HARD LESSONS: A YEAR IN SCHOOL : SPECIAL REPORT / EDUCATION : PART 7: THE STUDENTS : For These 6, Life’s Lessons Begin at Home
They were the splintered children of America. There were Ceasar, Dasha, Jesse, Jamilett, Ali and Alex. Only two had lived their entire lives with the same two parents. The lives of those two had been anything but stable. Their families had fled oppressive foreign regimes, the Ayatollah’s Iran and the former Soviet Union.
These students reflect what is going on in schools statewide, according to Policy Analysis for California Education, affiliated with UC Berkeley.
A PACE analysis called “Rebuilding Education in the Golden State” says one in five children here lives in poverty, one in six comes to school not knowing English--a figure much higher in Los Angeles--and one in 10 urban babies is born with crack cocaine in its blood. PACE said more than half the state’s children will experience a broken home before they graduate from high school.
These are the disadvantaged students that Northridge had resolved to help. Among them were troublemakers and honor students.
They were chosen at random out of 1,100 students at Northridge. They weren’t the most troubled kids on campus, and they weren’t the best. They were just average kids, circa 1993, facing life in a world that sometimes seemed to be defined more by limits than opportunity.
Here are capsule portraits of the lives and struggles of a cross-section of the students at Northridge Middle School:
A big, beefy boy with a baby face, Ceasar Martinez strode the campus with his arms back and his belly forward, as comfortable as if he owned the place. Other students came up to talk to him hesitantly, conscious of the rank conferred on him by his size and sense of self.
His apparent self-confidence might seem surprising in a boy who had not lived with his parents for years. His father, a plumber, sometimes didn’t visit for three months. Ceasar’s mother was an alcoholic, the family says. His three brothers and sisters were scattered across Southern California like pennies tossed away to lighten a pocket.
Ceasar lived with his grandmother, Isolina Martinez, a constantly smiling woman who loved her grandson enough to almost make up for everything else. Almost.
In a school where A’s proliferated, Ceasar was having problems. Early in the year, he got a report card with one F, a D and four U’s for unsatisfactory behavior. Five U’s would prevent him from participating in the graduation ceremony on stage, a humiliation that students tried to avoid.
His grandmother would like to put her foot down more about Ceasar’s work habits, but didn’t think that it would do much good. “I don’t say nothing,” she said, “because when I say no, they make the opposite.”
Ceasar had a girlfriend. He had admired Waleska, a frizzy-haired girl with a huge smile, ever since she moved to California from Pennsylvania the previous year. At his 14th birthday party, when he packed 35 kids into his grandmother’s rented house, he finally got together with her. Now they were inseparable, holding hands at lunch and hanging on each other with rapturous expressions after school.
“He’s too young for those things,” his grandmother said. “You don’t pay attention to school with a girl.”
“Ohhh,” he joshed her with easy confidence.
Ceasar’s dad tried to be the disciplinary force in his son’s life long distance. Hearing that his son mouthed off to the teachers, the father said at the parent conference that Ceasar tended to get out of line when he wasn’t around. Regarding Ceasar’s fighting on school grounds, said the hard-edged plumber, he had told Ceasar long ago, “ ‘If someone hits you, hit them twice.’ He was getting beat up. I went to the other kids and said, ‘I’ll do to your dad what you did to him.’ ”
The elder Martinez knew his share of violence in school. He was growing up in Compton when the Watts riots took place in 1965. “All the white people moved away,” he said. “The only ones left were Mexicans, and I got beat up after school.”
Ceasar said he didn’t miss living with his father. He liked the safe harbor of his grandmother’s warm house with the soft furniture and dinner smells. And he returned her love the best way he could manage, given his priorities. Knowing that she had little money--Ceasar’s grandfather was a lot man at a local car dealership--the boy got a job selling cookies door-to-door for three hours after school each day.
