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Mother Agnes Knew the Score

Latinos: Scouting held promise but was unavailable to a boy from the 'projects' in long-ago Pacoima.

September 21, 1997|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

I was saddened to learn last week that one of the toughest and most influential teachers in my life--a Roman Catholic nun I knew only as Mother Agnes--is dead.

Saddened, but not surprised. I had not seen her in 30 years, since I graduated from high school in the San Fernando Valley. She was elderly even then. Elderly but still tough, with that deep reservoir of quiet strength that the truly faithful carry within themselves.

Mother Agnes was a native of Mexico and a member of an order of nuns called the Religious of Jesus and Mary. For two generations they have provided teachers for the Catholic school I attended from the fourth through the eighth grades, Guardian Angel in Pacoima.

That was in the early 1960s, and back then there were not many neighborhoods in Los Angeles tougher or poorer than the public housing project where I lived, the San Fernando Gardens. "The projects," as everyone called them, surround Guardian Angel. Yet Mother Agnes, who was both a teacher and the principal, and the other nuns strove mightily to keep crime and other dangers outside the schoolyard gates.

I telephoned Guardian Angel last week hoping to find Mother Agnes, if she was alive. I wanted to ask if she remembered an incident that is still vivid in my mind, and that I planned to talk about at a dinner where I was to be honored as a role model for Latino youngsters by the Boy Scouts of America.

It happened when I was 13 and preparing to leave Guardian Angel for high school. Filled with adolescent hubris, a handful of eighth-grade classmates and I ditched class one day to eat at a nearby hamburger stand. Of course, we got caught and were severely disciplined.

But I will never forget how Mother Agnes singled me out for special attention. She took me into her office and gave me a tongue-lashing that still burns my ears after all this time.

"I'm more disappointed in you than any of those others," she said. "You're the smartest boy in school, yet you led your classmates wrong rather than right."

Toward the end of this stern lecture that seemed to last hours but was was really only minutes, her voice softened. "If only you knew what you can achieve if you just set your mind to it," she said almost wistfully.

At that moment, feeling as if I'd let the whole world down, those words of encouragement from Mother Agnes resonated like a reprieve from heaven itself.

As she escorted me from her office, Mother Agnes handed me a paperback book--the Boy Scout Manual. I don't know where she got it, but she urged me to read it and consider becoming a scout. "I know you have what it takes," she added with a wink.

Sadly, I was never able to join the Boy Scouts. My mother could find no scouting program in the Pacoima area. And in retrospect, I now realize that a single mother struggling to raise six kids in a housing project probably could not have afforded it even if she had found one.

But I kept the manual, read it carefully, and learned many things both practical and philosophical. Not least among them is how universal are those qualities of character that scouting teaches--honesty, reverence, cleanliness, bravery and all the rest. They are so universal than even a Mexican nun in a barrio school knew that when she needed help keeping a potentially troubled kid straight, she could look to the Boy Scout Manual for assistance.

I did share that anecdote with the Boy Scouts' San Gabriel Valley Council the other night, when they honored me and two far-more deserving Latino businessmen, George de la Torre of Juanita Foods and Carlos A. Perez of Deloitte & Touche. For it almost perfectly illustrates the importance of what the civic leaders who run that Boy Scout council are trying to do.

Five years ago they looked at the changing demographics of the San Gabriel Valley and saw a challenge. Although the scouting-age population in local schools was roughly 53% Latino, there were only about 1,300 Latino scouts. So they launched a recruiting and fund-raising drive to make sure that any Latino youngsters who want to become scouts can do so, and to help any boy who needs financial aid to do it.

Today the San Gabriel Valley has 9,000 Latino scouts and the local council is pushing to recruit even more. Amid all the statistics we hear about youth crime and gangs in Los Angeles County, that number is the most encouraging I've heard in a long time.

I share it with readers of The Times not just to give you some hope about the future of this city and its young people, but as a useful reminder.

All too often when we in the news media report on gangs, we do so with an eye toward what new programs and initiatives might be out there to solve a seemingly permanent problem. But let's not overlook the "old" solutions that are still out there--Boy Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs and the like. They are still pretty darned effective, too, if only we will support them and make them accessible to as many kids as possible.

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