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PRIVATE LIVES, PUBLIC PLACES : The Bard in Koreatown: as American as Cherry Pie

The Hobart Elementary School. An occasional series


Here are the words, the dreaded words--the ones that deaden and sum up by their very utterance worlds that are lost and of zero interest: inner-city school. Ah, those words: knives, violence, boredom, ugliness, bloodied eyes and snotty noses.

No world is lost to itself, though. At 6 in the morning, in Koreatown, little stirs on the corner of Olympic outside Hobart Elementary School. A line has formed already in the quiet beauty of the new day. Children, tired, stunned with unquestioned routine, lean against the fence. They are neighborhood children, 6 years old, 7, older. Some wait alone, some with mothers, arms folded, the heaviness on them of the perpetually tired.

These are the unlucky ones who cannot attend the overcrowded school behind the railings and padlocks. Buses are already arriving to take them away, an hour or more, to other places, unimaginable and strange.

In the Hobart kitchen, the ladies are clucking over today's breakfast of chicken nuggets, cherry pie and orange juice. (Lunch would be pizza.) Hundreds of plates to be sorted and stacked, each with a napkin, spoon and straw. The kitchen is old-fashioned, built for the days when a few hundred children came to Hobart, and the ladies bustle against burning ovens and throbbing heat. The buckets of chicken are huge and heavy. laborers would shrink from such loads. Cherry pies scald as the filling runs over hasty hands dishing them out for the waiting line.

There are 2,200 children at Hobart; without the ladies, hundreds of them would have no breakfast. Some of the younger girls come in to help--to set out plates and tidy piles, eager for the rough warmth of these women who are so generous with their strength and lives. Felicitas from Mexico, whose son joined the Army for four years--"I didn't stop crying for him." Brenda, whose white grandfather in Texas owned 500 acres of land and whose black mother raised 16 children alone--"Little kids tell you everything; they tell you if Daddy is there, if Daddy is nice. . . . " Antonia Bautista, a round doughnut of a woman, runs the kitchen with a gentle voice and nut-like eyes and leaves late to run home and cook for her husband and children--"In the Philippines, that is how we do things." Pauline from Arkansas, Thelma from Hawaii--they have known each other and worked together in this humid, baking heat through breakfasts and lunches of many lifetimes.

They share fights and loving consolation--and hatred of pizza days, when the pans sear and cheese drips. They share, too, the bulging veins that come with hours of standing on hard floors. Hair tucked beneath shapeless caps, bodies hidden in overalls and aprons, yet still a lusty, cherishing nature comes through.

The line of children waits patiently. How can they stand so acceptingly and still? They were born into lines: mothers waiting to give birth alone in over-crowded corridors, waiting for food stamps, welfare, immigration; they know about uncaring lines.

Brenda opens the serve-through window, a mother who has known misery, happiness and the Lord, and notices the bruises, blackened eyes and pinched faces when they file past. No one snatches, no one grabs, no one sneaks extras--some even raise their eyes and smile.

As breakfast finishes, the women take a break, leaning in jewel-colored clothes on the doorway, watching the children hurrying to class. And they are moved, as they so often are, by the promise, the hope that children represent. It will be lunchtime soon enough--hundreds upon hundreds filing into lines, waiting as they will their livelong days.

Across the playground, there is magic. Those who have not waited but have taken life in their grasp. In Room 52, voices rise--urgent, full of passion, tragedy, death, power. The Hobart Shakespeareans are in final rehearsals for an evening of the Bard. Who dares talk of lost worlds when such humbling, stirring effort is here?

Most of these children do not speak English at home--but listen to them now, listen to the rhythm, the intricate understanding of the glory of Shakespeare's language. Prince Hal and Falstaff, Richard III and Buckingham, Prospero and Hamlet--slender children from Korea, from Vietnam, from El Salvador and Guatemala, with gleaming black hair and needle-sharp stillness for each other. Hae Won Lee ("Midget"), who came to Hobart speaking only Korean, has crawled beneath the skin of Laurence Olivier's Richard III to make the flesh creep with ambition and self-loathing.

Here Shakespeare is alive: blood, thunder, revenge, jealousy, murder, bear pits and brothels. What of Elizabethan England can be strange to the children of modern Los Angeles? One thinks suddenly of private school shows, of one recent "Guys and Dolls," all costumes and hired musicians, money and show business. Here, in this "lost world" of the inner-city school, is artistry and passion and talent.

We are, indeed, such stuff as dreams are made of.

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