Inner-City School Teacher Blues

Berendo Middle School
Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)
Belmont Cluster
Pico-Union and Westlake areas
Los Angeles, California

          I entered teaching hoping to change the world. Or, if I was not that naive, I hoped perhaps to change the little bit of it that I touched. I saw becoming a teacher as the single most important public service I could render, the chance to serve as did previous generations of Americans who joined the military in 1860 or 1941, or the Peace Corps in the 1960's. As I graduated from UCLA in the early 1990's and looked around me at a Los Angeles punctuated by riots, massive foreign immigration, and a culture where murder was routine, it seemed so bad I had to do something to try and improve the situation. And so I volunteered to go teach in the most hardcore violent immigrant neighborhood I could find: Pico-Union, Los Angeles. Pacoima, Compton, Boyle Heights, South-Central LA, Santa Ana - all these dangerous places have more in common than that which distinguishes them, but Pico-Union, Westlake, and the neighborhoods around Macarthur Park just west of downtown LA were, in my opinion, unique. It astounded the eye and boggled my mind.

          Pico-Union had some of the most densely populated and abjectly impoverished neighborhoods west of the Mississippi River with over 70 gangs and 3,000 active gang members in an area absolutely teeming with humanity. The area belonged to the "Rampart" Division of the LAPD - the busiest division in the department. The last year I taught there it had the highest murder rate of any neighborhood in Los Angeles - quite a feat! As was reported about Pico-Union in the Los Angeles Times after a combined federal and local anti-narcotics crackdown in the area:

Undercover officers in the task force were threatened, chased and, in at least one case, shot at by gang members. "This is probably one of the most violent deployments that the DEA has had since the program began" a year ago in other California cities, said Robert E. Bender, special agent in charge of the Los Angeles division.
July 13, 1996 L.A. Times

Pico-Union was unlike anything I had seen before, and my experience in violent neighborhoods was not inconsiderable. Only in Belfast, Northern Ireland, had I been struck with the same kind of stupefaction. Even overflowing with people and human activity, Pico-Union was an urban wasteland.

          Yet if it repelled me it also fascinated me - I had never seen anything quite like it. In fact, I had not seen anywhere north of the U.S. border so poor: the dirt and trash in the streets, the many stray dogs, the overflow of homeless from Skid Row, dilapidated buildings splattered with graffiti, vendors selling food block to block in portable carts, rampant open air drug dealing, cars parked on front yards, people everywhere, etc. Fecund Pico-Union was teeming with human activity both good and bad. The area was a slice of Latin America transplanted in the United States, yet it was not really Latin American nor "American." As one Nicaraguan told me, "Westwood smells of the dollar, but Macarthur Park smells of the colón [Nicaraguan currency]."

          I taught ESL for a short time in a decrepit building near the corner of Venice and Bonnie Brae for the El Rescate community resource center and this was a wonderful experience. My nearly illiterate adult students would cheerfully come to class every night after long and exhausting workdays painting houses or working in factories and we would all duck together to the occasional gunshot outside in our makeshift classrooms with concrete floors. They all wanted very much to learn English and it was well worth my time to go there and teach for free. It was to be quite different working with the teenagers of the area in the local public school.

          They say when the gods want to punish a man they answer his dreams, and I was hired exactly where I wanted at Berendo Middle School under the gaze of downtown LA skyscrapers near the corner of Vermont and Pico.

My application letter to a teacher training program describing well
my state of mind as I entered teaching.

A letter from my buddy Keith about landing my first teaching job.
Keith and I met while at UCLA, and now he is a Police Officer in South-Central Los Angeles.

          What is it really like to be a teacher in an inner-city school? Hollywood seems to have a soft spot for urban school teachers and churns out a number of "feel good" movies on the topic every year. But what is it like in real life? I think the following article an excellent introduction:

A Nation Divided More by Class Than by Color
"A Nation Divided More by Class Than by Color"
by Cynthia Tucker

          I was hired initially to take the place of a veteran teacher who was fired for hitting a student. The class had suffered through a series of ineffectual substitute teachers by the time I finally arrived. When I told them I was their new permanent teacher, they answered, "Yeah, sure! You're just another sub!" The administration gave me the role book and key to my classroom and then basically left me to sink or swim. Those next three weeks until the semester ended rank among of the worst of my life and I learned more how to cope than to teach effectively. From the very first day at Berendo Middle School I felt in my bones that everything was wrong - completely wrong! - in so many ways, shapes, and forms that I hardly knew where to begin. I felt the exact same way almost three years later on my last day there. Here is a tonic to offset the images portrayed in the movies of teacher-as-savior mould:

My movie Review of "Stand and Deliver"
a similar film review by Tom Wolf, another inner-city teacher.

          Do you see what I mean?

          At Berendo Middle School I encountered what the LAUSD called a "school." Students who had earned "Ds" and "Fs" for as long as they could remember. Students who routinely come to school without a pen or pencil or anything on which to write. Students who thought that simply coming to school everyday and taking up space at a desk somehow equaled learning. Students who could hardly write their names and/or read a simple paragraph and know what it meant. Students who cared nothing about their education. Not all students, by far, could be described as such, but there were more examples of this than ideal students well on their way to academic success. This was especially true with those first few classes they gave me as a brand new teacher.

