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Teaching Juveniles to Write Poetry

June 19, 1987|David Johnston.

The papers that students submit to Manazar Gamboa show that most of them don't know the King's English. But the Echo Park poet regards getting his pupils to express their feelings in writing as victories for them, because his students live in juvenile halls and youth detention camps.

"A lot of these kids are not very good writers," Gamboa said. "They don't know grammar. So I tell them don't write like a book unless you talk like one."

But now 45 of Gamboa's students have their poems printed in "No Maji for Me," a paperback published this week by the L.A. Theatre Works in Venice, co-sponsor of a poetry in the juvenile prisons project that Gamboa coordinates.

Gamboa, 53, said many students don't want to attend his classes. He breaks the ice by telling them, "I was locked up myself as a juvenile and as a young man. In fact, up until I left that scene in 1977, I got busted for armed robberies and heroin addiction.

"I started writing and getting published when I was in prison, so when I do my introductory workshops, I tell the kids some basics about writing, like how to focus." He recommends that his students write about themselves, their feelings about being inside and the world outside, about family and about girlfriends or boyfriends.

One student, identified in the book only as Burgess, wrote:

I've been locked up uh so long

I find changes coming on strong

No place to hide

No drugs to take

No acid to try

I want out

I never want to go back

I want a world of my own

with no nuke attacks . . . .

Another student, Janel, wrote of the pain of coming from a family that wasn't family:

Momma was fifteen when I was born

Kenny said "it's not mine."

Then my daddy came

I had momma and daddy till I was five.

Johnny came, then Maria, then Yolanda.

I was big sister.

Gone were the days of being the baby.

I couldn't--they were there.

So I faked it.

Pretended to like the brats.

But couldn't stand the rug rats . . . .

The project has been funded every year except one since 1974 by the California Arts Council's Artists in Residence program. This year the Ahmanson and McKesson foundations gave matching grants totaling $19,274. But Sara Maultsby, associate producing director at L.A. Theatre Works in Venice and project director for the arts and children project, said the arts council has recommended zero funding for next year.

Body Surfer at 70

Bill Lucking loves storms, especially when they bring big breakers to the Ventura jetty where he slips his 70-year-old body into the chilly brine at noon almost every day of the year.

"Storms make great waves," Lucking said. "If the surf's really good, we put on wet suits and stay out as long as we can until we get chilled or exhausted."

Lucking, joined by a half-dozen or so friends, said he has been riding noon breakers daily since he gave up smoking in 1953. Since then he has won the World Body Surfing championship for wave riders age 50 and older. Several times he won second place.

Garfield's Math Wizards

In 1982, teacher Jaime Escalante made national headlines when the Educational Testing Service challenged the high scores his students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles earned on a national Advanced Placement calculus test. A dozen of his 18 students retook the test and scored just as high.

Now the calculus classes taught by the Bolivian-born Escalante draw so many students from the impoverished East Side neighborhood around Garfield High that the school ranks seventh nationally among public schools in the number of students studying calculus.

"These are not specially-selected kids. I used to recruit, but now they come to me," Escalante said.

Last month 130 of Escalante's students took the national Advanced Placement calculus exam. By comparison, 64 students at Beverly Hills High School took the exam, as did 63 at Palisades High, 56 at San Marino High, 54 at Marshall High and 42 at University High. In Los Angeles County, only Alhambra High School outnumbered Garfield, with 161 students taking the exam.

The soft-spoken Escalante, 56, tells students that "math isn't hard" if they pay attention and do homework daily.

"I tell the kids that the future lies in science and computers, and the language they need to know is math," Escalante said, "I say, 'I'll make a deal with you. I'll teach you the language, and you get the future.' "

Getting High Naturally

Two Southland mothers who oppose drugs, but not getting high, are selling lots of copies of their book "Getting High in Natural Ways," which details alternatives to drugs.

"After kids say no (to drugs), this book gives them a way to say yes to life," said Nancy Levinson, a children's book writer and mother of two sons, age 16 and 18.

Co-author Joanne Rocklin, a psychologist who also writes children's books, said the book avoids preaching against drugs. "Because we're children's book writers, I think we know how to talk to them," said Rocklin, a mother of boys age 11 and 14.

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