This graduation was not advertised on Nimitz Middle School’s marquee. The honorees wore neither cap nor gown. They walked across no stage.
But their collective achievement was no less significant than that of many other students--they were graduating from anger.
Each of the 20 had earned the right to seek a “Chill Out” diploma through a painful series of mistakes and missteps that left them on the verge of being kicked out of the Huntington Park school.
Unfocused anger plagues many adolescents, but the troubled children who rose from plastic chairs Wednesday night had managed to distinguish themselves in the anonymous sea of 3,400 students at one of the largest middle schools in the nation.
They had punched out their peers, cussed out their teachers and exploded with extreme pranks like pulling their pants down in front of the whole class.
“I just didn’t care,” said “Chill Out” graduate Jesse Saenz, 13, nailed for recruiting two friends to help him “jump a kid” who bugged him--the 20th time he’d been caught fighting this year.
The reward for such behavior was enrollment in a three-month “anger management” seminar, a gesture of desperation unique in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The students had spent a full class period once a week meeting with private psychologist Floyd McGregor, who developed the anger program for the school five years ago.
They studied anger from its roots to its telltale side effects: the sweat, the hot face, the churning stomach, the goose bumps. Then they practiced basic tricks to tame their temper such as counting backward from 10 and breathing deeply.
The lesson, offered to about 10% of Nimitz’s students each year, boils down to some simplistic language--the anger button, the anger reaction, the anger meter, the anger diffuser. The result is that many children leave the program with an easily remembered method to cope with their anger, said Assistant Principal Alvin Glass.
Although L.A. Unified offers hundreds of similar therapy programs for students touching on the broader issue of resolving conflicts, district administrators say “Chill Out” is the only one focused specifically on anger.
“There were some students we were missing with all the other programs we have,” Glass said. “This was broken down into a series of things you could do every time it happened; that seemed to be a hook for a lot of students. They were able to buy into it and be helped.”
McGregor, who did his clinical psychology internship at the middle school, said he simply singled out the one commonality among the worst troublemakers.
“Kids were fighting, they were missing classes . . . getting kicked out of school,” he said. “I started thinking, ‘If we can reduce anger, we can reduce fighting.’ ”
The frustrations, slights and rivalries that bother most middle schoolers were flame to these kids’ fuses. Adjustment to the many differences from elementary school--moving from class to class, encountering rougher kids, changing clothes for P.E.--all made life harder.
Glass emphasizes that no one should expect the “Chill Out” graduates to emerge angelic or anger-free. He measures success more modestly: ‘We’re seeing them less and less in the office now.”
Final exams for the course are oral, with each graduate standing during commencement exercises to detail what they have learned.
On Wednesday night, Tony Gallegos talked of the time when his response to insult was to ambush the disrespecter after school. Now, “I just walk away.”
After the testimonials, beaming parents shared pizza, pan dulce and their own accounts of the time before, unintentionally one-upping one another with parental horror stories.
Before anger management, if one girl’s brothers so much as touched her, the whole house shook, said one parent. Before anger management, said another, my son called his teacher stupid, and worse. Before anger management, said a third, the disciplinary dean had me on his speed dial.
Before anger management, recalled a single parent, she had considered giving up her only son.
“He’d come to school every day, but he’d mouth off at his teachers . . . he didn’t do any homework or anything, really,” said Cristina Parra of 13-year-old Gonzalo. “I got to the point where I wanted to get rid of him--to send him to his dad or back to Mexico.”
The other day, when she refused to buy Gonzalo new clothes because she had too many bills, she noticed he was whispering.
She leaned closer. He was counting backward.
The impromptu commencement speaker was one of last year’s graduates, who stood after all the diplomas were distributed to offer them inspiration: her grades improved from mostly Fs to A’s and Bs after she learned to control her temper.
“I used to think teachers were just picking on me . . . and it made me mad,” said Alejandra Manzo, now a freshman at Bell High School. “You know, now I know the only reason they’re on your case is because you guys aren’t doing the work.”
That advice brought a slight smile from graduate Evelyn Gil. She too once blamed her constant irritability on unfair teachers and petty girls who “dogged” her--gave her dirty looks.
“I learned that the teachers have a lot of stress too,” she said. “I learned how to control myself. We only think of ourselves and [McGregor] made us think about how our teachers think, how our friends think.”
Her boyfriend nodded. “Yes,” he said. “She’s calmer now.” There was an urgent subplot to this week’s graduation: rumors that the school may not continue the program next year.
Expertise can be expensive and, in this case, “Chill Out” costs Nimitz Middle School nearly $50,000 a year--a sum pulled together from various sources including federal funds directed at campuses with high populations of poor children.
In one alternative under consideration, the school would take over the student program and ask McGregor to develop a similar program for teachers.
That suggestion does not sit well with the loyal parents.
“Mr. McGregor is this program,” mother Anna Ramirez said.