          In retrospect, it was a no win situation, and I don't think I could do a whole lot better today with much more experience under my belt. I found myself in one of the toughest teaching assignments possible with no experience or training; entering the classroom, I had nothing more than my good intentions and a desire to help my students. True, I had a solid academic background in what I was teaching, but I don't think that so important under the circumstances. If I were a lawyer or a doctor, you could have sued the school district for gross malpractice in placing me in that classroom! However, they offered me the job because it was open and no one more qualified wanted it; I am sure I did a better job than a never ending procession of substitute teachers would have done. Yet it never was my idea of what education should be. At the time, I just tried to make it day-to-day. Looking back now, I wonder at how the human body can adapt to almost anything.

          The situation improved somewhat as I gained more experience and started new classes in subsequent semesters. However, teaching at Berendo was perhaps the most difficult and humbling thing I have ever done. At the time, I was angry with the system for being so dysfunctional, frustrated at the low level of achievement of so many of my students, and stymied by a host of other seemingly insoluble problems.


Three Angry Letters

1.Letter #1
Looking in vain for sanity at a faculty meeting...

2.Letter #2
A warning to a friend thinking of teaching...

3.Letter #3
Beating my head against the wall over school FAILURE!
F A I L U R E !

          In retrospect, I am much more philosophical about the whole experience. The Los Angeles Unified District was mostly doing the best it could; most teachers were doing their job as best they could; most parents truly loved their children and wanted the best for them. There was room for improvement, but everyone (especially Principal Esther Rivera) was already working pretty hard. Yet still most kids were not learning, or at least not learning very much - neither in Spanish nor in English. The average seventh grader at Berendo was perhaps reading and writing at a third or fourth grade level; I was basically an elementary school teacher teaching middle school students. I worked my brains out to move my students up approximately a grade level per year and I resented people telling me I was not doing my job because these kids were so low skilled.

          My frustration with the Los Angeles Unified School District and the educational establishment I chronicled clearly in detail in my three angry letters. But, in retrospect, I see the problem now as having more to do with the attitude of the school district and, more importantly, of the environment which produced our students. Even in the worst school (which Berendo was not), one can get an education if it is earnestly desired and pursued, and this takes us, in my opinion, to the heart of the problem: the families and socioeconomic backgrounds of my students who were - almost to a person - the children of poor Latin American campesinos incompletely educated in their own countries.

The Immigrants' View of Education
an article by Carlos Monsivais

          The education of every young person starts in the home and parents are always their children's first and foremost teachers. In the Pico-Union and Westlake areas of Los Angeles - despite the love these parents had and their desire for their children to succeed - the vast majority of immigrant parents from Latin America lacked the wherewithal both financially and intellectually to help academically. The United States Department of Education has discovered the single most important factor influencing a child's achievement in the first and second grade is whether the child has been read to at home before beginning school, and whether he has seen his parents reading; and I suspect this does not change so very much in later grades. If this be true, it tokens ill for so many Latino immigrant students who grow up in households barren of books and regular readers. Many of my students at the middle school level already had more education than their parents - any kind of help with homework would have to come from an older brother or sister whose own education was far from complete. I remember talking to even the most enthusiastic and involved immigrant parents who eagerly involved themselves with their children's homework until the middle grades when they literally could not understand the material themselves. Academically speaking, my students all too often were on their own.

          For these reasons, the raucous debate over bilingual education never excited me much; too many students because of an academically impoverished environment were not going to learn very much no matter in what language the subject matter might be presented. A teacher at Berendo who likes the youth counselor or surrogate parent aspect of teaching can feel engaged and at least needed in their job. A teacher who feels passionately about the literature, math, or science in which they specialize and who truly wants to teach subject matter will feel stymied. I fell into the latter category. But ALL teachers need to be able to control their class and students had no respect for a teacher who wasn't tough enough to handle it.

bilingual education?

          Learning is learning whether it be in English or Spanish, and too many of my students (products of bilingual education in 1995) read and wrote as poorly in Spanish as did Latino students (products of English-immersion programs) in English 25 years earlier. The language itself is not the most important thing. English or Spanish? That is an emotional and political question which misses the point. Knowledge is knowledge whether the words be in English or Spanish. I say this as a bilingual teacher (Spanish-English) myself.

          The problem was not that my students didn't want to learn the language. The vast majority knew it was important and enjoyed speaking English, as they did Spanish. The problem was that very few of them were on the road to learning the kind of academic English they would need to succeed at the university (after all, many native English-speakers failed to master that level of literacy!). How we expect these Latino immigrant children to ever acquire an educated English when they live in neighborhoods so totally isolated from any English-speaking or middle class influences is beyond me! I clearly could see that too many immigrant children were proving unable to move from a culture of the rural Mexican or Central American poverty of their parents to that of the Information Age of the future United States where they would live and work as adults. Or worse, they embraced the "homeboy" culture of the inner-city, fraught with values and behaviors inimical to success in life. And it is difficult to teach literature and writing to students who, according to a local poll, watched per average 4.5 hours of television a day while spending only 37 minutes reading, a trend which promotes passive spectating rather than active learning.

