Hector Verdugo had no faith in this woman standing before him, promising she could change his life with words. He was 32, a gang member and ex-convict, and he had seen do-gooders like her before. They always left. Life never got better.
Luis Alfredo Jacinto, known as Freddy, had doubts, too. He was only 10 and toying with joining a tagging crew -- the first step toward gang life. The woman wanted him to write sentences beginning with "I am. . . " Freddy wrote: "I am bad because of the influence around me." "I am thinking about changing my life." But he added: "I am always going to be my homies crime partner."
The woman was Leslie Schwartz, 44, a published novelist. She taught a class of 12, put together by Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, an anti-gang program.
Boyle figured this composition class, launched with help from the nonprofit writing organization PEN USA, might keep young people out of trouble. Schwartz encouraged her students to write about what they knew. Over nine months, the narratives constructed by Hector and Freddy -- both in class and in their personal lives -- would consume her.
Hector Verdugo grew up in East Los Angeles' Ramona Gardens housing project. His father died of a heroin overdose a week before he was born. His mother, also an addict, read him Bible stories, then disappeared for days. He and his twin brother bounced between their mother and foster care.
Hector was 14 when he joined a gang. Not long after, he was sent to juvenile hall for stealing a car. At 16, dealers offered Hector $3,000 to sell drugs -- and over time he did well, spending his earnings on low-rider cars, motorcycles and trips to Hawaii. At 18, he was arrested for drug possession and sentenced to prison for two years.
By 24, he had decided to give up the criminal life. Slowly, he sold everything to pay rent, support his three children from a former girlfriend and bail friends and family members out of jail.
He started a hauling company. When it failed, he took jobs shoveling dirt and breaking concrete. Last fall, he applied for financial aid and enrolled full time at East Los Angeles College. But there was one thing he needed for school that he could not afford: a computer.
"You gotta go to Father G," a friend told him. He had known Father Gregory Boyle since his days in juvenile hall, when the Jesuit priest offered Catholic services to the inmates. Over the years, Hector dropped by to say hello. After some reluctance, he asked the priest for help. Boyle gave him the computer -- and a job paying $8 an hour.
A few weeks later, Hector agreed to enroll in the writing class.
Freddy Jacinto was a little guy who walked with a swagger. He lived down the street from Homeboy Industries, and Boyle paid his tuition at nearby St. Mary's Catholic School -- as long as he kept his grades up. He talked of becoming a lawyer.
But he was an angry handful. His mother, Sandra Jacinto, 28, was raising Freddy and his 9-year-old half-brother alone.
Freddy was 4 when a man he thought was his father visited. Freddy got ready to leave on a ride with the man when his mother stopped him. "You're not his kid," she said. Freddy then watched his brother ride off instead.
Every two weeks, Freddy's brother left with the man. Freddy's mother told him that she was his father, too. "I love you for both. Just do good."
Freddy's mother worked the late shift at a cookie factory, arriving home at 2:30 a.m. One night she returned and Freddy was missing. He had been tagging. When she picked him up at the police station, an officer told her: "Your son is going to be here in jail soon, or he's going to die."
She took Freddy home and threw out all of his baggy clothes, because the police said they made him look like a gangster. Freddy threatened: "I'm gonna go to the gang. I'm gonna go!"
Hector listened, unconvinced.
Inside a makeshift classroom at Homeboy Industries in Boyle Heights, Leslie Schwartz said that she was a recovering alcoholic, seven years sober.
She started drinking when she was 11. "I felt like I had a whole world of hurt inside of me when I was growing up." When the hurt got the best of her, she said, she lied and drank and used drugs and hurt the people she loved. It was writing, she said, that saved her. Writing might save them too.
"There are people all over the world in prison because of the things they've said and the things they've written. Poetry has put people in prison. Why is that? Because words are way more powerful than a gun or a bomb or a knife will ever be."
Schwartz told Hector and the others to write a word or sentence on a note card. She collected them and read one: "Ignorant minds." Write about it for five minutes, she said. "Go."
Hector wrote three sentences: "They say we only use a small percentage of our minds. I want to use my whole mind. If God provided me with this brain and I only use a portion of it, then why am I short-changing Him of my brilliance?"
At the next class, Schwartz handed Hector's writing back with comments: "Why don't you try to make more of it -- put it in a poem. Let's see you push harder, deeper! I love your writing."
Hector did not believe she loved it. He knew he was not saying much. He did not think he could write like authors who had moved him: Luis Rodriguez, whose "Always Running" he had read in juvenile hall, or Malcolm X, whose autobiography he had read in prison.
But Schwartz's notes kept coming back with urgency. "You have SO much to say, but maybe it's bottled up. Let me help."
In another speed-writing exercise a week later, Schwartz pulled out another card. "Angels." Write, she told them. Don't think. Hector wrote:
"Where are the Angels? Do they exist? We see them in pictures, hear about them in stories, but not yet have I seen one."
He finished and looked around. The others were still writing. So he riffed about a friend: "I knew this girl named Angel she was a devil a look from her would make dust from a pebble This broad was a rebel not your average but on a different level. . . Angel I miss you baby, doing life for a murder you had to commit. you'd kill another I know it aint sh--."
When Schwartz returned his paper, she had written: "Hector Verdugo, my poet of poets. I think you found your voice here and want you to put it in poetic form. This poem is righteous for its power, its language and rhythm and because it scares the sh-- out of me."
