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Southern California's Young Faces : Cover Story

Holding On

Donwan Wade's Best Hopes Lie in the Love of a Grandmother, and a Teacher Who Cares.

April 22, 2001|LISA PALAC | Lisa Palac is a Los Angeles writer

What's it like to come of age in a place defined by outsiders and their cliches: surf, gang turf, Hollywood, Vine, the land of milk and honey? Do our children grow up too soon? Is Southern California the great springboard to a life of opportunity? On the following pages you'll find 17 children who are moving toward adulthood. Their stories are not the stuff of headlines or extremes: young criminals, star athletes, child movie stars. Rather, we went in search of "typical" kids. We talked to teachers, parents, tutors, coaches, counselors and school officials. Scores of names tumbled out. We then asked a dozen writers to spend time with these kids, and to try to find the small slice of each one that said something about their lives in Southern California. It is, we hope, a telling collage.


The wood console television in Donwan Wade's living room has only one volume: blasting. To help lower the sound, part of a Kix cereal box is taped to the speaker, and sometimes, when the noise becomes overwhelming, the kids shove a few pillows in front of it. "Oh, it goes down the longer it's on, that old thing," says Donwan's grandmother, 63-year-old Bertha Robins.

Donwan is 8 years old. Named after the legendary lover, he's still shy around the opposite sex, but he's definitely got the sweet and handsome parts nailed down. He has three sisters, Tamu, 25, Myisha, 12, Donnicha, 10, and three brothers, Maurice, 11, Demario, 9, and Isaac, 3. Their mother, Annette Patricia Robins, died of cervical cancer last August at the age of 43. Donwan never knew his father. He was killed in a shooting before Donwan's birth. Except for Tamu and Isaac, all the children live in a three-bedroom mobile home with Granny, as Bertha the Matriarch is affectionately known, and an ailing Grandaddy.

Donwan is repeating the first grade at Laurel Street Elementary School--a choice Bertha made to improve his reading and spelling. In fact, Granny chose to have Demario, Donnicha and Maurice all held back one year.

Today is Thursday, which means that in the morning Granny goes to her Bible study group and in the afternoon she picks up Donwan, Donnicha and Demario--who all go to Laurel Street. On this particular Thursday, a broken water pipe has soaked the girls' bedroom carpet, giving off a bad smell. So the front door stays open while the five of us watch one of Donwan's favorite videos, a Michael Jackson greatest hits tape of old classics such as "Thriller" and "Beat It." Demario (aka Dante, his middle name) excitedly dumps an armload of videos next to me so I can view the entire selection. Mixed in with the cartoons are travel videos with titles such as "Peru: Hidden Rain Forest" and "Bhutan: The Last Shangri-La."

"If it weren't for me," says Donwan, "Granny would be all over the world."

"I'd be a sad, sad person without you," she replies, her voice heavy with love. "You bring my life together." All total, Bertha Robins has 44 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

A few more of Donwan's favorite things--TV show: "Power Rangers." Sport: Basketball. Basketball star: Allen Iverson. School subject: Recess. (Very funny.) Activity: Running fast. He also loves his PlayStation, except it's out of order now. "Maurice broke it; he stepped on it," Donnicha announces, and shows me the remains. Maurice, who hasn't come home from school yet, is allegedly the one who also put some sizable holes in the wall several months ago. The three children gleefully lead me into the hallway to point out the damage: a few craters where a fist punched the wall, and then a huge chunk where Demario claims Maurice pushed him clear through.

"I didn't make holes in the wall," Donwan promptly points out, his hands held up in surrender. As I return through the kitchen, I notice one of the gas burners is on. Just on, nothing cooking. I turn it off.

My tour of the neighborhood begins in the clubhouse, a fenced patch of thin grass behind the house. In it are a blue folding chair, a rusted exercise bike, a discarded cordless phone and a variety of found objects put to some very imaginative uses. The afternoon sun is relentless as the kids and I walk along the concrete strip that serves as a road through the mobile home park, as well as the sidewalk and the front lawn. They are talking loud and fast and over each other about a million things at once.

On the way to the basketball court, Maurice shows up. "Maurice can do a back flip," Donwan shouts. Maurice takes a running start, does a round-off and, behold, a full aerial. Maurice, as it turns out, can do a lot of things in that maddening way that only the oldest brother can--jump the highest, run the fastest, sing the most songs, win the most basketball games. Take Maurice's winning speech after he is the first to shoot 10 free throws: "These weaklings can't do anything. Donwan is weaker, he got zero. And this little boy [Demario] got four, and the cheerleader [Donnicha] is stupid and looks like a boy."

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