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'My Dreams Are Finally Taking Me Places' : Culture: Musician escapes South-Central pitfalls with scholarship and NAACP honor.

August 28, 1994|TINA DAUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Behind the double-locked doors of his family's South-Central Los Angeles home, Tim McDuffy spent hours pounding on a makeshift drum set of old buckets, phone books and couch cushions.

If he hit hard enough, he could drown out the drive-bys. He could numb the sorrow he felt over rarely seeing his father. He could shatter the isolation that engulfed him in a neighborhood where many teen-agers drifted into gangs.

"I was so full of hurt," McDuffy remembered. "There was so much confusion. . . . I was trying to deal with it."

He copied the rhythms of his mother's gospel albums, banging until his ears rang. Eventually, he scrounged together a well-used drum set and began to transform his unstructured pounding into music.

Always, in the back of his mind, there was the hope--a million-to-one shot--that somehow his drumming would lead him away from a place where drug addicts smoked crack in the alley outside his bedroom window.

Now it has.

Ten years after he began playing, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People has named McDuffy, 18, one of the most talented minority youths in America. What's more, he has earned a full music scholarship to a small college in Nebraska, where he will attend class this fall.

"I used to always say to Timmy, 'Reach as high as you can. I don't think there is anything that is impossible for you, if you really set your sights on it,' " recalled his mother, Rose.

McDuffy's story is the kind that often gets lost amid the tide of crime and poverty in his South-Central neighborhood, less than a mile away from Florence and Normandie, one of the flash points of the 1992 riots. But it is more than a story of one boy's perseverance against the odds. It is also an example of how a life can be profoundly changed when people care enough to get involved.

*

McDuffy was never considered a prodigy.

In junior high school, his teachers believed his quiet demeanor was only a mask that hid a simmering temper. His drumming was dismissed, at first, as just the clangorous noise of an angry boy. But after McDuffy began playing in the school band, few could deny that the youngster was driven by desire, not anger.

"I'd get up on stage and play a lot of fast stuff," McDuffy explained. "I made them notice me."

At the suggestion of his eighth-grade band teacher, he tried out for the Hamilton High School Academy of Music--the Los Angeles Unified School District's prestigious "Fame" school for the arts. McDuffy's only other option was to attend his neighborhood school, Crenshaw High, where the band program was virtually nonexistent.

When Hamilton officials notified McDuffy that he had been accepted to the highly competitive school, the teen-ager was both stunned and elated. At that moment, when he had expected so little, he had been handed the most important opportunity of his life.

"I took full advantage of it," he said.

David Sears, a percussion teacher at Hamilton, still remembers McDuffy's determination. "He came ready to learn," Sears said. "As musicians would say, he has 'got a thing.' "

Before sunrise every school morning, McDuffy would catch an RTD bus to Hamilton High, about 15 miles from South-Central in a working-class neighborhood off Robertson Boulevard. He would get home late in the evening, after a day packed with hours of study and practice.

As a result, the gangly, soft-spoken youth learned to watch his back as he navigated the streets.

In McDuffy's neighborhood there is little neutral territory for a young boy who resists the seductive pull of gangs. Those who venture out alone, without the protection of their homeboys, embark on a dangerous journey.

When McDuffy walked home from the bus, he never acted too smart or smug. If gang members asked what "set" he belonged to, he just replied: "I'm not with no set, man. I don't want no trouble."

Although he tried to keep his mind on school, it was hard to shut out the darker realities of his life.

Within four years, his family moved five times in a quest for someplace safe and affordable. In the midst of all this, his mother, a school bus driver, suffered a heart attack and then a stroke at age 48, making it impossible for her to work. With welfare as the family's sole support, they ate only rice and beans some weeks.

McDuffy, the youngest of six children, found little male guidance. He saw his father, a Gardena locksmith, maybe every six months, he said. To cope with his pain, he would lie about their relationship to the other students at school, making up stories about all the things he and his father would do together.

"I was never sure if he loved me or not," McDuffy said. "It's something that still hurts."

While his oldest brother turned to drugs, McDuffy fought the temptation, which was always close at hand. "I had a friend who sold drugs and stuff," McDuffy said. "He would say to me, 'Come on, you could make a lot of money.' "

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