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For Ex-Gang Member, It's a Matter of Principal : Teacher Who Felt Inferior Became Boss

November 17, 1985|CHIN-HAY LUE | Times Staff Writer

When Joe Arzola Lopez got his first teaching job, he said he would isolate himself in a dark classroom during breaks. He wasn't ashamed of how he looked, even though he frequently jokes about being "ugly." Nor was it because Lopez dislikes people. "People are great," he says.

What was he doing? Lopez says he was trying to keep a secret.

"I used to hide from teachers. I felt inferior," he said, explaining that he did not want to get into a situation in which he would have to talk about his educational background.

At that time, Lopez was a 35-year-old California State University, Los Angeles, undergraduate, armed only with a credential for teaching vocational courses. And he had been a high school troublemaker whose gang activities led to his expulsion at the age of 14.

Four Degrees Later

But four college degrees later, at the age of 55, Lopez doesn't hide from teachers anymore. As principal of Valle Lindo Continuation High School in South El Monte, he's the boss.

When Lopez took the job at Valle Lindo in 1980, it marked a homecoming of sorts. He had graduated from a continuation high school in the district 24 years earlier.

Lopez was born in El Paso, Tex., and attended 14 elementary schools in seven cities. He said his parents separated often and that his home life was chaotic.

Kicked out of Belmont High School in Los Angeles in 1944 because he was involved in a gang fight, Lopez joined the Army a year later.

"I was pugnacious," Lopez recalled about his 15-year involvement in gang activity. "I had a very good reputation as being a good street fighter.

"From sixth grade to continuation school, I was deeply ingrained in the gang. That was just a period of time that I wasn't a good boy and I caused my parents a lot of heartache."

After two years in the Army, Lopez got married (he has six children) and started driving trucks for a cement company. In 1949, Lopez, who had learned about printing at age 10 from his father, reluctantly became a printer.

As time went on, Lopez continued to associate with some of his gang friends, but he felt a sense of conflict--that something was missing in his life.

"I wanted to work with kids and the only way I found out that I could was to get some kind of credential."

He remembers very clearly what sent him back to school at age 24 when he was supervisor of production at John D. Roche Printing Co. in Los Angeles.

"People would ask me, 'Oh, what college did you go to?' and I was always embarrassed to say I was a self-made man. I didn't have a high school diploma and so my ego started to hurt."

So in 1954 he enrolled in the continuation program, then located at El Monte High School.

Although continuation schools are geared toward younger students who have had attendance or disciplinary problems at conventional high schools, Lopez was admitted.

He got his diploma two years later, but did not begin attending college until six years after that at the insistence of a high school counselor who had kept track of him.

"My counselor thought that I was college material and he kept hounding me," Lopez said. "To get him off my back I went to Mount SAC (Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut) one day to get some registration papers and I really had no intentions of starting." But he took the plunge.

"As I recall," he said, "I was petrified--and you know, I was right. I got a D in U.S. history and then I said this isn't for me."

But his counselor persisted, and Lopez kept on, earning an A and a B in his next two classes.

After he earned his associate of arts degree in 1964, he said he discovered a touch of irony in his life.

"I had a lot of hatred gained from being in a gang. I was in a Mexican gang and, you know, nobody could be good except a Mexican. Ethnocentricity or whatever you want to call it."

It was Lopez's boss, Dick Sinclair of Sinclair Printing Co. in Alhambra, who helped him break entirely with his gang. "What happened was that Mr. Sinclair was such a great person, and I learned from him.

"I said, you know, people are really neat. It was just like I had two sides. I liked people and I was always joking and having fun. At the same time, here I was fighting with my own people and it just didn't make sense.

It was then that Lopez began working on two more degrees. By 1965 he had received his teaching credential in vocational education from UCLA and had almost completed work on bachelor's degrees in sociology and applied arts he later got from Cal State L.A.

During that year, he was hired as a graphic arts teacher at Mark Keppel High School in Alhambra. He said he heard about the job through the printing company, which did work for the high school.

It was difficult for Lopez to establish rapport with his fellow teachers, so he concentrated on working with his students, he said. After two years, students voted him the outstanding teacher of the year.

But Lopez wasn't satisfied. He decided he wanted to become a counselor.

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