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Reflections of a Reality That Bites : Books: Larry Strauss knows the struggle that exists between winning on and off the court. It's the subject of his novel--and the daily life he leads as a high school teacher and basketball coach.

February 23, 1995|ELLEN ALPERSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Talk to Larry Strauss about coaching and you end up discussing writing. Ask him about the writer's imagination and you also learn a lot about teaching.

A conversation with Strauss is a holistic experience.

Like many of his brethren at L.A. Unified's magnet high schools, Larry Strauss is not your typical teacher. A former dropout and street basketball player who has written an impressive list of nonfiction books, Strauss came three years ago to a job he calls "frontier teaching."

It's an attitude reflected in his dual role as teacher of English and coach of basketball, and in his just-released first novel, "Fake Out" (Holloway House), the story of a high-powered college basketball coach who discovers that indulging his humanity is ultimately more fulfilling than winning at all costs.

Strauss, 35, is one of 13 teachers at Middle College High School, on the campus of L.A. Southwest Community College. The school is part of a nationwide program of 21 schools that, while members of their respective public school districts, are joined academically and physically with community college partners.

The concept, explains Middle College High Principal Natalie Battersbee, is "to draw above-average, bright kids who need a small setting . . . where they are more involved in what's going on with the curriculum."

As are the teachers. In winter, Strauss and math teacher Roger Butcher also serve as basketball coaches, and many of the boys and girls whose spelling and algebraic skills they work to improve are also the ones whose bounce passes they try to perfect.

While some magnet schools are large institutions, 325-student Middle College often struggles for recognition. The school, Strauss says, used to look "like a probation camp. Junior high school counselors had been told Middle College was a school for at-risk kids of above-average intelligence with potential. Apparently they didn't hear the last two things, because they sent some real troublemakers here."

Now, he says, running a hand through his gray buzz-cut hair, "the student population looks like a smaller version of any other inner-city school."

If Middle College generally achieves academic parity with other schools in the district, disparity on the basketball court is a fact of life, fraught with problems both practical and philosophical.

Four years ago, student Tim Daniels, who now attends L.A. City College, asked Butcher to coach a school basketball team.

The idea seemed preposterous. Middle College had no gym, no equipment, no budget and no respect.

Some Magnet League schools didn't exactly relish the idea of playing games in a public park in a gang-riven area of the inner city. They still don't. The Middle College Cougars, Strauss says, have the undeserved reputation as the kind of kids your mother doesn't want you to play with.

But much of the student body, he points out, chose Middle College precisely because they wanted to escape the gang influence at their home schools.

So Butcher and Strauss built a basketball program from the hard floor up.

They arranged to use the gym at the Weingart Urban Center YMCA on Vermont Avenue for practice, and the public gym at Jesse Owens County Park at Century Boulevard and Western Avenue to play home games. They also arranged for student transport to games as far-flung as Reseda and East L.A., equipment, uniforms and gym security.

Logistic challenges aside, it's also tough to keep 10 or 12 sufficiently skilled players academically eligible. Many of the school's students have spent their lives surrounded by crime, family strife and the expectation of failure. It doesn't afford the kind of focus a coach prefers, but it's an environment in which this teacher thrives.

"I was attracted to teaching at a non-traditional school," says Strauss, who dropped out of high school when he was 16, "because I felt that part of my own failure as a student was the traditional mode of education."

Having moved from New York City to Southern California as a teen-ager, Strauss attended Santa Monica High School, where, he says, "they failed to reach me. I take partial responsibility, but I'm not as dumb as I demonstrated at that school . . . and I see that in some of my kids today.

"What happens at school is that the teacher becomes a detached mouthpiece for Western civilization and students just sit there, bored. They no longer care what the teacher thinks, they just care what grade he writes. So what I try to do as a teacher is to model good parenting. If you care about them they're going to learn more."

It cuts both ways.

Strauss left the full-time writing life he had pursued since 17 to teach because "my real passion is writing fiction and I feel that a writer needs to be a participant. I was too removed. I hadn't had enough experience to be a good fiction writer. I wanted to become a teacher to do something meaningful."

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