          To think in terms of education and hard work as a way to make it out of the immigrant ghetto is, in fact, to buy into America. Relatively few of my students appeared to have bought into such an America. For most of these prepubescent Los Angeles teenagers, the United States was Nike athletic shoes, television sitcoms, basketball stars, pop music, glamour magazines, urban "hip hop" culture, and the ironical skepticism of "outlaw" street culture. It reminded me of Edward Gibbon's "The History of the Decline and the Fall of the Roman Empire" where the fifth-century Goths purportedly "imbibed the vices, without imitating the arts and institutions, of civilised [Roman] society." I reminded myself I was seeing my students in the throes of adolescence - rarely the most graceful or polished time in a person's life. But it was still so profoundly troubling and depressing!

          I started at Berendo a young and computer savvy teacher at the dawn of the Digital Age, eager to use the Internet as another tool in providing a dynamic and in-depth education to my students. On my own, I wrote the first rudimentary webpage for my school where I described my classes, displayed some student work, and highlighted my most outstanding students. Not one of my regular students ever visited or enjoyed the pages which were dedicated to them and which cost me many hours of work (one student in my Parliament homeroom did visit them). Likewise, I developed an e-mail correspondence project via e-mail with a class in rural Mountain Home, Arkansas, but had to take home all the hand-written letters and spend my evenings personally typing them into my own computer. As a teacher, I was greatly frustrated by the lack of computers in my student's homes and a lack of computer expertise in general. What is the level of computer knowledge of the average immigrant from Oaxaca, Michoacan, or Zacatecas? In my experience, it was next to zero.

          But then we teachers were herded into the school auditorium and told by the administration that this dynamic new computer technology would enable these underachieving young people to achieve, where every previous innovation had failed. But after an expensive computer lab was installed on campus, the predictable result was atrocious writing printed out cleanly on laser printers decorated with clever background digital imagery! You can train a semi-intelligent monkey to operate a computer; on the other hand, the ability to write lucid, intelligent prose is the arduous labor of a lifetime. Computers: yet another educational fad, over hyped and exploited by school administrators scrambling to defend their turf. Combine this with a lack of discipline and academic focus and overcrowded classrooms and you had a prescription for failure! Nothing ever changed. What could I do?

          Not surprisingly, my best students by far were those who had studied in private schools in Latin America and/or whose parents were highly educated. However, such students were few and far between at Berendo Middle School. The fact that these students were so academically behind never sat well with me. My response to this was that we should have school on Saturdays, during vacations, at night to make up the difference - whatever it takes! I never made my peace with the fact that these kids were almost out of the hyper-competitive capitalist rat race so early in life by virtue of their lack of education. I would have been willing for only a little more money to have much longer school days, come in on weekends, etc. I was young and idealistic, had neither family nor serious commitments of my own, and would have been willing to do anything to get my students caught up to grade-level. Everyone involved needed to work harder and smarter! But it was much more complex than simply my good intentions.

          There was not much I myself could realistically do. The school system was already overwhelmed and the radical change needed was not on the agenda. Moreover, the vast majority of the parents had vague or shallow academic aspirations for their children: too many immigrant parents from Latin America looked at school as a vehicle to learn how to read, write, and behave in the primary and secondary grades after which they would go to work in some blue-collar capacity to help the family economically. It was not so much valuing education as it was a question of understanding the power that an education confers upon an individual in the postmodern Information Age economy of the United States (which is very different than that of Mexico and Central America). I could tell that my pep talks about college were often not reinforced in the home and a student who had their eyes firmly on the goal might have to go it alone. College was an unknown quantity which, while prestigious and desirable in the abstract, seemed expensive and out of reach. The typical student in my class knew no one (besides their teachers) who had been to college. I remember meeting a young Mexican-American woman in a Westwood bar who was celebrating after having just graduated from UCLA. After talking with her about my job, etc. she told me, "I am the first woman in my very conservative Mexican immigrant family to graduate from college. I think you know what that means." Sure I knew. It meant she had done it by shear force of will power. I respected that very much and knew it had not been easy.

          I can hear people tell me, "Well, there is this problem and that deficiency, and so you have to modify what you want in the future for poor kids, etc..." I always thought my students could go anyplace they wanted if only they worked hard enough! But the reality on the ground was all too often different. The reality left me feeling powerless. The bottom line is that my job was to have my students academically prepared to start high school and the vast majority of my students were nowhere close to being ready! I knew the following year the high school teachers in charge of our former students were going to look at the dismal level of academic achievement of their classes and curse us middle school teachers as incompetent, in exactly the same way as we middle school teachers cursed the elementary teachers, etc. etc. ad nauseam in the never ending cycle of Los Angeles public school failure. After all, our job was to teach these young people how to read, write, and think, and for a variety of reasons the job was not getting done. This fact haunted me beyond any inconvenience caused by bumptious students or the street gang mentality. The kids weren't learning!, and many were on the road to embarrassing themselves if they even had to write a business letter or e-mail. And I was their English teacher.

High School - if you earn it!
A rare common-sensical approach to public school failure from a teacher in the trenches; worth more than 5 tomes written by education professors put together!
by Carol Jago

          It was hugely frustrating for a teacher who wanted the best for his/her students. At Berendo Middle School, there were those teachers born into the role, so gifted and talented that I couldn't imagine them doing anything else as valuable or as satisfying and whose lives revolved around the school and their students. But many teachers no longer cared, if they ever did. Many teachers no longer loved what they taught or considered themselves scholars, if ever they had. Some teachers had taught in the area for so long they had forgotten it was better elsewhere, if they had ever known. Too many teachers with the passage of the years had come to regard the situation as normal, having made their peace with the fact that these children were years below grade-level in their studies. "Yes, it is sad, but just do the best you can do with what you have," they would say. I never made my peace with all this and it galled me to the very end! And then they stress self-esteem and pride in one's ancestry over academic accomplishment, dumb down the curriculum so as to reach the lowest common denominator, and move everyone to the next level regardless of whether they learned anything or not. Why are we then surprised so many of these young people are nearly illiterate?

