."

"Agreed."

Bosch gets "props" -- respect -- from the kids because he lives where they live. At one session, a girl said she'd witnessed a fight on a street corner; people were slashing one another with bottles.

"Is your neighborhood calm now?" Bosch asked her.

"It's your neighborhood too," she told him.

"Then it's not calm," he said with a chuckle.

"You got that right."

Some days, it can feel as though Bosch is spitting into a forest fire. At one recent session, a boy named Jevon reported that his mother was about to be released from jail. She'd been behind bars, he told the group, for nine of his 16 years. Bosch suggested that he might be anxious about her release.

"Why would I be scared of my momma?" he said indignantly. He told the group that a few years back, during one of his mother's brief stays at home, he had been selling crack.

"Some old woman tried to slap me. My momma stomped that bitch," he said proudly.

Bosch asked what lessons he'd learned from his mother.

"Whatever you choose, do it as best as you can," Jevon replied. "If you choose gangbanging, do it as best you can. Selling dope? Do it as best you can. Now we're going to be back in business."

On another afternoon, Bosch asked a boy named Thomas, a 16-year-old who'd already served time, about his weekend. Thomas said his older brother, a gang member, had called home from prison.

"Is he in for a long time?" Bosch asked.

"Yeah."

"Do you miss him?"

"Yeah. He's 27."

"Where do you see yourself at 27?"

"I don't."

A story unfolds

The sessions can be bleak, to say the least. Bosch hangs on, he said, for small victories.

One recent afternoon, Bosch asked Marco, a tall, hulking gang member with a ponytail, to speak to the group. Marco is 16 and a charismatic class-clown sort who has been on probation since he was 13. He had been uncharacteristically quiet.

"Behind all your playfulness, I sense a lot of sensitivity," Bosch told him.

"I call it anger."

Bosch left the comment hanging in the air, forcing Marco to speak again. Slowly, his story began to trickle out. Late last year, Marco said, his mother died of cancer. She was, he said, "the only perfect person in the world." He was holding her hand when she died; he does not have a single photo of the two of them together.

His home life has degenerated into chaos since then; the only reason he stays, he said, is that his little brother looks up to him and views him as a father figure.

"Who listens to how you feel?" Bosch asked him.

"No one."

"That's a lot to carry around."

"What's the point of living? I'm alone."

Bosch didn't buy it. There must be a better way, Bosch insisted -- a way to honor his mother. Again, Bosch allowed awkward silence to fill the room. The only sound was an airplane roaring overhead; the school is in the LAX flight path.

"I'd like to open a cafe," Marco said, finally.

"Really?"

"Nothing big. Just coffee and sandwiches."

"You paint this picture that life isn't worth living. But you talk about the future."

"I guess."

"There's a lot of hope inside of you."

"I would call it Patty's. My mom's middle name was Patricia."

"That sounds a little better than being locked up."

"I guess."

"Let's talk about that."

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