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THE INSIDE TRACK | SUNDAY SCENE / DIANE PUCIN

Living the Lessons Taught by Tragedy

March 12, 2000|DIANE PUCIN

Myra Mayberry had an older brother. His name was Fernando, and he was cool. He wore the latest fashions, he walked tall and with a swagger and he loved his little sister. He was proud of Myra and her running; he celebrated more than anyone when Myra won a race.

Mayberry, a 1990 graduate of USC who would prefer we don't know her age--"Just say I'm in the prime of my running career," she says--doesn't have an older brother anymore.

On an ordinary night in 1980, a night that seemed just like so many others, Fernando went out onto the Los Angeles streets. Myra and Fernando's mom, Gloria Thompson, didn't want the teenager to go out. "She never wanted Fernando to go out because the streets were so dangerous," Myra says now, 20 years later. But the night doesn't seem as if it were 20 years ago. Myra talks about Fernando, about how he didn't come home that evening, about how the police came to the front door instead. She talks about how Gloria was looking behind the police, ready to yell at Fernando for getting into trouble and to thank the police for bringing her son home.

But the police didn't have Fernando. Only news of Fernando. He was dead, shot for no reason that anyone could tell or at least that anyone can remember now.

And Fernando's little sister, a two-time Olympic competitor, a slim, muscled woman who is aiming to qualify for a third Olympics in track and field because, she says with a smile, "I need a vacation and Australia is a place I haven't been," is sitting in a small room at Grape Street elementary school in Watts. Mayberry is the coordinator of the L.A.'s Best program at Grape Street.

This program encourages grade school kids in tough neighborhoods to stay at school after class. Tutors are offered in all the subjects and coaching is offered in many sports. Mayberry runs a tight ship. Parents are told that misbehavior is not tolerated and then cajoled to come to school and help. "There aren't always parents to talk to," Mayberry says, "but we always have to try. I see these kids and the hard things they see in life and all I want to do is help them all to not end up like Fernando. I think about him all the time, and I see him in these kids."

Thompson, who was born in Puerto Rico and who gave Myra the gift of the Spanish language, a gift that, Myra says, "enriches my life every day because I can talk to all my kids and their mothers and their grandmothers," wants to let everyone know how proud she is of her daughter.

"Myra was never in trouble; she was always a good girl," Thompson says.

When she was 6, Myra discovered she could run--fast. When she was older, in 1984, Myra's father promised to take her to the Los Angeles Olympics. Her father didn't keep the promise, so Myra made herself one. "I told myself I would run in the Olympics some day. I promised myself that, and I kept that promise," she says.

At Reseda High, Mayberry ran fast. At El Camino College, Mayberry ran so fast she earned a track scholarship to USC. In the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games, Mayberry competed for Puerto Rico and made it through two heats. She ran the 100 and 400 meters in 1992, the 100 and 200 in 1996. "I felt so honored and so in awe both times, in Barcelona and in Atlanta, when I marched in the opening ceremonies and entered the stadiums," she says.

She trains on the track in the early mornings, before 7. Her coach, Mike Williams, runs the Showtime International team, which trains at USC. No, Williams will not give up Mayberry's age either but says his pupil is in fine shape and, he thinks, primed to make the Olympics for the third time. Mayberry says she would like to finally qualify for the U.S. Olympic trials. Williams, 45, says he wants Mayberry to run for Puerto Rico again.

To the kids at Grape Street, it doesn't matter. They, most of all, want their mentor to run at the L.A.'s Best citywide athletic contests. "They have a race for the coordinators," Mayberry says, "and last time I wasn't going to run but the kids begged. I was way out in front pretty quick and my kids were all yelling, 'That's our Miss Mayberry, that's our Miss Mayberry.' "

As proud as she is of the success of her little runners, Mayberry is more proud of the success of her little scientists. Last year 11-year-old Shalana Buycks won the citywide science competition and earned a four-day trip to space camp in Huntsville, Ala. This year 9-year-old Kayla Jenkins, with her project on dissolving eggshells, will represent Grape Street at the L.A.'s Best Science Fair at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

"It is so amazing to see these kids watching down the street every day, waiting for the science tutor to arrive," Mayberry says. "It makes my heart feel good."

Mayberry's mom says she didn't know how much Fernando's death had hurt her daughter. "But one day," Thompson says, "a friend told me that she saw Myra every day after school at Fernando's grave. My friend said Myra would be talking to Fernando, telling him about her day and about how she wanted to make a difference."

Every day now Mayberry does make a difference. What she teaches the kids about discipline Mayberry gets from her athletic training. What she teaches the kids about taking responsibility for yourself and your life, Mayberry learned that from what happened to Fernando.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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