They were the splintered children of America. There were Ceasar, Dasha, Jesse, Jamilett, Ali and Alex. Only two had lived their entire lives with the same two parents. The lives of those two had been anything but stable. Their families had fled oppressive foreign regimes, the Ayatollah's Iran and the former Soviet Union.
These students reflect what is going on in schools statewide, according to Policy Analysis for California Education, affiliated with UC Berkeley.
A PACE analysis called "Rebuilding Education in the Golden State" says one in five children here lives in poverty, one in six comes to school not knowing English--a figure much higher in Los Angeles--and one in 10 urban babies is born with crack cocaine in its blood. PACE said more than half the state's children will experience a broken home before they graduate from high school.
These are the disadvantaged students that Northridge had resolved to help. Among them were troublemakers and honor students.
They were chosen at random out of 1,100 students at Northridge. They weren't the most troubled kids on campus, and they weren't the best. They were just average kids, circa 1993, facing life in a world that sometimes seemed to be defined more by limits than opportunity.
Here are capsule portraits of the lives and struggles of a cross-section of the students at Northridge Middle School:
A big, beefy boy with a baby face, Ceasar Martinez strode the campus with his arms back and his belly forward, as comfortable as if he owned the place. Other students came up to talk to him hesitantly, conscious of the rank conferred on him by his size and sense of self.
His apparent self-confidence might seem surprising in a boy who had not lived with his parents for years. His father, a plumber, sometimes didn't visit for three months. Ceasar's mother was an alcoholic, the family says. His three brothers and sisters were scattered across Southern California like pennies tossed away to lighten a pocket.
Ceasar lived with his grandmother, Isolina Martinez, a constantly smiling woman who loved her grandson enough to almost make up for everything else. Almost.
In a school where A's proliferated, Ceasar was having problems. Early in the year, he got a report card with one F, a D and four U's for unsatisfactory behavior. Five U's would prevent him from participating in the graduation ceremony on stage, a humiliation that students tried to avoid.
His grandmother would like to put her foot down more about Ceasar's work habits, but didn't think that it would do much good. "I don't say nothing," she said, "because when I say no, they make the opposite."
Ceasar had a girlfriend. He had admired Waleska, a frizzy-haired girl with a huge smile, ever since she moved to California from Pennsylvania the previous year. At his 14th birthday party, when he packed 35 kids into his grandmother's rented house, he finally got together with her. Now they were inseparable, holding hands at lunch and hanging on each other with rapturous expressions after school.
"He's too young for those things," his grandmother said. "You don't pay attention to school with a girl."
"Ohhh," he joshed her with easy confidence.
Ceasar's dad tried to be the disciplinary force in his son's life long distance. Hearing that his son mouthed off to the teachers, the father said at the parent conference that Ceasar tended to get out of line when he wasn't around. Regarding Ceasar's fighting on school grounds, said the hard-edged plumber, he had told Ceasar long ago, " 'If someone hits you, hit them twice.' He was getting beat up. I went to the other kids and said, 'I'll do to your dad what you did to him.' "
The elder Martinez knew his share of violence in school. He was growing up in Compton when the Watts riots took place in 1965. "All the white people moved away," he said. "The only ones left were Mexicans, and I got beat up after school."
Ceasar said he didn't miss living with his father. He liked the safe harbor of his grandmother's warm house with the soft furniture and dinner smells. And he returned her love the best way he could manage, given his priorities. Knowing that she had little money--Ceasar's grandfather was a lot man at a local car dealership--the boy got a job selling cookies door-to-door for three hours after school each day.
"I make about $15 a day," he said. "I use it to buy clothes, my lunch. I'm saving for Christmas."
Jamilett Machado wore her many troubles like a rose in her dark cascade of hair. A rose her mother picked for her.
Fleeing war in El Salvador, Jamilett and her family sought a haven in the United States. Then her parents divorced, and her mother, Leonor Alvarez, got too sick to work. Medi-Cal paid for the woman's surgery, but the reverses plunged the family into poverty.