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Ready for the Circle of Life : Monroe's Willie Jackson, a Success in Wrestling, Says It's Time for Him to Face the Outside World

February 24, 1996|VINCE KOWALICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTH HILLS — Willie Jackson is eager to stand alone, whether in the middle of a wrestling mat or on the threshold of adulthood.

Jackson, a 171-pound senior from Monroe High, is prepared to win a second consecutive City Section championship. He takes a four-year record of 79-32 into the City finals today at El Camino Real, and he is expected to qualify for the State finals next weekend in Stockton.

Being ready for adulthood is a far more complicated matter.

Those close to Jackson, whose broad smile belies his aggressive approach as a wrestler, are concerned. Jackson, as he does on the mat, ultimately controls his destiny. And of at least one thing he is certain:

"I don't like people bossing me around, telling me what to do," Jackson says. "I want to live on my own."

Jackson, 18, is scheduled to be "emancipated" in June after more than three years under the jurisdiction of the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services.

Jackson's life changed drastically after a family argument in which he said his mother brandished a gun and subsequently was arrested, an incident confirmed by a family friend. Since then, he has endured a series of placements in foster homes and group homes, struggling to abide by rules established by social workers and staff supervisors rather than a mother and father.

In June, Jackson said, he will find a job, move from the Panorama City group home in which he lives and attend Moorpark College, where he plans to continue wrestling. Yet he is unsure where he will work or live.

"Gotta do it sometime," he says.

Jackson, whose academic progress has been hindered by a learning disability, is on pace to graduate, although he has yet to pass a required proficiency examination in reading and writing. He is eligible to remain under the jurisdiction of the county for at least another six months while receiving independent living counseling on the basics of financial budgeting, shopping, housekeeping and other matters.

Andrea Wasserman, a social worker assigned to Jackson's case, said she would like Jackson to stay in the program. But Jackson must first agree to the placement--something he is adamantly against. Persuading the wrestler, she said, is about as difficult as pinning him.

"I can't do anything he doesn't want me to, I can just offer," Wasserman said. "He doesn't want all these services set up for him."

Jackson's attitude is similar to most of those going through the emancipation process, Wasserman said.

Living under foster care or in a group home inherently is more restrictive than life with natural parents. Jackson understandably craves independence.

"Willie's a great kid," Wasserman said. "He's kind. He's not involved with gangs, although he has friends who are. He's a normal, healthy 18-year-old. Unfortunately, he hasn't had the structure other kids have had."

Tom Jones, Monroe's wrestling coach, describes Jackson as popular on campus, cheerful and coachable.

"But he's fairly headstrong," Jones said. "He's experienced far more than the average kid."

Jackson, who lived under foster care before his mother's arrest, has been shuffled around so much he has difficulty providing a chronological account of his past. Consistency has come through athletics and friendships he has developed at Monroe.

Jackson has gained self-esteem as a wrestler and defensive end on the school's football team. He carries a wallet-sized photograph of himself in shoulder pads and proudly displays medals he has earned in wrestling tournaments.

"I work hard," Jackson said. "The coach teaches me moves and I listen and I do what he tells me. And I have my own moves.

"I like wrestling. I like to throw people. And I like the medals."

The walls of Jackson's bedroom are adorned with snapshots of himself with classmates and colorful drawings bearing the titles "Action Jackson" and "Black Superman," nicknames classmates have given him.

Above his bed is the poster-sized bracket from last season's City finals, where Jackson placed first at 160 pounds. This season, Jackson is 19-3, including 11 pins. He placed first at the San Fernando tournament and second at the Highland and Harvard-Westlake tournaments.

"I see him as a very normal kid," Jones said. "He has a peer group he is successful with. And he doesn't feel sorry for himself. He has a good outlook on life."

Jackson considers himself far from a victim.

"I don't think I'm lucky or unlucky," Jackson said. "I'm kinda in the middle.

"Most people have it way tougher than me. I know one kid, he didn't have a family, his mom used to beat him up and she abandoned him. She didn't want to see him again. He was always getting into trouble and he didn't care anymore. I think about him. I almost feel lucky."

Any anger within Jackson is buried deep. He remains in contact with his mother, who lives in Pacoima, and his four brothers, three of whom have a learning disability, as does his mother.

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