Five years ago, unschooled in the ways of the neighborhood to which he had been transferred, the new principal called an evening meeting for parents.
About halfway through, the sun set and parents began streaming out the doors.
"What have I said?" wondered John Miller. "How have I offended them?"
Turned out he hadn't done anyone wrong. It was getting dark; most of the parents had come on foot and they didn't want to be caught outside after dark. Miller had overlooked the fact that Markham Middle School is in the middle of gang turf. Walking home at night was a risk many Markham parents did not want to take.
Markham is in Watts, a troubled part of town if ever there was one. You read about the school now and then in the newspaper. It's the kind of place that draws the interest of nonprofit programs designed to improve the lives of poor urban children. ("Yes, we have a lot of those programs, but never enough," Miller says.)
It was the unveiling of another one of those programs that drew me to Markham the other day--the opening of a weight room, courtesy of Cities in Schools, a national dropout prevention program.
"We used to have one dilapidated weight machine and a couple ropes to climb," Miller says. "I hated to turn the kids loose on it because it was so dangerous."
Hard to imagine such a news conference taking place in one of our more well-equipped suburban schools--cookies, juice and speeches for 10 pieces of weightlifting equipment? That would be as unheard of as having to ride a bus for eight miles just to see a movie. (Did I mention there are no movie theaters in Watts?)
But here we were, crammed into the overheated, steamy new weight room with Jake Steinfeld of Body by Jake, who had corralled the 10 machines, and Leon Watkins, local hero and director of Cities in Schools, plus a slew of former jocks and pols.
And, of course, there were students: Brandi Davis, a lanky seventh-grader who wants to be in good shape when basketball season starts in December. Terrance Perry, a slight seventh-grader who gets picked on and who thinks that if he had big muscles like Jake, "they'd be scared of me." And Carolina Monarrez, a round eighth-grader who will use the machines to slim down, which will make her feel better.
When Miller told the small crowd that the room represented " the best gym in Watts," he wasn't exaggerating. Later he said he was pretty sure it is the only gym in Watts.
Nor was he joking when he said that he and others have been working for two years to turn the school's auditorium into a first-run movie theater.
A theater is quite a bit more ambitious than a weight room, but at Markham Middle School, they don't give up easily.
For a brief time in the wake of the Watts riots 30 years ago, the Markham auditorium was transformed into a first-run movie theater. A councilman named Tom Bradley joined forces with a movie house executive named Bruce Corwin to bring the big screen to Watts. Admission was a quarter. The theater fizzled after a year.
This time, Miller is hoping things will turn out differently.
Former Mayor Bradley is now finance chairman of the $1.3-million project. Mann's Theaters has donated projection equipment and 750 seats. The city has donated $50,000. This week the Los Angeles Board of Education is expected to officially approve the project, which should open the corporate spigots.
The brochure for the Watts Cinema and Entertainment Center, as the theater will be known, solicits corporate contributions: "The YOUR NAME auditorium" for $750,000, "The YOUR NAME Plaza" for $500,000, "The YOUR NAME Projection Booth" for $50,000 and so on, down to "The YOUR NAME brick" for $50. (Put me down for a brick, Mr. Miller.)
If you think they made a big deal out of a new weight room at Markham, my guess is you ain't seen nothing yet.