“I make about $15 a day,” he said. “I use it to buy clothes, my lunch. I’m saving for Christmas.”
Jamilett Machado wore her many troubles like a rose in her dark cascade of hair. A rose her mother picked for her.
Fleeing war in El Salvador, Jamilett and her family sought a haven in the United States. Then her parents divorced, and her mother, Leonor Alvarez, got too sick to work. Medi-Cal paid for the woman’s surgery, but the reverses plunged the family into poverty.
Jamilett, her mother and her 10-year-old sister, Kricia, live with Jamilett’s grandmother in a small apartment and survive on the grandmother’s Social Security checks. The bunk beds where everyone sleeps are stacked in the single bedroom.
The family eats simply. “We don’t go to Sizzler or classy restaurants like that,” Jamilett said.
A Disney fan, she asked visitors if they would like to see her collection of memorabilia. With a practiced motion, she sat down at a small desk in the living room and pulled out a special box containing her little treasures. There were no stuffed animals or jewelry inside. Instead, she took out a napkin she had retrieved from a Disneyland restaurant, a plastic cup, and some other odds and ends.
She was looking forward to going back to the park, but she didn’t know when that might be. They had to save for a year to go the last time.
Jamilett is small, with an impish face and a shy way of speaking when she first meets someone. But that lasts only a minute or two, after which she reveals a quiet fierceness that is absent in the more blustery students, whose toughness seems brittle.
She is determined to succeed in America, and for inspiration, she draws on a large catalogue of self-help aphorisms that her mother has given her like little wrapped presents. There is one--about the necessity of going all the way up the mountain because, if you stop halfway, you’ll never see the valley on the other side--that Jamilett keeps as ready at hand as the Disney treasures.
Jamilett got five A’s and one B on her last report card. The B was in PE, which she hates because of the weekly mile runs. She continues to run, she said, because she hears her mother’s voice in her head asking, “Well, did you try, at least?”
Fortified on this kind of high-protein, densely packed love, Jamilett feels very lucky. “I like my life,” she said.
She also has the traditional immigrant’s appreciation for her new country and the opportunity to go to school. She feels that the work is not too hard or too easy.
“In my country, you see lots of children who rarely get an education,” she said. “Compared to them, I have lots of riches.”
She and her sister have worked out a plan to make sure that their mother is not hurt in love again. In their fantasy, they all win the lottery. Then a nice man comes courting. Kricia and Jamilett hide all the money and wait to see what happens next. “If he’s still there, then he loves her,” Jamilett smiled.
A muscular boy who lifts weights and looks like he can take care of himself, Ali is in hiding.
In fact, Ali is not his real name. His mother asked that it be kept secret, because she feared that the mullahs back in Iran would have the family killed if they knew where they were.
Ali and his family fled the Ayatollah’s men four years ago, escaping into the desert like Bedouin tribesmen.
For Ali and the rest of his family, the flight to America has been worse than simply escaping from a dictatorship. They were wealthy in Iran. Ali’s father operated a six-story factory that made baby clothes.
“We lived like kings,” Ali said wistfully, and a bit sulkily. Nobody at Northridge treats him like royalty. He is known as “Big Nose” to Ceasar’s crowd, which can be cruel to him.
In 1989, the family discovered that the government was planning to take over their factory. Ali’s father secretly withdrew all his money and planned their escape. The departure was nearly foiled when some soldiers got wind of it. Ali’s father got in a fistfight and broke his arm.
The family’s money was used up in a two-month hotel stay in Pakistan so that, when Ali and his parents finally arrived in America, they were as poor as any Latino immigrant who crawls under the fence at Tijuana.
They had some relatives here, though, who helped them open an electronics store in downtown Los Angeles. Then the store was looted of $100,000 worth of equipment in the riots. Now, the family is just getting back on its feet.
Ali is doing OK in school, but he finds it disappointingly easy after the tough demands he had to meet back home. “In Iran,” said Ali, “we had 50 pages of language a night.”
