LENNOX — Manuel was scared when a bigger boy offered him marijuana as he walked home from school one day.
Earnestly, Manuel told the boy that his mother had warned him not to accept drugs, but the pusher wouldn't take no for an answer. Knowing he had to stay cool even as the boy called him chicken, Manuel kept putting the kid off until he made it to his aunt's house.
It made Manuel angry to know that "scary people" like the pusher dominated his neighborhood, and in an interview recently he told how he began taking that rage out on his classmates at Jefferson School in Lennox.
When Manuel became too much for the school to handle he was enrolled in a special weekly program at Jefferson for youngsters having emotional problems.
The 11-year-old is one of 25 counseled by Flor Fernandez, who uses mural painting as a way for problem children like Manuel to vent their anger.
"Many of these children have difficulty expressing themselves, but they have a tremendous artistic ability," said Fernandez, who has a doctorate in psychology.
"The murals give them a chance to channel their anger in a non-destructive way," she said, adding that she chose art as therapy because of its importance in the Latino culture.
An example of this is the hundreds of murals in Los Angeles painted by Latino artists who followed the lead of generations of Mexican muralists, Fernandez said.
"Mexicans have long used murals as a way to communicate and educate," she said, so it is natural for her to use them to channel the children into discussing their feelings.
Fernandez has been running the Jefferson program and a similar one at Lennox's Buford Elementary school for three years. They are funded by the Richstone Center, a nonprofit agency in Hawthorne that provides local counseling programs. Mural painting was started after the center received repeated referrals for services from the Lennox area, Fernandez said.
"Lennox is a high-stress area because there is a lot of unemployment and crime . . . . The families suffer a great deal," but it is the children of those families who often suffer most, Fernandez said.
Manuel said he often asks his mother if they can move because having so many gangs in the neighborhood scares him.
"I have nightmares that I might get killed," Manuel said.
"I was asleep one night when I woke up, looked out my window and saw a man running with a gun. . . . It happened again last week."
That reality dominates Manuel's thoughts and, in turn, his sessions with Fernandez.
She said that when Manuel and the five other boys in his group start their therapy, they begin by painting controlled images that become more distorted as they paint their true feelings.
At a recent session, one section of the mural being drawn by the group included a yellow schoolhouse covered in dark colors by Jorge, 10, who also painted in a gang member shooting out the windows.
Another mural depicted black storm clouds over a neighborhood covered with gang insignias; the insignias were also crossed out by the boys.
"I wish there weren't any gangs. . . . They think the street is their property," Jorge said.
Pressure to join gangs is an overriding fear for Fernandez's patients, who say it is difficult and frightening to resist.
"They think they're bad. . . . I don't like them," said 11-year-old Mario of the gangs.
Fernandez said her program tries to dissuade the children from joining gangs, although she said it is difficult.
"The kids join gangs because they need a sense of identification," Fernandez said.
She said her therapy is designed to give the children that identification so they won't need gangs.
JoAnn Isken, principal of Jefferson, said although she is pleased with Fernandez's program, "It is hard (for the school) to measure success because we don't see it directly.
"The key time is when the kids go to junior high . . . but I'm sure the program has a positive effect."
Jane St. John, director of instruction for the Lennox School District, said the program provides additional support for children who need it.
"We're hopeful that if something happens later in a child's life, this program will make them comfortable to seek out the necessary services," St. John said.
She said there are no plans to add the program at the district's three other schools.
Fernandez said the program is taught at Jefferson and Buford because those schools need the services most. She added that she has gotten positive results from 80% of the children she treats.
"Most kids improve scholastically," she said, adding that students will remain in her program, sometimes as long as two years, until they are able to attend classes without being disruptive.
The one-hour program is a refuge where they can talk about their fears and feel safe, Fernandez said.
"In here they drop the cool exterior that they have to keep up in front of the other kids . . . . Often they don't want to leave," Fernandez said.
Abandoning the aggressive hyperactivity he had shown while painting, Manuel began to move very slowly as it neared time for him to go back to class.
As he put away his paintbrushes, Manuel paused and from across the room spoke to Fernandez:
"I don't want to go," he said.