Behind guarded fences and locked gates that comprise a fortress-like maze, Mark Bradford is studying chemistry.
It's a day after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Across America, security is being tightened.
At Fremont High in South-Central Los Angeles, no changes are needed. This City Section campus is always on heightened alert. For Bradford and hundreds of others, it's a sanctuary where students study in a safe, secure setting.
Near Fremont's campus are street corners where standing in the wrong place or wearing the wrong colored clothing could result in becoming a shooting victim..
This is the turf claimed by Bloods and Crips. It's the territory of iron bars on doors and windows. It's the neighborhood Bradford wants to leave.
"Every kid who grows up in the ghetto wants to get out," said Bradford, a 6-foot-2, 185-pound junior standout in basketball and football.
Every day, Bradford must make choices, and nothing is simple.
"You have to make the right decisions who to be around and places to go and not to go," he said.
Those can be life-or-death decisions in his neighborhood.
Football Coach Pete Duffy has been teaching at Fremont for 10 years. He came to L.A. from Boston. Every season, he faces the challenge of convincing players to choose football over gangs.
"What was real shocking is how heavily entrenched gangs are," he said. "You think it's isolated when you watch it back east on television, but it's everywhere."
Duffy says that when he takes players home after practice, he must be careful about where he drops them off.
Fremont students have four years to make the most of their high school experience. Bradford has learned not to waste any days; he is determined to reach his goals.
"The people [who came] before me, I use as an example," he said. "I learn from their mistakes. They didn't choose to worry about school until the last minute."
Bradford has a 3.6 grade-point average and loves chemistry and algebra almost as much as scoring touchdowns. He caught 54 passes and scored nine touchdowns as a sophomore receiver and intercepted five passes at free safety. He has been a starter for the basketball team since he was a freshman.
"He's a joy to be around," Duffy said. "He's super talented and works his butt off every day."
Teammates trust Bradford and want to be around him, hoping his strong work ethic and good judgment rub off.
"He's my best friend," senior receiver Shelvion Williams said. "He wants to get out of the city, do bigger and better things and see the rest of the world. Me and him have the same dream."
Bradford's single-minded focus to make it out of his neighborhood is a tribute to the influence of his mother, who died when he was 6. He still remembers the impact she made.
"My mom taught me right from wrong," he said.
Bradford's dreams are no different than those of a teenager living in Beverly Hills, Woodland Hills or Mission Viejo.
"I look at Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O'Neal and see how they're doing good and say I want to be like them," he said.
Bradford, who has lived with his father, stepmother and others through the years, doesn't know what sport he's best in. Friends pull him in different directions.
"The basketball players tease me about being a football player, and the football players tease me about being a basketball player," he said.
Regardless of the sport, Bradford thrives on pressure situations. He wants the ball with the game on the line.
"I love it," he said. "With pressure, everyone is looking at you and asking, 'What are you going to do next?' It's an opportunity to show how good you are."
Bradford will be successful because he has discovered the secret to a prosperous future.
"I tell everybody school is what gets you to the next level," he said.
\o7 Eric Sondheimer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.