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VERY FIRST PERSON

A Novel Eeducation

To Survive Los Angeles' Schools, Students Must Arm Themselves With 'Dracula,' 'The Penal Colony' and Perhaps Some Tolstoy

January 23, 2000|Jervey Tervalon | Jervey Tervalon teaches creative writing at Cal State Los Angeles. His latest novel, "Dead Above Ground" (Pocket Books), is out this month

My days teaching at Locke High School are exhausting to remember. I wasn't cut out for the grind and humiliation. After five years I took the easy way out, retired my chalk and eraser and returned to college to pursue a master's in fine arts. Yet there are moments I recollect fondly, including the time a student named Shauntell slumped on the steps of a bungalow classroom, clutching a copy of a fat 19th century novel and weeping.

"Tervalon," she said, "I don't know why you gave me that book to read. It just made me cry."

"That's good. That's what a tragedy is supposed to do."

"You're a sick man, Tervalon. Getting your kicks making your students cry."

I hadn't anticipated tears when I casually suggested to this shy, intelligent underachiever that she read Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina." I had said it was one of my favorite novels and that she might like it. But I often tossed off such comments. Shauntell was the rare student who took such a suggestion to heart. Now she had reached the book's conclusion--Anna's death under the wheels of a locomotive. Tolstoy had transported Shauntell from Los Angeles' cruel streets to the cruel salons and parlors of aristocratic Russia. An enormous journey in many ways; in others, not a long trip at all. Like Shauntell, I had a passion for reading (friends wouldn't loan me books because I read in the shower and returned the volumes waterlogged). Like Shauntell, I'm a product of California public education.

I attended Los Angeles' Foshay Junior High School in the early '70s. Franz Kafka's "The Penal Colony" will give you a sense of what it was like to be an 11-year-old boy in that harsh, incomprehensible world. Foshay's lawmen were gym teachers packing walkie-talkies and squash paddles for corporal punishment. They were soon outmatched by the new gangs sprouting in the surrounding neighborhoods. One summer they just appeared, wearing sporty bomber jackets with thick fur collars, shiny, starched Levi's and a black or red handkerchief. They sprang from the concrete, the lawns, the backyards and the schools. Some big head pootbutt with bad teeth and breath would get the "look"--slit-eyed, barely even a nod, trying damn hard to exude menace--and kids started converting, so many on that sullen, silly trip. You'd hear, "What, fool? This is Crip here," and the shooting would start.

Reading clued me to look at gang life differently than most kids did. In Bram Stoker's "Dracula," I confronted the nature of evil. Not the simplistic evil of comic books but something seductive that had to be resisted. I saw the various gang sets as fascist wannabes, ruling the streets like sadistic police officers, willing to shoot or beat down anybody silly enough to oppose them. I couldn't drive a stake through the heart of gang violence, but it became clear that I needed courage to live the life I wanted.

Our schools, like our city blocks, were small, self-contained towns that gangs battled for as if they had natural resources or religious significance. Self-defense, preemptive strikes, the need to never be caught slipping became a way of life. Because adults were fighting different wars at home and abroad, teens owned the hallways and streets. Junior high felt like "Lord of the Flies" with sawed-off shotguns. I risked being robbed or chased on my way to the Baldwin Theater or my girlfriend's house. It seemed inevitable that sooner or later we all were going to meet some stupid, embarrassing fate like the disabled protagonist in "Johnny Got His Gun," who dreams that he is fed upon by rats.

In my mind, the consolation prize for having suffered through this was the opportunity to attend the University of California system. I had a decent SAT score and grades, but most important, I had college-level reading comprehension. That prepared me for higher education, if not for being the rare person of color among the 700 students in my cultural anthropology class. The day my father drove me to UC Santa Barbara, fog hung over Stork Tower. The campus was as idyllic and mysterious as Middle Earth in "Lord of the Rings." The students I met there were different than those back home. The guys seemed obsessed with keggers and bongs, and the girls' worries focused on weight and eating disorders. One quarter, I took a class from the notorious scholar Marvin Mudrick. He had us read three of Shakespeare's plays each week. "Read them on the toilet, on the bus, read them like the sports page," he said. My boyhood passion found a focus.

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