          I would travel overseas or go to other parts of the United States that had excellent schools and I would feel ashamed knowing how poorly prepared most of my students were at Berendo. I would feel ashamed for myself, my school, my city, and my country - feel this way even knowing as a teacher I was doing the best I could! I would feel this way realizing that some students had arrived at their present level of inferior achievement working fairly hard (yet if everyone is more or less below grade-level, being "behind" loses gravity and relevance). I would occasionally go and walk around the campus of my alma mater UCLA and silently watch the studious undergraduates walking to their biochemistry, art history, electrical engineering, or political theory classes. I had been, after all, one of them only a few years earlier.  Profoundly depressed, I would wonder what the hell I was doing at Berendo Middle School of the Los Angeles Unified School District. It had always been important to me to try and be #1 - to be the best. It is difficult to be an American and accept failure, to accept a permanent place on a failing team. But the best laid plans of myself and teachers much more intelligent and experienced than myself for improvement all seemed to come crashing against the rocks of a harsh Los Angeles reality.

This was the reality...

          This was the reality: most Berendo parents (working long hours as house cleaners, janitors, security guards, mechanics, parking lot attendants, maids, or factory workers just to pay the rent and put food on the table with little chance of ever getting a better job) unfortunately did not actively involve themselves in the education of their children or come to see their children's teachers. All too often the family lives in a tiny apartment with eight or twelve other people with children having no place in which to study or do their homework - in a household where nobody reads for pleasure and hardly a book can be found on the premises. I remember staying in during lunch once to teach a child how to wash his clothes in a sink because his family lived in a cheap hotel and rarely did laundry. I knew that many of my students would not have eaten if the school did not provide free breakfasts and lunches every school day. I knew that some of my student's parents hardly even checked their children's report cards. This was the reality.

          I wanted my students to arrive to my class with their basic needs taken care of so that they could devote 100% of their attention to learning. In this desire, I was more often frustrated than not. I learned almost nothing about the subjects I specialized in (English, social studies) while teaching at Berendo. However, I learned a great deal about poverty and parenting and, if for no other reason, that made my time as a teacher in Pico-Union worthwhile. When I say "poverty," I refer to both the financial and spiritual sense of the word illustrated by the lack of money on the one hand, and the glut of assaults, drug-dealing, robberies, intimidation, and murders in the area on the other. It is the all too common litany of grinding problems which poor students face in their school careers. I had to later on work at a prestigious college preparatory school to truly place it in perspective, to appreciate precisely how bad it all was.

          This is a neighborhood which resembles a war zone where teachers are directed to be off the school grounds by 4:30 P.M. for their own safety. We had our "Back to School Night" in the early afternoon instead of at night because no one involved - neither the teachers, administration, parents, nor children - wanted to be outside after dark. With two full-time LAUSD Police Officers for protection, the campus of Berendo itself was like an oasis of safety in a vast desert of violent LA city streets. It was still dangerous, as teacher Alfredo Perez proved when in February of 1996 he was struck in the forehead by a stray bullet while teaching a class a couple of miles away. But at least we teachers did not have to live our whole lives in this context. My students did, and always had an ample supply of bloody stories to recount. On one weekend during a gang war, there were four distinct murders only in the few blocks surrounding my school. Perhaps in such a context it should surprise us that these kids learned at all.

          The majority were not disciplined students for whom school was #1 in life.  They, in fact,  had other more "survival oriented" concerns on their mind. Often students were content to have simply gone through the motions rather than truly have worked hard and as a consequence truly learned. All too often the students who excelled stuck out from the crowd and received negative attention from their peers. "Mr. Geib, please take down my "A" paper from the wall! People will think I'm smart and that is embarrassing. I don't wanna be a schoolboy!" For many poor people, ideas and thought are ephemeral, dollars and cents concrete.  It might be true that knowledge is power and power results in wealth, but it is hard for poor people to see it.  And in a family or community which tolerates academic mediocrity or worse, an ambitious student with pretensions towards higher education often swims against the tide. I still to this day think uniquely touching and commendable a young person living in poverty who strives to realize the power an education in depth confers upon an individual. I still to this day would climb mountains to help such a student! Yet the Los Angeles educational system as it presently is conspires against this... I do not agree with those who look upon education as an exercise in self-esteem. Blood, sweat, tears - years, and even decades, of hard work and persistence; this is what an education costs, the price the heart pays, as Richard Rodriguez poignantly observed. Too many students at Berendo were literally not on the same page as their peers in other more successful academic communities. And they didn't even know it, growing up so isolated from the larger middle-class culture.  This was the biggest problem, this isolation.