Ali’s mother, a large, decisive woman who serves rich, dark tea, is baffled by American life and attitudes about children. First of all, adults don’t demand respect from young people, which is why students curse their teachers, she said. Ali mentioned that discipline in Iran is firm, and his parents carry on that tradition in America. They beat him, he said, “when I deserve it.”
After failing to discipline their children when they are young, American parents kick them out of the house at 18, before they are truly adults, said the boy’s mother. She believes that’s why there are so many drug and alcohol problems among the young here. In Iran, it’s not unusual to live with your parents until you are 30 or 35, she said.
One thing that is better in America, says Ali, is the level of violence. He said there are more killings in Iran, though there are no gangs.
Asked how they found life in America, Ali’s mother grew wistful for her life of privilege. “I loved Iran,” she said. “I only came because they bothered us.”
When they lived in Central Los Angeles and feared drive-by shootings, Dasha Hopson’s family used to practice falling to the floor and hiding, a duck-and-cover drill for the ‘90s.
“It was horrible,” said Denise Miller, Dasha’s mother. “We couldn’t let her walk home from school.”
So Denise and her second husband, John, a manager at the Avis rental car agency at Los Angeles International Airport, moved their blended family of six children to the San Fernando Valley, where they set up housekeeping in a $1,250-a-month rental house on a cul-de-sac.
The family likes the suburban lifestyle even though there aren’t as many special programs for minority kids at Northridge as there were in their old school. But then, Dasha didn’t seem to need as much help. An outgoing, take-charge girl who liked to perform hip-hop dance steps on the eighth-grade stage at lunch, Dasha was considered one of the leaders on campus.
Giving their children the right upbringing was important to John and Denise, and they had sacrificed to do so. Denise quit her job as an insurance saleswoman so that she could be home each day when her children came home from school.
Dasha’s first report card in the eighth grade had five A’s and one C. The C was in PE. She had a kind of power struggle going on with Marilyn Hayes and Becky Galdos. She would get up at 4 a.m. to run several miles with a jogging club, but balked at the mile run on Fridays in class.
Dasha seemed to be thriving under the system at Northridge, which did away with a lot of the things that created caste systems on school campuses in the old days.
Cheerleading, for instance, was a voluntary activity. Anyone could get in. All they had to do was keep their grades up. Dasha became a leader with the rest of the cheerleaders, teaching them new yells and dance steps, bouncing up and down and clapping her hands and shouting the UFO cheer: “Look up in the sky, there’s a UFO. It’s coming your way, and it’s taking control.”
But Dasha had a stubborn side that at times threatened to undermine her. She complained that the teachers made her run on hot days. “They make impossible rules,” she said.
“We all have to abide by rules,” her mother reminded her. Dasha was not persuaded.
Denise said it was fitting that Dasha wanted to be a lawyer when she grew up. “She likes to plead her case,” said Denise, laughing.
Jesse Black was a tagger, but his stepmother said he aspired to be more. He wanted to be a gang banger.
His stepmother, Vickie, couldn’t understand what was going on with her stepson.
She told him to stop talking in that street dialect that was a twisted blend of Spanish, English and juvenile hall.
“You’re white,” she said. She didn’t have anything against Jesse hanging around with “Spanish people,” she just felt that people should act like their own.
Jesse was not impressed with his stepmother’s warnings. He went out and got arrested for tagging on the way to school. He was spanked and grounded for a month. Vickie cut his TV back to half an hour a night. She cut off his phone calls, too. Then after his grounding was up, he was caught tagging in a school bathroom.
This time, Vickie told him, “We’ll let the police handle it.” He was ordered to go to counseling.
Jesse’s teachers told Vickie to love him and stroke him. Vickie couldn’t have loved him more if he had been her own flesh.
But love could only do so much. It couldn’t, for instance, find her husband, Robert, a good job after he lost his position as a laborer at Lockheed. That job paid $14 an hour, and he had benefits.
