Dolores Sheen stands on the faded, yellow-brick road that her students painted on the sidewalk outside her Sheenway School and Cultural Center at Broadway and 101st Street in South Los Angeles and laughs.
"It must be God's will that we're still here," she said.
Every few years, the obituary gong seems to sound for Sheenway. By all rights, the eclectic private school, which offers everything from a pig and a horse to violin and karate lessons, should not have survived to its age of 18 years.
It lies on a bleak strip of apartments and motels. It operates on a $250,000 budget that comes more from donations than tuition.
Its enrollment, traditionally black, has fallen by half during the past four years, as the neighborhoods around the school have grown increasingly Latino. Some of the children enrolled have been forced to drop out when their parents became ensnarled in cocaine abuse, and some prospective enrollments have been lost because of a suspicion that closure was inevitable.
Why then is Sheen laughing? Why is she talking about expanding? What business did she have telling parents at an open house last week that she wants to knock down the collection of old houses that make up her campus and build a whole new school?
Call it faith; call it stubbornness. Every time the cheerfully indomitable, 51-year-old Sheen gets into a financial hole, somebody bails her out. Once it was Richard Pryor. Another time it was Lionel Ritchie.
This month it was a business executive who, insisting on anonymity, gave her $25,000, a bookkeeper and an administrative assistant so that it might no longer take Sheen until midnight to plan and cook the meals her students will eat the next day. And then there is her son, who pays her living expenses so she can avoid drawing a salary from the school.
By its survival, Sheenway has become more than just another of the 1,300 private schools in Los Angeles County. It is an institution in a part of town where life is frighteningly transitory, a tiny oasis of civility and good manners and kept promises, a place where former kindergartners return as college students to volunteer their time.
The hum of cars from the Harbor Freeway and Century Boulevard, both a block away, filters irritatingly through Sheenway's clean, carpeted classrooms, but the harshness of drugs and hair-trigger violence feels a universe away.
The boys wear brown ties, white shirts and brown pants. The girls wear identically patterned dresses.
All five dozen of them, from preschoolers to high schoolers, assemble together each morning and sit in ordered silence for half an hour while "Aunt Dolores" and her staff prepare them for the day's lessons. During breaks, the children crowd around Sheen, sharing hugs, stories and confessions.
Tuition is $240 a month--breakfast, lunch and snacks included. Parents are required to donate at least seven hours a month to the school.
Sheen fudges on tuition for parents who cannot afford it. Sometimes she cuts her rates.
One set of parents helps her clean the school at nights. Other parents, like Julia Hicks, strain to make it. Hicks, who sent a daughter to Sheenway 15 years ago, said she took a part-time community college teaching job last year to finance Sheenway tuition for a teen-age foster child who had begun living with her.
"I knew they stood for something other than just academics," said Hicks, who lives a couple of miles from the school.
Once a week, violinist and tenor Herb Lasker takes the train from Anaheim to Los Angeles to spend the afternoon and early evening at Sheenway teaching violin inside a music room filled with donated equipment. When Lasker started several years ago, the only violin the children had was his. Today, through donations, there are seven.
Rest of World
"Dolores wants these kids to become aware of the rest of the world, and that's very impressive," Lasker said. "I'm out to show them how to build self-confidence by confronting something they don't know much about.
"It's very stimulating. These people are simply trying to survive in a very negative environment, and through one minor miracle or another, they've managed to keep the lights on and the doors open."
One morning last week, Sheen, clad in sweat clothes and tennis shoes, was racing as usual through the school, her finger in every pie--teaching, cooking, planning, answering the phone. She ordered a next-day quiz for a science class that seemed sluggish. She explained how the third-graders, who were studying gelled substances, were being asked to prepare the day's snack, Jell-O. She stopped by an assembly room where young children were being led in a dance to "Hound Dog."
No rap music is played at Sheenway. Sheen objects to its severe rhythm and undercurrents of violence. There is enough of that outside her windows.
Shoot and Rob
The kids on the outside, the ones who shoot and rob and deal narcotics, "they feel that they've been cheated, and they have been," Sheen said.
"We've cheated our kids," she said, finally sitting still.
"We're supposed to be--especially we educators--more aware of what it takes to survive, to live, and we're supposed to coordinate our activities so our species is getting along together . . . and we're not doing it. Everything kids are exposed to today is very egocentric, very material, very temporary, very instant," Sheen said.
"It's frightening to me. As the most intelligent beings, we're supposed to plan. But we're killing ourselves off. We don't even know how to help our own children.
"These kids act any kind of way today because someone told their parents that if you give them food and the house is warm at night, then you're a good parent," she said.
There are many moments when Sheen echoes her father, who even in death guides her.
Herbert Sheen, a physician, moved to Los Angeles in the 1940s and prospered in Watts, only to be horrified by the way his neighborhood tore itself to shreds during the Watts riots in 1965.
After the riots, his daughter said, Herbert Sheen financed several friends' business ventures, but the proprietors always seemed to go awry. Finally, he told his daughter that what was lacking was education.
"He told me, 'They just don't know,' " she said. "He said people had to be educated before they reached the age of reason."
Herbert Sheen then moved his office from Watts into a home on Broadway and 102nd Street and ran his practice there. He moved several other homes onto the adjacent land near 101st. With the doctor's money, Dolores Sheen, who had taught in private schools and had run a foster-care home, started a preschool in 1971.
Money was no object. What expenses tuition did not cover, Herbert Sheen did. Then, when the school was 5 years old, he died.
Financial reality set in. Dolores Sheen began what has become a continual pattern of scraping for donations. In addition, there were new demands. As the preschool students grew older, some parents asked Sheen to extend grade levels so their children could stay. Eventually, a couple of students from a public high school walked in and persuaded her to offer classes through the 12th grade.
Sheen stands on the faded yellow-brick road, in front of a wall-length mural painted a dozen years ago on the side of one of her buildings. The mural is dominated by a huge likeness of Herbert Sheen.
"I quote him a lot, because he was my best friend," she said. "He told me as he was dying that if he was cursed by anything, it was by his desire to learn.
"I'm very influenced by Montessori method (which encourages children to move freely through individualized instruction and physical exercises and stresses the early development of reading and writing skills), but Papa said the method didn't matter as long as I taught children how to think.
"I wish he'd lived longer to see this."