          Los Angeles was a Third World city.  It contained populations polarized between pockets of wealthy elite on top and masses of concentrated poverty on the bottom, with almost no middle class.  The biggest barrier to any urban revival is precisely the fact that middle-class families with children flee cities, the upper-class place their kids in tony private schools, and only the nation's hard-core impoverished are left in urban public schools. Even when an urban area is rejuvenated with fresh money, commercial interest, and new housing, it's not for people who are putting kids in the public schools.  It's for empty-nesters and singles.  The key again is the middle-class.  But the middle-class will never return to cities in sizable numbers until urban schools are at least as good as suburban schools, and that won't happen as long as city schools remain disproportionately filled with children of poverty.  So there is this Catch-22 problem. So I, an inner-city public school teacher, was screwed!  I remember substituting for physical education classes with as many as 50 students in them.  I remember looking out over all the kids - many of them immigrants fresh from Latin America and in the country illegally here in crowded loud Pico-Union, Los Angeles - and concluding that middle-class California was never going to foot the billions and billions of additional tax dollars it would take to build quality schools for all of these students throughout the state.  Political will was what was required to get that done, and the political will just wasn't there.  This was the reality.  

          The schools around downtown - as well as other schools serving similar demographic populations - would serve as bridges for ambitious, talented immigrants on their way up the social ladder, as well as a place where the underclass would languish into perpetuity.  I am sure it was not much different in the teeming tenements of New York's Lower Eastside at the beginning of the 20th century.  Tough immigrant neighborhoods.  Some make it out.  Some don't.  I have heard it said that Los Angeles is the Ellis Island of contemporary America.  I think that it true.  Most students from Berendo move on to Belmont High School, otherwise known as the "United Nations high school" because of its ethnic diversity.  A colorful interesting place culturally, but not a center of deep scholarship academically.  The average combined SAT score at Belmont was 498 out of 1600.  One achieves a 400 merely for successfully filling in one's name.

          This was the population we served.  Not surprisingly, there were "hardcore" young adults in my classes at Berendo Middle School.  I had some good students as well, although true academic standouts were rare. To borrow a quote from Tolstoy, all good students resemble one another, but each bad student is bad in his/her own unique way. Or maybe each good student is good in his/her own way, and all the bad students resemble one another? (Strangely enough, the good students I had stay in my memory as time passes but the bad ones are almost entirely forgotten.) The "good" students came to class ready to learn with a positive attitude and had goals and dreams about what they wanted to do with their lives. The "bad" students in class wasted their own and my time and were highly immature in regards to the future and their role in it; whatever their plans might be, it only marginally involved school or schooling. And if I had some special kids in my classes that I would have loved to have had as my own children, I also had students who I knew robbed and/or killed people. But the level of academic achievement was almost uniformly abysmal and perhaps this was the saddest thing of all. I above all always endeavored to spend as much time as possible with the students who truly wanted to learn and not let things degenerate to the level of those who cared not a jot about their education. Yet these kids were all living human beings whose futures were at stake.


Berendo Middle School:
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Monica: the Good!

Monica: the good; I was more than happy to recommend her to a private school
which accepted her on a full scholarship worth $14,000 a year.

Ferndog: the Bad!

Rodrigo Fernandez: the bad, and it is pretty bad.

Eulises: the Ugly!

Ulises Estrada: the ugly; a neat kid, and a great example of a LAUSD non-learner.

          There were the students outstanding in every respect and who would do well in whatever they did wherever they found themselves; it was both a pleasure and a privilege to teach them. I was in charge of the "Parliament" student government for "C"-track and they were almost to a person outstanding students with whom it was a joy to work with. Then there was the middle - those with whom I perhaps worked the hardest - who, if they enjoyed only average intelligence and preparation, were hard workers and decent people at heart. They maybe worked at a fast food restaurant at night to help the family with the bills and were genuinely trying to do the right thing and succeed in a difficult situation; it is these kids to whom my best wishes and hopes go out to. And then there were those who had already given up on their academic careers.

          One would think in such impecuniosity an education would be taken for granted as the best antidote to poverty, an indispensable lifeline offering the possibility of a better life in the future. However, this was by no means the attitude of all my students. I found out that when teenagers at 12 or 13 years of age still cannot read or write, they almost always decide that the energy it would take to learn is not worth the effort required. I also discovered that if a student cannot read, it is nearly impossible to teach him/her how to write.

          You cannot make a student learn - you can only facilitate and encourage the process. In my opinion, achievement in education is mostly about attitude and hard work (and NOT funding or curriculum), and too many students looked at school as little more than temporary incarceration with the opportunity to fraternize with friends during lunch and breaks. Many of these types were gang members and the vast majority would drop out of school before their sophomore year in high school (LAUSD dropout rate is +-40%). These "hardcore" kids perform poorly in the traditional classroom setting and bring in toxic problems from the streets and their lives which can result in a toxic classroom.

          I did have special classes that I will never forget. I particularly enjoyed teaching the sixth-grade. The children were still young enough to want to be friends with the teacher, and they smiled at me and admonished me whenever I missed a day: "Don't miss school - I don't like it when you don't come to school!" I enjoyed enormously spending time with them and they knew it and reciprocated the feeling. They would show up for their first day of middle school almost crying from fear, and I was kind and did not terrorize them as expected. Soon enough we had a partnership. In fact, I had one particular class which I will never forget. This was my first "normal" class which actually had a good number of motivated students, and at the end of our year together almost half these young adults passed straight from Intermediate ESL to regular English! I was exceedingly proud of them! The last essay of the year for my students is always called, "One last thing Mr. Geib..." where students have one last chance to say anything to me they want before they leave my class.