He was unemployed for months, and the family was forced to live with relatives in a small apartment, where Jesse slept in the living room with a female cousin. Robert finally found another job with an import-export company, and the family was able to get its own apartment.
But he had to take a cut in pay to $9 an hour. He received no health insurance, which meant that they had to pay full cost for the inhalers that Jesse needed for his asthma.
“Only do it when you need it,” Vickie told her stepson.
Vickie had been a student at Northridge 27 years ago, when it was known as Northridge Junior High School. There were gangs and fights when she was in school. But all this tagging and drive-by shooting--there was nothing like that.
The classroom was different, too. There was more discipline and more learning.
Vickie’s own past was as difficult as Jesse’s. Her father was a mean alcoholic, and her parents divorced when she was 3, leaving her mother with six kids to raise on welfare.
Trouble followed Vickie into marriage. Her first husband was murdered, shot in the head while she was holding his hand.
Robert had a tough time, too. The nickname of his first wife, Jesse’s mother, said it all. She was called “Coo Coo,” and Jesse has not seen her in years.
Robert and Vickie made mistakes when they were young, but now they are trying to do right by Jesse. They even gave him the single bedroom in the new apartment so he can have privacy. Vickie still smokes pot though, to go to sleep, and Jesse knows it.
Jesse’s worst problem in school was his big mouth, Vickie said. “His alligator mouth rules his rabbit ass.”
But things were looking up somewhat.
Jesse had flunked all his classes when they lived in Burbank a while back. But at Northridge, his grades were better.
Still, one more F would lock him out of the cavernous, dark auditorium, smelling of 30 years of assemblies, on graduation day.
Vickie has another son, now 20. He never graduated from high school. Then he got a girl pregnant, and so he is now raising a 2-year-old, working odd jobs. His mother uses him as an object lesson for Jesse: “You don’t want to end up like him, do you?”
When Alex Novek emigrated from Russia three years ago, he was so far ahead of his American classmates that months passed before he began to learn new things.
“Russian education is stronger than here,” Alex shrugged. He tries to get around the boredom by reading Shakespeare in class.
“American education is a problem for kids like Alex. It’s for lazy,” said his father, Sergey, sitting in the family’s neat condominium one afternoon before starting his workday as a painter at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
But Sergey is not nearly so disgusted with American education as Ali’s parents, or Jesse’s stepmother. The sputtering American school system is something his kids can work around.
Other parents see the troubled public schools as a symptom of American decline. But all Sergey Novek can see is how much better life still is in America, compared to the stifled, government-issue existence in Russia.
“This is the best country in the world,” said the thick-bodied man in his heavily accented English. “People in the U. S. really have freedom. If somebody here wants to do something, if you have the desire, you can do everything. In Russia, it’s impossible.”
Sergey had a dream to be a writer when he was a child. He went to college and studied history and literature. But he was kicked out after refusing to join the Komsomol, the Communist Youth League. He began trying to immigrate to the United States, with no success, at age 20.
Sergey and his family were living near Chernobyl when the nuclear accident took place there in April, 1986. The government didn’t tell the people about it for several days. Then the women and children were evacuated to Moscow. But Sergey continued working, unaware of the threat to his body from the invisible radioactive particles in the air.
“Now my health is really bad,” he said.
He used to have a small patch of psoriasis on his scalp. Lifting up his shirt and pants legs, he showed that the scales have spread over large areas of his body, coating him in splotchy white, with patches of angry red where irritated skin shows through. The itching drives him crazy sometimes, he says.
But his medical problem hardly troubles him because his family is on the American fast track of self-improvement. His wife is taking college accounting classes, and he has managed to save enough money from his job to buy the condo they are living in.
The family is becoming so Americanized that he and his wife recently went to Las Vegas. “I lose my money, but it’s really fun,” he said.*