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COVER STORY : The Subject is Survival : Teacher, Preacher and Father-Figure, Donald Bakeer Makes a Difference in Students' Lives. He's the Talk of Washington High Since His Novel About Gangs Was Turned into the Movie 'South-Central.'

October 11, 1992|DIANE SEO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Donald Bakeer is taking roll at Washington High School in South-Central when an announcement comes over the intercom: A 15-year-old boy at the school has been shot to death in Compton in a gang-related incident. After a few moments of silence, a girl in class buries her face into her hands and begins to sob.

Bakeer is pained as the bell rings and he sees the girl rush out of the room, comforted by classmates who know only too well what it's like to lose a friend to gang violence. Bakeer decides to ditch his lesson plans for the rest of the day in favor of teaching what he calls "tactics for survival."

During his next class, Afro-American literature, Bakeer writes on the chalkboard: "No ponytails. No pigtails. No Jheri curls."

"These are dangerous hairstyles because they're associated with gangs," said Bakeer, who has been a teacher in South-Central for 20 years.

And be careful who you call "cuzz," he warned. That greeting was created by the Crips, and so the Bloods don't take kindly to it.

This is typical Bakeer--part preacher, part teacher, part gang expert and always a father figure to the students at Washington High who turn to him when they are down, when they are feeling good and sometimes even when they want to kill.

"Mr. Bakeer is loved at this school," senior Deric Tucker said. "All the kids that don't talk to anyone else--they talk to him. We can talk to him about our family, what's wrong and right, and what's really going on."

Lately, students at the school have been talking a lot about Bakeer, whose colorful batik shirts and rose-tinted bifocals make him easily recognizable on campus. His first novel, "Crips," which he self-published in 1987, has been turned into the movie "South-Central." And the film, which already opened in Baltimore, Washington and Chicago to generally positive reviews, is scheduled to premiere Friday in Los Angeles and 14 other cities.

"Crips" deals with a father who fell victim to gang violence as a young man and is now trying to steer his son on another course. Bakeer said he wrote the book because he wanted to end the tradition of gang killings, and he also wanted to create something students would read.

"It's very difficult to teach some students in South-Central to read, especially black boys and Latino boys," said Bakeer, a 48-year-old English and drama teacher who has been passing out free copies of his book at the school. "These youngsters get so much information from radio and television that they become anti-literary and it just frustrated me. I said, 'I'm going to write a book that's so compelling that kids who can't read will want to read.' "

Chilton Alphonse, executive director of the anti-gang Community Youth Sports and Arts Foundation in the Crenshaw district, said Bakeer's novel already has made a difference.

"A lot of people see gangs as just a lot of kids doing bad things to the community," he said. "But this book has helped the community understand that there is a reason behind the madness."

Although students were struck by the book's powerful anti-violence message, they say it's not so much the book as Bakeer himself that has made a difference in their lives.

Junior Masina, a husky 18-year-old with piercing brown eyes, remembers when he learned last year--three days before Christmas--that a good friend and fellow gang member had been shot to death in a drive-by.

In the midst of his rage, Masina went to Bakeer and told him he wanted to "do a payback." Bakeer sat him down, cooled him off and made him watch a videotape about gang violence.

"See, when he talks, he doesn't say, 'Don't do it,' " Masina said. "He just talks. I look at him as another father, because whenever I need help, he's there for me. He's mainly why I haven't been Crippin.' His room is like another world to me."

At 12:30, Bakeer's Room 200 becomes a haven for hip-hop. When the lunch bell rings, students drag out deejay equipment and set up shop on the classroom's stage. Within minutes, at least 20 students are rapping and dancing while another 20 or so students cheer them on.

Bakeer says he began the hip-hop club three years ago because he knew that there are many talented rappers at the school who probably would wind up flipping hamburgers if no one helped them foster their talent.

He points to one girl standing with the rappers who was reluctant to take the microphone.

"She wants to rap, but she's shy," Bakeer said. "But she'll be rappin' soon. A lot of kids start that way. I try to break down their fear of the stage. I try to build them up."

DeShawn Taylor, who raps as "The Intelligent One," takes the stage to deliver her message about political power. Her rap captivates the students.

Bakeer does not say anything, but it's easy to tell he is pleased.

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