But Cooper said that he was still impressed with the hard work and ambition of many of the students and that he still believes in L.A. Unified today.
You have to think of a school district as thousands of young individuals looking for a chance to realize their own potential, Cooper said.
"Kids are going to shape up if you just give them an education," he said, telling me he wishes he was young enough to still be on the job.
As I spoke to Cooper and many others, I began thinking about the innocence of the time in which they came of age, an innocence shattered six months after they got their diplomas.
Part of the exuberance of their era, historian Kevin Starr told me, might have stemmed from the fact that a storm was visible on the horizon, with events in Europe signaling the inevitability of war. People drove beautiful cars. They danced the jitterbug. Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland celebrated youth in the movies.
Seventy years later, the 1941 class of Manual Arts celebrated a moment in time.
"You look great. We all look great," Tolson, a minister, told the group. Then he bowed his head and offered a blessing. "We thank you for the privilege of attending that high school," he said. And mostly for the fact that "we're still here."