Student Essayists Explore Answers to Violence

Times Staff Writer

Evelyn Martinez's words rush out of her, breathless and barely punctuated -- perhaps because she is only in the seventh grade, but perhaps because she has seen a man stabbed to death on the streets of Los Angeles.

Perhaps her furious succession of disjointed images came closest to what it honestly felt like to see her cousin's boyfriend chased down by an angry gang.

"My cousin had a boyfriend and he was in the car that they were chasing her in, but she didn't know until she stopped and was going to pay when he was the first to come out and she got mad and hit him, then one of her friends hit her, then her boyfriend was fighting vs. everyone for my cousin. Then Veronica came out and we all hugged her and then this guy named Frank came and stabbed my cousin's boyfriend and we all went to the hospital and two hours later he was dead."

Martinez was among dozens of Los Angeles middle school students honored at USC Law School on Sunday for participating in the "Do the Write Thing Challenge," a national essay contest now in its ninth year. More than 400 students from the Los Angeles Unified School District took part in the campaign, which encourages children to use the written word to find solutions to everyday violence.

The solutions the students came up with were no better than those offered by generations of adults: stay off drugs and liquor, keep busy, don't hang with the wrong crowd.

But many of their perspectives were nonetheless illuminating -- for the force of their outrage, the vividness of their fears and their intimacy with a world that others know only from rap lyrics or the movies.

One eighth-grader at John Muir Middle School watched his father stab his mother in the stomach. His solution was simple: "I decided to call 911," he wrote. "My dad was locked up in jail for six months for attempted murder. That's what I did to stop violence in my house."

In her essay, Jennifer Tso -- an eighth-grader at Nightingale Middle School -- described a seamstress aunt who was mugged three times on the way home from work, a restaurateur uncle who "took a bullet in the gut" because he refused to give cash to a stickup artist and her father, who was stabbed in the shoulder by an attacker.

Then -- in a transitionless leap as jarring as the click of a TV remote -- Tso was on to other fears: the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, and a book she had read about the fate of flies trapped in spider webs. "I was scared of the dark, scared of the light," she wrote. "I feared for the people who were close to me. I did not want the guy to kill or eat them, even though he didn't live in Los Angeles and he was in jail."

Since its inception in 1994, the contest -- sponsored by the Washington-based National Campaign to Stop Violence -- has sought to nudge children toward the idea that they can take personal responsibility for their neighborhoods.

In Los Angeles this year, two students -- Nancy Luong of Nightingale Middle School and Julio Baltodano of Glenn Hammond Curtiss Middle School -- won trips to Washington, D.C., and local sponsors plan to print their essays and others in a book that will be distributed to local schools.

"So often people don't listen to kids," said Marion Mattingly, the contest's national program director. "But they can learn so much from them."

Like most human endeavors, the contest is fraught with contradictions. Its primary sponsor is the Kuwait-America Foundation, which was looking for a way to thank Americans after the United States violently expelled the Iraqi army from Kuwait in 1991. And its title is an apparent reference to the 1989 Spike Lee film "Do The Right Thing," which explored -- but did not necessarily denounce -- the use of violence as a means of redressing social inequalities.

Renita Woods, a teacher at John Muir Middle School, said the contest helps some of her South Los Angeles students think through the problems that threaten them at home and on the street. But she acknowledged that the program has its limits. "This is just an exercise for my kids," Woods said. "If we want to really change things, the change needs to come from our legal system."

John Muir Middle School student Tyquaise Monette received a semifinalist's certificate for her essay, which described her 8-year-old neighbor's slaying in a gang shooting in February.

"My neighborhood is my Rite of Passage," she wrote. "Today I cannot even walk to the back of my aunt's house without thinking that perhaps today is my day to die by an act of violence."

Tyquaise, 13, is being raised by her grandparents in South Los Angeles. She has high standardized test scores, and for a while, she thought about being a brain surgeon, though these days she's thinking about becoming a hairdresser to the stars. Her solution to violence -- at least the violence she has seen -- is to get out of her neighborhood alive, and as soon as possible. That was what she meant by "rite of passage."

"Writing an essay is not going to help change anything unless people really want to change," she said. Then she looked at her grandmother, the one who prays daily for her safety. "But that's kind of impossible. I can't see that."

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