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Southern California's Young Faces : Cover Story

The Long Road

Diamond Bar to Koreatown Is a Rough Commute at Rush Hour. But the Twins Need an Edge as They Prepare for College.

April 22, 2001|DUKE HELFAND

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 afternoon routine gets underway in the parking lot of a Mobil gas station in Rosemead. Jason and Joshua Wallace pile into their mom 's Honda. A rap song thumps through the car as the twins and their mother pull onto the Pomona Freeway and head for Los Angeles. Joshua is sitting shotgun, downing a bag of M&M's.

"Mom, have you heard the story about the Cyclops?" he asks about the Greek mythological figure the boys are studying in school.


It is 4:38 p.m. The family is zooming west toward the hazy silhouette of downtown. This journey is about the future. It is about Joshua one day becoming a lawyer and Jason a veterinarian. The boys are traveling 25 miles from home to do their homework--a trip they make three times a week, including Saturdays.

"You're gonna have a job at McDonald's if you don't get your education," Sheila Wallace tells her 11-year-old sons, barely taking her eyes off the road.

The journey starts in Diamond Bar, where the boys live with their mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. Four generations under one roof. There is good reason for this arrangement. South Pointe Middle School, a 10-minute walk from their front porch, is one of the best public schools in the region. Their neighborhood is a haven of double garages and landscaped yards, where the air smells clean and life feels safe. It's a good place for kids to grow up.

The trips to Los Angeles are extra. Every Tuesday and Thursday after school, the boys' grandmother shuttles them 15 minutes to the gas station in Rosemead--near the midpoint in the journey. That's where their mother meets them, after rushing out of her job as a financial analyst for an HMO in Pasadena. On this Tuesday afternoon, the car talk is all about Greece and animals.

"You know what an oracle is?" Joshua asks his mom, who is more interested in whether he remembered his glasses. Jason, the veterinarian-to-be, chimes in from the back seat. He ticks off a list of the pets they've had over the years--a dog, a turtle, six frogs, 10 hamsters, 12 fish, a family of pigeons and the occasional lizard.

"Ma, I caught a lizard today," Jason says.

"Did you dissect it?"

"Nah, I let it go."

Suburbia passes outside their windows--malls, tract homes, green hillsides. Wallace flips the radio dial. Aretha Franklin spills into the car. "R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me." One twin sings the letters with Aretha.

They exit the Hollywood Freeway onto Vermont Avenue. Noise. Bus fumes. Traffic. A homeless man. The boys make a game of the grit, taking turns matching letters of the alphabet with images on the passing streets.

"E--energy," Jason calls out, seeing a placard on a bus.

"L--Lexus," Joshua says, spotting a passing car.

As they play the game, a commercial comes over the radio for the United Negro College Fund.

It is almost impossible to tell Jason and Joshua apart, except for their shoes. Jason wears Adidas; Joshua prefers Vans. They are a cross between little rappers with baggy pants and preppies with neat hair cuts and polite manners. They have telegenic good looks and occasionally dream of being on TV.

The three arrive at the tutor's. She is in an office building in Koreatown. This is the second tutor Wallace has hired for the boys. The first, a teenager, didn't work out. Joshua wouldn't listen. Wallace trusts this tutor, who was recommended by a friend of the boys' grandmother. The tutor rides Jason and Joshua hard. On this night, she asks them to call out their grades in school. Jason and Joshua each lie about their worst grades, but come clean after the tutor scolds them.

"You're going to look me in the face and be dishonest?" the woman says. "I don't accept your apologies." The tutor demands that they each write "I will tell the truth and not lie" 125 times and return with the assignment in two days.

Wallace collects the boys after the 2 1/2-hour session. The twins bow their heads, moping, as they leave. They'd rather be riding bikes or playing with their friends back in Diamond Bar.

They pull into a Jack in the Box drive-thru a few blocks away. They eat their Bacon Ultimate Cheeseburgers in silence.

The energy picks up as they start talking about dreams of fame.

"I just wanna be on TV," Jason tells his mother.

She chuckles. "If I hit the lottery," she says, "we'll pursue it."

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