As a girl, Karon Gordon dreamed of running her own school. She thinks it had something to do with being one of the few black children at a primarily Jewish school in the Pico-Fairfax neighborhood.
She remembers envying her Jewish classmates for the private afternoon courses they took, studying their culture's history and being steeped in the sheer love of knowledge.
"My school," she told herself, "was going to turn out all these young black people who would have pride in themselves, who were well-trained and well-educated."
Gordon never got a teaching credential. Yet, in ways she never could have imagined, her vision has come to pass.
At age 35, she runs a remarkably tough-minded, no-nonsense computer job-training center in South-Central Los Angeles, a place where discipline and motivation are so prized that it might as well be boot camp or law school.
Here, inside a building that was a Bank of America branch before the Watts rioting, you take eight hours of classes a day, and then you go home and study six more on your own. Don't go beyond midnight, your instructors advise--you'll need the energy for tomorrow. And for weekends, when you'll put in another 15 or 20 hours.
Here you dress for success--ties, dresses, standard office fare. Here you don't miss class. Here you show up on time. Here excuses don't count.
What you receive in exchange for this agony is a future, a chance to beat the drudgery of making a living as a refrigerator warehouseman or a furniture mover, or spending the months in between collecting unemployment.
The training center that Gordon runs is sponsored by the Urban League with assistance from major corporations, such as the Bank of America, IBM, Pacific Bell and General Telephone. It has been providing free training for 19 years, graduating 2,520 students, nearly 90% of whom have found jobs. It turns out about three dozen more every 13 weeks or so, molding them into computer programmers, computer operators and secretaries.
It's not a melodramatic, up-from-the-gutter program. You'll never see it on "60 Minutes." None of the people who are admitted would otherwise pull an armed robbery or wind up on Skid Row. Almost all of them have held jobs in the past. Many have taken some college courses. What none of them has done is to figure out a way to escape the prison of a dead-end job, to navigate the maze-like path from lower class to middle class. They are, in Gordon's words, "young people who have followed the American dream and gotten lost."
Sharon Ragsdale knows the story. She went to the University of Missouri to study civil engineering, but dropped out to get married, "and you know how that went." She was left with a young son to support and, at 30, found herself working as a grocery cashier.
For the last five weeks she has been trying to turn that around by studying computer programming at the Urban League center.
Here's how her day goes:
"We get out of here at 4. From 5 to 6, that's eating; from 6 to 12, that's studying. I know the center says don't go past 12, but I look up and it's 2 o'clock. But you have to. You're trapping in a whole career in 13 weeks."
Only about 60% of those who are accepted by the Urban League center are able to stomach the long hours and graduate. "They either develop motivation in three weeks or they get out of here," Gordon said.
It is not wise to show up late and tell Gordon you missed your bus or had to help your mother. She knows those kind of excuses. She used to give them.
Nine years ago, groping for a sense of direction, she applied to the training center's secretarial sciences program. The people in charge threw her out the door three times for showing up late. They were as tough then as she is now. The fourth time she showed up promptly and was accepted. In 1983, the Urban League asked her to run the place.
"I believe in being tough," she says, her face no less pleasant for the words.
One day recently in the center's auditorium, the students broke for pizza. Gordon had arranged a brief reception so that everyone could lift their noses from their books long enough to get acquainted. After precisely an hour, she rose to thank the students for coming.
"And now," she said firmly, "please finish your pizza and get back to class."