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Out of the Mouths of Babes

Camera in hand, Laura Angelica Simon asked her students about the emotional toll of Prop. 187. The film's impact is being felt from Hollywood to the White House.

May 27, 1997|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The phone rings. It's another agent, another producer, another mogul's assistant calling: "Is Laura Angelica Simon interested in directing? Would she like to develop a TV pilot?"

For now, all of Hollywood is on hold. At least until second grade lets out this summer and Simon is done with her teaching duties.

Two years ago, Simon borrowed a used movie camera. With no filmmaking experience and very little money, she began documenting the emotional toll Proposition 187 was having on her students, most of whom are illegal immigrants and all of whom live in Pico-Union. The proposition would deny them public education.

That film, "Fear and Learning at Hoover Elementary," has reached far and touched many.

It won the Freedom of Expression prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, amid buzz that it is Oscar worthy. Hillary Rodham Clinton saw it and sent a congratulatory note. And on July 1, it will be shown on the Public Broadcasting Service.

Her students' stories parallel her own.

At 6, Simon legally immigrated with her parents. They lived in San Francisco and, later, Los Angeles. She experienced alienation, discrimination and hatred as a Mexican, Spanish-speaking child. By the fourth grade, she was fluent in English. In high school, she was valedictorian. And at Claremont McKenna College, she majored in economics and philosophy and was class president and commencement speaker.

She got into teaching by accident. After college, she planned to work as a substitute teacher only to save money for travel. But she got hooked after she met the children and realized she couldn't leave them.

She made her documentary--30 hours of film squeezed to 53 minutes--because she felt "a sense of desperation" over Proposition 187. She wanted to give her kids a voice. And she wanted to honor her mother, "the inspiration" for her success.

She discussed her life as an immigrant, teacher and filmmaker in a recent interview at her West Los Angeles apartment. Following is her story in her own words.

Why She Made the Documentary

A large number of undocumented children at Hoover were really damaged by Prop. 187--not the fact that it was ever enforced, because it really wasn't, but by the environment it created. It divided our school. It divided friendships. It ended friendships between teachers.

Suddenly, the friendships, the warmth and the sense of family I had with my kids was just ripped apart. Gone.

I was somebody to be distrusted. One of my students literally said, "Are you a cop? Are you gonna kick me out of this room?"

And the idea that she would think that I was somebody who would hurt her that way, someone who would have her deported or kicked out of the classroom, was just devastating.

In my life, I would never want to be put in a situation as someone who would hurt children. Suddenly, society had told me, "Your job may be, potentially, to kick these kids out." You don't become a teacher for that reason.

When you work at a place like Pico-Union, which really has a tremendous number of children in need--clothes, food, medical attention--the role of the school no longer is just a place where you go to read and write. It becomes a safe haven.

As a Latina and as an immigrant, I hated that we were hurting these children this much. And nobody was giving them a voice. Nobody was putting a microphone in front of them, asking, "Hey, how do you guys feel about the fact that you may be denied health care and public education?"

You know, a 6- or a 7-year-old doesn't understand what it means to be legal or illegal. They just know that when they turn on the TV, they see that children with brown faces aren't wanted and that some of their teachers had voted for something that told them they weren't wanted any longer at Hoover.

And that was very hard for them. Suddenly, Hoover became a hostile place and, potentially, the most dangerous place in the neighborhood.

On Teaching

I don't know how great of a teacher I am. I'm damn bossy. I shouldn't say "damn." I'm really bossy. I'm really tough. Everybody has the image of the teacher being this nurturing, warm, loving character, and I think I am very nurturing. But I'm also tough as nails.

I have to give my kids the study habits that will get them into college. They have to win a scholarship. They just can't be average. And I won't take mediocrity. I will not tolerate it.

I don't have a homework problem in my classroom. If you don't do your homework, I will go to your home. I really will. I don't care what I have to do, but you will do your homework. After a month in my class, everybody does their work.

I'll look at my children, and I ask them, "If you could buy anything for your mom or your dad right now, what would you like to buy?" They go, "I'd like to buy my mom a house."

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