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A Real Kids' 'Cop' : Teachers: In the movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a kindergarten teacher. For Jon Smith, it's not a role, it's a real-life job.

January 07, 1991|NIKKI FINKE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Arnold Schwarzenegger: "Those 6-year-olds, how much trouble can they be?"

Pamela Reed: "On second thought, take the gun." --From the movie "Kindergarten Cop"

Oh sure, they look like little angels.

But don't let those innocent, gap-toothed smiles; those cute, pink-ribboned ponytails, or those fat little sticky fingers fool you. Because kindergarten kids are capable of bringing a grown man to his knees--literally.

How else are you going to chase after 33 tiny terrors?

"You should have been here two days ago when the teacher's aides were on strike," says a wincing Jon Smith as he surveys his class of controlled chaos at the Main Street Elementary School outside Watts. "I knew I didn't have an ounce of patience left."

Forget construction work, firefighting or housekeeping for Leona Helmsley. According to Arnold Schwarzenegger's new movie, "Kindergarten Cop," Smith's is the toughest job in America. So tough that Schwarzenegger's character, an undercover policeman, discovers that catching criminals is a piece of cake compared to communicating with ankle-biters in a classroom.

Schwarzenegger--a mean cop on the mean streets of Los Angeles--ends up teaching a kindergarten class in a small town in Oregon and complains that the kids are "horrible. They are walking all over me."

Of course, the movie is meant to be a comedy. But just what is the reality of today's kindergartens in L.A. schools, and the "cops" who patrol them?

"It's tough. Very tough," confesses Smith, 32, who, though he doesn't have a pumped-up physique, Austrian accent or millions in the bank, is a real-life kindergarten cop.

Now don't get Smith wrong. He loves his work, and he loves the kids. But every day for the past two years, this Studio City teacher has willingly entered a war zone where the weapons are Magic Markers, Lego blocks and anything else the kids can get their hands on.

"We don't put cherry pie on peoples' heads," he chastises an adorable little girl who's trying to paint a little boy's hair.

"I'm sorry," she says, staring at the ground.

"I know you're sorry, and I thank you for saying that," Smith soothes her. "But you go sit in that chair and put your head down."

The little girl does as she's told--for now.

Then Smith runs to referee a pummeling match between two boys on the other side of the room. "They're just playing Ninja Turtle," he says, exasperated. "You beat up on each other and throw the guy on the ground. It's just an excuse to punch."

He rolls his eyes.

Suddenly, a round object whizzes through the air. Smith immediately tracks down the culprit--a waist-high boy wearing blue jean overalls and a wide smile.

"I saw the flying saucer," Smith says sternly. "And that I don't like at all. "

But keeping order is just a small part of Smith's job. School officials say they expect kindergarten to be noisy and somewhat disorderly: They decree the main task is to teach the class the beginnings of addition, subtraction and even reading. So Smith drills the kids in their 1-2-3s and A-B-Cs with an evangelist's fervor.

"But it's much more important that these children learn how to share, how to cooperate, how to be friends with one another than it is that they know their numbers or alphabets," he maintains.

And how to live in a difficult world. Teaching kindergarten in urban Los Angeles schools in the '90s is not what it used to be: Smith and his students face a host of horrific problems that used to be the stuff of nightmares, and not even envisioned by the makers of Schwarzenegger's movie.

Rationing paper in the classroom, rotating classrooms due to a space crunch, translating for non-English-speaking children--in Smith's world, they're a breeze compared to the "just so frustrating" other things, he says: Drug babies coming of age and into the classrooms, gang violence creeping into neighborhoods, poverty and pressures afflicting families.

"One time we couldn't go to recess because there was police activity just down the street. There was a crack house over there," he said, pointing at a ramshackle structure, "and the cops staged a bust."

He stares at the innocent faces surrounding him and shakes his head sadly. "These kids bring so much more baggage to class than I ever brought as a child," says Smith, a Texas native and product of a small town. "It's not just learning ABCs anymore. It's learning to cope in the world."

There was the time a girl came to class and said her mother had been murdered. "We followed up on it to make sure it was true. It was," Smith recalls. "That little girl's whole behavior just changed overnight. We were so upset about it because we didn't know how to deal with it. We had to give her so much attention that the other kids didn't get any time from us. I was never trained for the problems of the inner city. But teachers are supposed to be parents and psychologists and psychiatrists and caretakers."

He stares into space and shrugs his shoulders.

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