Maybe Schwartz was not coddling him, Hector thought. Images and stories rushed through his mind. All at once, he wanted to pour his life onto a page.
Wait, he thought. Schwartz praised everyone in the class. He was just an ex-con from Ramona Gardens, and he'd been disappointed before.
When Hector was 15, a film crew shot "American Me" in his neighborhood, a story about gang life. Hector and his brother got to be extras. It was a world of glamour and money. He felt like he was part of something bigger than his neighborhood. Then the filming ended. The crew left.
"I felt like somebody lit a fire in me," Hector said. "And then, poof, it disappeared." Could writing relight the fire?
Freddy stuttered when he read aloud in class. "I know that everyone makes mistakes. And right now I feel like this is the time to mess up. . . . I feel pain because my dad left me. All my life I've been without a dad."
The class applauded. "Woo, woo!" "Nice job!"
"Thank you," Schwartz said, "for teaching everybody in this room that it's OK to say those things."
That night, Schwartz read the rest of what Freddy had written.
"I can't talk 2 Fr. G because I don't want him 2 know. I'm trying to keep it in the Low Pro[file] because like U said I don't want to [hurt] my mom this is the only place I can express myself... fell like when I'm bad I get respect...right now I'm looking 4 that [angel] but I can't seem to find him."
It was January. As the weeks passed, Freddy got into trouble outside of class. But inside he eagerly read his work, leaving out passages intended for Schwartz to read later. One night she read the rest of a Freddy essay. It scared her.
"I feel good with what I'm doing even though I know it's wrong I feel like in [a tagging crew] I have my real family. I don't know why but the violence is the true me I feel the street is my home I no longer care about anything around me. My homies are my true brothers. I am a structure that is used to destroy my anymies." It was clear that Freddy had joined a tagging crew, known for writing and painting graffiti. Some crews also were known for fighting -- even killing -- rivals.
Schwartz wrote to Freddy: "I am going to tell you straight up -- you're wrong. Your mom loves you. You are being brainwashed by the homies. Don't forget your grades. You want to be a lawyer. You can't do any of that if you're dead or locked up 25 to life. You know I'm right about this."
Schwartz had told her writers that if they wanted to keep part of their writing private, they should mark it with a "P." Freddy hadn't marked his latest work. Schwartz decided she had to do something.
Spring approached. Hector sought out Schwartz and looked her in the eye.
"I want to tell you something," he said. "I want to be a writer."
A week later, Schwartz handed out a printed interview with Luis Rodriguez, the novelist Hector admired. In it, Rodriguez talked about blind rage. "The word today: 'anger,' " Schwartz said.
After seven minutes, Hector took a breath and read his piece, "Warning Sign."
"It's time my people come out of mourning. Mourning from barrio warfare, police brutality, sh--y schools. You used drugs, media and psychology as your oppression tools. But like the cucaracha we've become immune to your poison. We are still multiplying, filling your cities, states, country. Shaking off the foggy haze you left us in for so long. That was so wrong. But now the giant awakes."
Schwartz had tears in her eyes. "What happened to you overnight?" she asked. "Oh, my God."
Hector told her later that he wanted her passion for words. Words, he realized, really did have power. He wanted to be a part of that.
And he wanted something else.
A few days later, Boyle took Hector and two other Homeboy employees to a fundraiser in Santa Barbara. At dinner the conversation turned to Boyle's health. Four years ago, he'd been diagnosed with cancer.
That week, television reporter Ed Bradley had died from the same cancer, chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Most patients live six years. "I am going on a very long sabbatical," Boyle said. "Eventually."
Hector looked at him, worried. "Who will take over?"
Perhaps, Boyle said, "the three of you."
They got back in the car. As Boyle drove, Hector asked, "Can I read a poem to you?" He read "Warning Sign." When he finished, one of the other Homeboys said, "Damn, dog, that's deep."
Hector went to sleep with big dreams. He would study Father G's life. He would steer his studies toward sociology and writing. He would find a way to continue Boyle's work.
In the spring, he became the fiction editor of the Homeboy Press, founded by Schwartz. The journal is set to launch by 2008, and will publish writing by other former gang members and teenagers. Hector is helping raise $70,000 for the project.
Freddy felt betrayed. Schwartz had gone to Boyle, so now the priest knew Freddy had joined the tagging crew. "She said she wouldn't tell nobody what we write, and she told someone," he said. "It's my life. My business."
Days later, Schwartz saw Freddy at Homeboy Industries. She called his name. She walked toward him. He darted the other away. Finally, she cornered him.
Yes, she had shown Boyle work Freddy hadn't marked as private. "I care about you so much," she said, "and I just want you to be healthy and safe and alive."
Freddy stared at the ground.
He turned his back and, without a word, walked away.
Schwartz brought him "To Kill a Mockingbird." Inside, she wrote a note telling Freddy she wanted him to come back and write. She ended it with, "I love you, kid."
One afternoon a few weeks later, when Schwartz arrived at Homeboy, the first person she saw was Freddy. For a moment, his eyes brightened. Then he put on a tough face again.
A few days later, Freddy showed up in class. Schwartz didn't know it yet, but he had gotten out of his crew. With a smile, she welcomed him back and handed him a pen.
Over the next few months, he dropped by class occasionally. Then, he stopped.