One Last Thing Mr. Geib...!
From some very special students.

          On the other hand, I had some classes with only four or five students who wanted to learn anything, with a number of students either already "jumped in" or flitting with gang membership. In my experience, the gang members generally came in two categories: those whom a teacher could work with, and those who barely ever came to school and just gave you the finger when they did. The latter were already gone (you cannot speak sense to a prepubescent gang "wannabe" trying to prove something - "I love my homies, man, but the rest of the world can kiss my ass!"), but I spent considerable time working with the former. I would talk and listen with them day after day trying to persuade them that they had to get out of their gang if they wanted to have any kind of future. I truly liked many of these kids, but they almost always let me (and themselves) down. Each time hurt worse, and towards the end I started telling myself: "You are never going to get so involved with a gang kid again!" I learned that in working with them they almost always made the wrong decisions; those few success stories have to be enough for you.

          Most people don't appreciate how much it takes to leave a gang which is like "family." I could get most of these teenagers to admit that what they were doing was wrong. I could get them to realize that they ultimately needed to get out if they wanted to have any kind of life. What I couldn't always (or even often, it seems) do was to get them to actually leave the gang. They so often couldn't seem to make the final break; doing it in real life was much different than talking about it. Agreeing to leave the gang with an adult was different than going up to and "rejecting" your peers. To fail is the easiest thing to do here for the gangster - the path of least resistance.

          It all seemed so futile. I came to learn that gangsters are loathe to give up the power being in a gang gives them. How many people do you know who with a single phone call can assemble 150 people ready to kill or be killed for them? The respect that a gun gives one was unfortunately the highest concept many of these kids had of "power." The few success stories were not enough for me; even doing the best I could do, I never felt myself much more than a small part of a huge disaster story unfolding in slow motion. At times, I felt personally like a failure.

Poverty, Despair, and Hopelessness!

"Poverty, Despair, and Hopelessness"

An original poem that catches well my feelings at the time.

          Although a teacher cannot know where his/her influence will end, it seemed the good kids left my class still good and the bad kids left perhaps a little less bad. It gave me a feeling of powerlessness. What do you do with a young person all of whose real life brothers, sisters, uncles, and even parents are gangsters and/or drug addicts? Someone whose entire life and culture revolves around a street gang? What is your influence compared to everything else in their life? If a young person has been ruined by poor (or non-existent) parenting, a school (or a teacher) is going to have at least a difficult time doing anything to improve the situation substantially.

          Schools were never designed primarily to be surrogate parents, counseling centers, or oasises of safety in combat zones. They are supposed to teach young people how to read, write, and do arithmetic (reading and thinking!). American culture through movies and TV shows seems to think schools and teachers have more influence over the personal and moral life of a gangmember than they really do, in my experience. Gangsters often suffer from a genuine sickness of the soul, and treating the problem as anything less would not prove efficacious, in my opinion. A smattering of counseling and "sensitivity training" was not going to change things.

          People think gangmembers have no morals and that is not true. Gangmembers just have different morals from most people; and assault, rape, robbery and murder are things that are not necessarily frowned upon in that sub-culture. How many times in my school counseling groups did I hear gangsters brag about how "bad" or "down" or "deep" their gang was: "People know how psycho we are! They know the kind of crazy shit we can do!" They wanted to party and to make easy money without working for it and I could not seem to teach them to want more from life.

          The truth of the matter is that most such young people had parents who had lost control of their children. I cannot tell you how many parent conferences I had which more or less resembled the following:

"Maestro, I came here to the United States to give my child a better life, so that he/she would not have to work with his/her hands like a burro. I have sacrificed so much for him/her and he/she does not care. I never had the opportunity to get an education in my own country and my child does but wastes it. He/she never does his/her homework and stays out in the streets all night long with his/her good-for-nothing friends. Maestro, I don't know what to do!"

The parent is usually the mother, usually single. It is obvious that she loves her child, but her life has ill prepared her to understand what her son/daughter has become. Gangs, drugs, guns, tattoos - all these Los Angeles concepts are beyond her, and more often than not the situation is far progressed before she even realizes it. I know how far the kid is committed and I know the chances for success. The fact that she obviously loves her child only makes it more painful for me. Often she would urge me to physically punish her child like might happen in the more strict Mexican or Central American schools. In America, this was not the role of the school.

          I would have the kid step outside so I could speak candidly to the tearful mom. I would say:

"You have to look at this as a battle for your son's/daughter's life because that's exactly what it is. It will either be you or the gang that wins this struggle, and that has everything to do with whether your child will be dead or incarcerated before he/she is twenty-five years old. You are getting phone calls from the school now, but if things don't change one day it will be the police calling. Put him/her in a Catholic school! Do what you have to do - send him/her back to Mexico/El Salvador/Guatemala if you have to! Fight for your child's life!"

And this was with the troubled kid who had parents that cared about him/her; in the other cases, you hardly even had a chance. It got to the point where I was too close to it all, and I knew if I didn't take a step back I was going to get physically sick.

