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A U-Turn Toward Berkeley : Student Says a Role Model Helped Steer Him From Average to Outstanding

June 24, 1993|MICHELE FUETSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If anyone had told Desmond Moore at the age of 13 that someday he would be a 4.0 student headed for UC Berkeley on a scholarship, he probably would have flashed the sneer he used then as armor against the ache and the anger in his heart.

"I swear to God I used to practice" the sneer, says Moore, narrowing his eyes and shifting his gaze sideways to recreate the don't-mess-with-me face.

"And my walk. I used to practice a walk . . . like a cool kind of, like a pimp. . . . I was like a little thug."

To say that Moore, now 17 and Berkeley-bound, has changed is an understatement. His graduation with honors last Thursday from Inglewood High School is a triumph of hope and determination in a young man wise beyond his years, because he knows how easily his life could have gone in a different direction. His is also a story of how young men serve as fathers for one another when no other male is there to do the job.

Moore's mother was only 14 when she gave birth to him. His father, he says, is a career criminal, a man who never laid eyes on his son until the boy had reached the age of 13 and the father had reached the end of a 10-year term in San Quentin.

"When I met him," Moore says with the kind of sarcasm that often masks pain, "I noticed that he was not exactly a role model."

He grasps for words to describe the meeting. "He was just . . . there," he says finally. "He was a man, you know. He was just, like, a man off the street."

As for his feelings, Moore says, "I was pretty much hardened . . . I didn't care . . . I didn't care about him. I didn't care about anything. I was just, like, out there."

What Moore knows now is that the sneer, the walk, the failing grades and the school suspensions were the only models of manhood he saw in Watts. That's where he spent most of his life--one more fatherless boy among many raised by a single mother, her mother and a group of young aunts.

"Where I was from," Moore says, "nobody I knew walked around with a smile on his face."

Scared and insecure is how he describes himself then. "I had low self-esteem, obviously . . . I didn't have my own identity," he says. "I was being influenced by like everything, the wrong stuff most of the time."

He bought himself a beeper, imitating the drug dealers who controlled the streets. He wasn't selling dope "but I wanted everybody to think that, 'cause where I come from, those guys are the leaders of the community. Those guys have your Hondas, your Rolls-Royces."

Today, his face is open and friendly. Articulate and accomplished, despite an occasional nervous stammer, he is known to his teachers at Inglewood High as a gifted writer.

Academic prowess propelled him into the advanced placement classes there that are reserved for the brightest, college-bound students. He is thinking about majoring in English at Berkeley, after which he wants to attend law school.

Moore can pinpoint the exact time he started turning his life around, the time he began moving from a 2.0 to a 4.0 student. He was 14 and his mother and he moved from Watts to Inglewood, and he got a summer job at the Avalon-Carver Community Center in South-Central Los Angeles.

That's where he met Alvin Jemison, then a UCLA student working as a counselor at Avalon-Carver. Jemison became for Moore what those who work with fatherless boys say is the critical key to the boys' success: a positive male role model.

"He worked on me . . . made me his project," Moore says. "That was the first college-educated, positive black young male in my life."

"He always talked about the way things were going to be," Moore recalls of Jemison and that summer, "about (what life would be like) after he made his money . . . and about accomplishing things.

"That really impressed me . . . He was a young black male and . . . he's talking about money, making it legally. He's talking about school, about going to school, excelling in school. It was different and I liked it."

Before he met Jemison, Moore says, when he heard men talking, it was about "living day to day. Nobody I knew had any long-term goals."

It was Jemison, Moore says, who "ignited" in him the sense that success in school and success later in life were related.

Jemison and Moore had not talked to one another in more than two years, but when The Times tracked Jemison down last week, he remembered Moore well and was thrilled to hear about his college plans.

"I was hoping I was getting through to him," Jemison said. "He was running with this group of guys I knew was bad news . . . One day they came up to Avalon-Carver saying they had been drinking. I kind of talked to him about it and said don't get caught up in this sort of thing.

"I remember the first day when I met him," said the 25-year-old Jemison, who lives in Los Angeles and is struggling to complete his own education at West Los Angeles College after several setbacks, including the death of his mother.

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