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'It's Like You're Climbing Everest'

Eleven boys thought they'd leave high school as they entered it -- together -- on graduation day. It wasn't that simple.

February 03, 2006|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

Isaac Castillo watched uneasily as a pack of 15 boys streamed out of a Van Nuys McDonald's. They paraded across Balboa Boulevard, ignoring four lanes of traffic.

Isaac and four of his friends headed toward their car in the Del Taco parking lot. The other boys closed in.

One faced Isaac. You wanna fight?

All year, Isaac, 17, had dodged confrontations with this group of teenagers. A rivalry over a girl had escalated into a bitter grudge. Now whenever Isaac passed one of them in a school hallway, on a street corner, at a fast-food restaurant, he clenched his fists.

Despite some failing grades, fights and suspensions, Isaac had made it into the home stretch at Birmingham High School. Graduation was just a few weeks away. If he was caught fighting on this breezy afternoon, in a parking lot two blocks from Birmingham, the school would kick him out and bar him from commencement.

His pulse quickened beneath his gray hooded sweater.

Suddenly, a boy rose to Isaac's defense.

My friend is trying to graduate, said David Parraz. So if you have any problems with him, take them up with me.

Isaac's challengers grudgingly backed down.

"He was gonna graduate," David said later, "and not all of us were."

We a family

the Outsiders will always be

remember who we are

we're making history

no one understands how we stay together

I tell them we're brothers

and life isn't the same without each other.

-- Rap lyrics by Outsider Mark Cevallos

They called themselves the "Outsiders": a bunch of spiky-haired, barely teenage boys from Van Nuys whose families came from Mexico and other parts of Latin America.

Eleven of them entered Birmingham High as freshmen in the fall of 2001.

There was Isaac, a tough guy the girls adored; David, a gifted student and a baseball player; and Polo Morales, a fatherless boy who loved football. There were others: An eloquent rapper, a fearless skateboarder, a rock 'n' roll drummer. The boys break-danced together and spent hours writing lyrics to rock and rap songs.

Navigating the streets of their neighborhood, they had learned never to walk alone.

Belonging to a group meant they didn't have to. The Outsiders were not a gang. Gangs killed people. They simply watched one another's backs. If one needed a dollar, another spotted him. If one got punched, another punched back.

As students, none was exceptional. Half of the boys had earned too few credits to participate in graduation from junior high, but the Los Angeles Unified School District's social promotion policy allowed them to move on to high school anyway.

They expected to graduate together.

By late spring of 2005, only four of the 11 were left.

'Classes Were Harder'

On the first day of their freshman year at Birmingham, the Outsiders gathered under a towering oak tree on the quad. From that day on, the tree was theirs.

Even though some of the boys already knew the lay of Birmingham, from days of sneaking on campus after hours to skateboard through its corridors, the sprawling Van Nuys high school seemed overwhelming.

"There were more people, older people. The classes were harder. It was such a different environment," Polo said. "It was a big change in our lives."

In the beginning, all the Outsiders attended classes and tried to do homework.

Polo, who stood 6-foot-2 and was nicknamed "Da Beast," joined the football team freshman year. He hoped it would be his ticket to Notre Dame.

David played second base on the baseball team. With test scores that classified him as gifted, he enrolled in four honors courses even though he didn't always get good grades.

Another Outsider, Andy Hurtarte, made a dangerous discovery. One lazy spring afternoon, he decided to hang out on the athletic field instead of attending sixth-period English. It was the first time he had ditched, and the simplicity of it surprised him.

His teacher did nothing. No one called home to inform his parents.

A few days later, he did it again. Another Outsider joined him. Then another.

Only David, whose classes were more demanding, expressed his disapproval. Dude, get to class, he would say when he spotted his friends cutting.

Isaac, a boy with a tough crust and a dimpled smile, didn't care if his friends ditched. But it wasn't an easy option for him. Isaac had a mild learning disability that caused him to get distracted easily, so school officials placed him in smaller classes with aides who provided one-on-one attention.

On his first day at Birmingham, Isaac met the teacher assigned to monitor him. He remembered her telling him: You're stuck with me for these four years, and I'm going to do whatever I can to help you graduate.

"She gave me all the attention I needed," Isaac said.

David was one of two Outsiders who passed all of his classes. For most of the others, Ds and Fs became routine.

Polo was one of the few who felt the consequences when he messed up.

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