          I ultimately did not hold my gangster students responsible, as most of them did not yet understand the gravity of what they were doing. But I knew behind every teenage gangster was an older leader who directed the gang's illegal activities (drug dealing, extortion, robbery, assault, carjacking, rape, murder) from behind the scenes. I knew he told the younger gang members that everything I told them was baloney (School? Books? Job? Want some, get some, and fuck you if you don't like it! "We don't fake it! We take it!") and that the gang offered a better way. I see this heavily tattooed veterano my own age fully old enough to know what he is doing and my heart fills with such wrath! This modern day Fagin, exploiting young people for profit and using them to maintain his criminal enterprise! This hard-as-nails ex-con who would kill you as soon as look at you and not wash his hands before eating again, murdering innocence and laying down the foundations of another generation of wasted youth and corrupted innocence. He is the true villain of this story. He is the true teacher of these gangsters.

          Yet what I came to feel with time was not so much anger as immense sadness. The disaster of Pico-Union made me want to cry. I didn't really want to blame anyone or cast stones; I just wanted to cry at the waste of life and opportunity. The ignorance and lack of education in Pico-Union was enormous - a vast darkness stretching out into the distance. More importantly, too few young people had the curiosity or breadth of imagination to imagine a significantly better future. In my opinion, one major reason so few young people make it out of the ghetto is precisely this lack of imagination. You have to first be able to envision another kind of world. Then you've got to want it enough to pay the price. But to a gangster who hardly knows or cares about anything in the larger world outside of his/her narrow slice of humanity, imagination is the least of concerns.

          For too many, life was something that happens to you instead of that which you forged for yourself. Misfortunes in the form of poverty, prison, terrible living conditions, etc. were destiny, and to endure rather than change them was to have succeeded. I remember asking a hardcore female gangmember/mother with one foot already in her grave if she had ever thought about moving out of her barrio and starting a new life. She was mildly surprised by the question. "No. I have always lived here. I guess I will always live here," she replied, a look of perplexity sweeping over her face. "This my home, I guess." The possibility of an alternative to a life of Pico-Union had simply not occurred to her before. It would be hard to overestimate how easy it was for many of these kids to become trapped in their environments forever.

"Mexican Mothers"

A poem that goes to the heart
of my thoughts on the matter.

"Just Another Stupid Adult"

A poem about gangmembers
and the children of gangmembers.
          I remember the day I finally made the decision to leave. One semester I had a class of thirty-six eighth-graders of whom fully a third were "opportunity transfers" expelled from other schools. I had them sixth period at the end of the day when everyone was already tired, and looking out at them I used to feel like a prison teacher. When I finally got fed up and went to the counseling office to complain about getting all the transfer students, I was told the following: "Well, Mr. Geib, we thought it would be a good idea if these students with histories of expulsions had a strong male role model as their teacher!" I contemplated wearing a skirt the next day so as to earn myself some relief from being the dumping ground of the school (I really don't hold anything against the counselors - they had to put these kids somewhere!).

          Even though they were mostly a hardcore lot, this particular sixth-period class had already been my students for the better part of a year and I had a good rapport with most of them. One day this African-American kid with a house arrest monitor on his ankle and a Latino kid started yelling racial insults at each other. Before I knew it they were face-to-face yelling, "You better watch your back!", "Me and my homies guarantee you are dead!" and the like. Pumped full of adrenaline, I separated them and then while I wrote a referral to the office a girl shouted from the back, "Why don't you let them fight? That's what they're gonna do anyway!" I lost it then and there, "You really don't think it would be a better idea to have them go talk this out with the counselors so that maybe it doesn't have to come to that? Is that what you really think?" Losing it like that costs one emotionally, and I remember immediately afterwards identifying for the first time exactly where I carried the stress of the job: in my heart. I remember sitting there at my desk after school feeling the stress deep inside the middle of my chest. I realized then and there that if I stayed in Pico-Union, I was going to get physically sick. Looking out my classroom window at the imperious downtown LA skyscrapers scowling down at me, I could see clearly in my future twenty more years of the same if I did nothing to alter the situation.

          So I took a big step back from everything and planned and executed my exit from the LAUSD generally and Pico-Union specifically. I told myself that it was a sad and violent place, but the world was full of similar environments in Bógota, San Salvador, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, or half a dozen other Third World cities that were if anything worse than Los Angeles (not to mention New York, Chicago, Miami, New Orleans, Washington D.C., etc.). Gabriel García Márquez, writing about the sicarios of Medllín, Columbia, wrote the following:

"Una droga más dañina que las mal llamadas heroicas se introdujo en la cultura nacional: el dinero fácil. Prosperó la idea de que la ley es el mayor obstáculo para la felicidad, que se vive mejor y más seguro como delincuente que como gente de bien. En sínesis: el estado de perversión social propio de toda guerra larvada."
García Márquez could have, of course, just as easily been describing the cholos of Los Angeles.

          Again, I doubt a teacher working with the children of poor Irish and Italian in the late 19th century immigrant tenements had it essentially any better. The famous author Mario Puzo, growing up the child of Neapolitan paisanos in New York's rough Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, described that world thusly: "...what a miracle it was! What has happened there has never happened in any other country in any other time. The poor who had been poor for centuries -- hell, since the beginning of Christ -- whose children had inherited their poverty, their illiteracy, their hopelessness, achieved some economic dignity and freedom. You didn't get it for nothing, you had to pay a price in tears, in suffering, but why not? And some even became artists." I would like to think I was a small part of the same "American dream" occurring a century later with immigrants from a different corner of the globe -- some of my students, like Mario Puzo, even becoming artists! I would like to think so, but I am skeptical...

          Because Berendo Middle School was NOT a fount of intellectual activity, and in the worst classes it was more youth counseling or even baby-sitting than teaching and learning. There was very little I could do about any of this and I saw clearly it was not going to change. I spent hours and hours racking my brains thinking about the problems and possible solutions, but the sicknesses in Pico-Union and Berendo Middle School required a remedy which was beyond my powers (if one indeed existed), and I humbly present to you my esteemed reader no comforting solutions to serious problems of school failure and disorder. It seemed not all problems had answers, and that the good did not always prevail over the evil. I knew in my heart that despite reforms and rumors of reform things were not going to change essentially. All was futility - and I would not allow the place to turn me into something I did not want to be (irredeemably cynical, without hope, accepting hell-on-earth as normal). Being paid so poorly, teachers might as well love their jobs in of as themselves since you will be rewarded in no manner other than in the joy of doing it. The bottom line is that I knew myself to be in a place not right for me.

          The attrition rate for teachers in America is 22% overall in their first three years in the classroom. The figure rises to nearly 50% fled for teachers in urban schools - even as an estimated 2.2 million teaching positions will need be filled over the next ten years! Salaries are not the major problem, as most teachers will tell you; it are the little things that drive you crazy -- not enough books and materials and supplies, for example, which leads you to spend hundreds of dollars of your own money to be able to get the job done as it should. If I had to leave school early, I had to get someone to unlock the gates since the teacher's cars were locked up every morning to prevent them from being stolen. It took the LAUSD eleven weeks to get me my first paycheck. The fact that almost none of your students want to become teachers when they grow up. That I worked for nine months in a solitary classroom in the basement of an almost 100 year old building nicknamed "the Dungeon" with cabinets hanging off the hinges, cockroaches, omnipresent water stains, falling tiles, etc. But above all else, the attitudes of everyone involved were going to have to change if school failure was to be reversed -- no infusion of cash was ever going to change anything if the attitudes didn't change! Most parents were not engaged in the academic lives of their children, many teachers expected relatively little from their students and were not disappointed, academic achievement was not stressed and rewarded by the school, there existed no strict discipline policy uniformly enforced by the administration, as students often brought weapons to school and proudly announced their gang affiliations to their peers at least partly for reasons of intimidation, etc. Today I get tired just thinking about that period of my life, trying to do a nearly impossible job and trying to do it well. How naive I was!

          Every now and again I encounter some enthusiastic college student with a gleam in his/her eye telling me who they want to become a public defender, social worker, or school teacher in the inner-city, and I have to laugh to myself softly as something inside me melts a little painfully, strongly suspecting what life has in store for them. (I still respect such people and wish them all the luck in the world - one has to start out idealistic, I think. Too many people who start out corrupted become nearly worthless with the passage of time.) I survived my time at Berendo without losing my initial idealism without which a teacher is impotent and nearly useless (or a vehicle for causing more harm than good).

          However, I realized that idealism need be tempered by a strong dose of reality. Unfortunately, reality was not something the Los Angeles Unified School District - or, I dare say, the community of Los Angeles - was ready to face: the schools there are full of "students" who are not students! One might read an article about the "troubled L.A. school system," but that does not even begin to capture the colossal magnitude or bitter reaches of the disaster. The reality would break your heart! And the children should not ultimately be to blame - that role should go to the "responsible" adults who should know better (LAUSD Superintendent, administrators, city officials, community leaders, parents, etc.) and make the necessary decisions. I hate to say it because it is unpleasant, but I left the LAUSD utterly disgusted with my school and my role in it (even knowing most of the school and certainly myself were doing our best). That is the honest and painful truth.

          The Los Angeles Times will continue to write rosy sounding editorials and feature articles about improvement in L.A. city schools, etc., and maybe even some of them will be true. But don't forget this solitary voice the next time you hear some unctuous LAUSD administrator, education professor, or teachers' union official trying to persuade everyone that "things are getting better", "we see the light at the end of the tunnel", "this school has turned the corner", or any of a thousand other expressions telling you that "school failure" is not really as bad or serious as it sounds. In my experience, it was worse - and the hard work and devotion of many heroic individuals was all that was keeping the entire system from completely falling apart!

          I walked away from the place and never looked back. This was almost an instinctual move and every cell in my body relaxed when finally I was gone. It is the nature of man to move from worse to better places, and as so many Mexicans and Central Americans moved from their countries to Pico-Union, so I left that Godforsaken place and never looked back. I am sure they are still killing each other there for nothing even now.

          I don't regret the time I spent working in Pico-Union. I don't regret leaving. In retrospect, it was the best career move I ever made. Teachers will teach in schools where they can teach, where they have support from administrators and parents, and where the students come ready to learn -- all else is of strictly secondary importance. When you read about good teachers looking for ways out of low-income, poverty schools, hearken back to the voice you heard in this story about one man's experience with the LAUSD and then try to understand.

Reader feedback about Berendo Middle School and Teaching in the Inner-City...

"I completely understand where your coming from, because I was a 'loco on the calles,' at one time."

" Our district does not yet feel the pain of violence that LAUSD obviously does, but the root cause of the violence and failure, APATHY, has set in and is now spreading throughout the district."

"You are not alone.... I saw all of the patterns beginning to develop."

"I grew up having lots of fun knowing how much power a gang member has."

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