National City, CA is industrial, plucky, and has a lot of flavor. It is also the landing strip for many first generation immigrants from the Philippines and Mexico. Older European Americans still live in the city, but they’re largely disappearing as they die off or they long ago made white flight to the suburbs. The city exists more as an idea, and it rests sandwiched, swallowed up by its two much larger and wealthier counterparts to its immediate north and south.
It’s an incorporated city with its very own mayor, governing council, fire and police, school system. National City lives and breathes provincialism.
It is its own world.
Through a series of happy accidents, I too landed in National City at the turn of the century.
I’d been in the professionally enviable position of having two simultaneous offers, one from San Diego’s largest public school district and the other from the county’s sprawling secondary educational district, Sweetwater.
It was an easy choice.
Sweetwater spanned all of southern San Diego. It housed decent schools along with those considered beyond anyone’s help.
Granger Junior High School should’ve been imploded about fifty years prior to my arrival. It was run-down, ugly, and the staff was dominated by union goons. Students ran the school through sheer numbers and brute force.
I hate gangs, juvenile or adult.
And an annoying quirk of immigrant cycles is the gang culture they inevitably bring.
And before you automatically nod about Mexicans, it’s important to contextualize. It has always been thus, and not only with American immigrants but with immigrants all around the world. A given ethnic diaspora seeks familiar, and it then nests and grows an enclave of sameness. Language. Food. Dress. Music. Art. They want that taste of home, but they’d rather not return.
Again, this isn’t new or different.
It’s, in fact, unremarkably repeatable all over the world and for all time. Chinatowns. Koreatowns. Little Italys. Little Saigons. Hell’s Kitchens.
You get the idea.
Writers have glamorized such plights for as long as I can remember. Novels. Essays. Songs. Movies. I am here to tell you it’s all balls. Sweaty balls. Gross. Irrelevant.
Nothing else. Lump yourself with a Raza or a culture or a family all you want. I will truck in such ideas as shorthand. I’ll play that game to show you how dumb you are in thinking that way, but I won’t actually believe you.
Who are YOU? What do YOU stand for? What are YOU about?
Don’t tell me about your father. Don’t tell me about your glorious race. Don’t tell me about how your family is this and that. None of it ultimately matters.
And Granger was a goofy soup of gangs, mostly Mexican.
First generation Mexicans, popularly referred to as paisas, were polite and appreciative of the opportunity the United States comparatively gave. Second generation Mexican-Americans, and again don’t get lost in the appalachian “Mexican” (all immigrants go through this cycle), were cynical and worn down. Males shaved their heads. Females decided to fuck up their faces by way of a collective eyebrow holocaust. They all worshiped the mainstream media’s African-American rap ethos, though Mexicans were equally the most vitriolic of racists. Baggy pants. Sagging. Bitch this and bitch that. Weed iconography. Hatred of intellectual life, the interior life.
Yep, second generation Mexican-Americans had become real Americans: stupid, oversexed, and almost completely devoid of any kind of work ethic.
America! Fuck yeah!
ARE YOU GAY, KELSO?
It’s safe to write I was a different kind of teacher.
I towed the state line, diligently aware taxpayers contractually entrusted me to know and teach to standards. I did that, and did it well. I familiarized myself with education speak, pedantically touting the voluminous mounds of paper mandates each chance I got. Standards were on the board. Standards were on my syllabus. Standards were weaved in the lesson. Standards.
It was a way I could justify my approach to the teaching craft. I’d give the state its pound of flesh, and then I would do what I want.
I always do what I want.
Principals loved me. They adored me. They could come to my class at any time, unannounced, and find students on task, engaged, obviously learning. I kept the environment light, but I also knew my audience. I had to chunk lessons into small bites, moving quickly from topic to topic in order to keep interest high. I tolerated zero bullshit. Hecklers were cut down, and I wasn’t afraid to call mommy or daddy, right there on the spot, if one of the little fuckers wanted a pissing contest. Everyone is a gangster until I call mommy.
But I also became bored with one size fits all education. I openly resented the fact students were there by coercion, by state force. Absolutely no learning can occur if a student feels she has no choice. I hated the staff’s patronizing of student abilities – the vast majority of the teachers considered the students worthless, shiftless, unteachable. I disliked the catty way teachers operated, aloof and above the very community paying them to teach – National City eerily follows the grand scheme of governmentalism in that it employs a gaggle of municipal employees though these same employees refuse to live in National City proper; they’re happy to take from residents, but just don’t ask city employees to slum with National City dwellers.
One student would be my experiment.
Damn, Kelso, Adam shook his head in disgust, you don’t know how to use a drill!
Look, dick, I was raised by a woman, I laughed. We hired people to do this for us.
Adam’s eyes grew even wider when I tried to saw a piece of wood he set out for me. He watched in absolute horror as I struggled to hold the wood down while attempting to get the fucking tool to do what I wanted.
When I turned to look back at him, he quickly averted his stare. I caught him laughing under his breath.
Fuck you, kid, I shouted.
Adam lost it.
He could no longer contain his astonishment at my incompetence. He threw his head back, laughed for a solid few minutes, holding his stomach. He told me no teacher had ever cussed at him, and he also could not believe I was a man.
Everyone thinks you’re gay, he continued while laughing. Are you gay, Kelso?
I was gay once, I said soberly, still trying to saw that piece of wood, but when it was my turn, I quit.
Adam continued laughing.
Adam returned to his project, measuring and calculating. And every time he saw me doing any kind of manual labor, he would stop and watch, perplexed, amused.
No other vignette could better capture our student-and-teacher relationship.
Adam was 15, and a Freshman.
It was my first year at his school, and I was thrown into teaching Drama.
I HATE GANGS
Whether it’s your stupid fucking religion, your damn country, your dumbass race or ethnicity, you’re a lowly coward for linking your self-esteem to a collective body.
I hate gangs.
Gangs come in all forms, and what they boil down to is you’re afraid to go it alone.
What they boil down to is you crave and grovel for someone else’s approval. Save that shit about your one true religion; keep that shit about the exceptionalism of your land; there isn’t any such thing as race, idiot; your family is an accident of a grand sperm lottery; and your friends are just as lame as you.
Save. That. Shit.
And let us get something straighter.
Tribalism is the lowest sort of association. It’s what primal animals do. They exist in packs, in hordes. If one happens to linger away from the group, s/he is seized upon and promptly punished by another group for daring to do something different. And so it goes with gangs, the gang mentality.
Hate is too soft a word, actually.
Fuck you and your stupid clinging to the hive.
I don’t care if you come from this or that group of people. Irish? So what. Italian? I seriously am yawning at the idea. African-American? Christ, I have less than no interest. Your great grandfather was a famous dude? What the fuck does that have to do with you!
The dumb syllogism goes something like: Well, I have done exactly nothing with my life, but someone else did something with theirs, so I am ipso facto sharing in their accomplishment.
|National City Police gang injunction map provided to Myra's family.|
Retarded cholos roamed the Granger campus, fighting and doing what barbarians do.
Teachers were impotent, complicit. As long as a handful of savage students feted popular staff, kiddos were left alone to do as they pleased. Security was less than lax. Academic standards were reduced to, “Well, she is quiet in class, so she should be placed in the Honor’s Program.”
I wanted to explode.
Mexicans I knew were the hardest working people on the planet. Friends I’d grown up with understood the sacrifice parents made. Their mothers were maids; their fathers gardeners. Mexicans were kind, resourceful, optimistic, proud. Sure, sure, my generation was present for the start of Chicano culture, a vibrant awakening of what it meant to be someone from Mexico in the United States. But Chicano consciousness raising used the cursed patois of the 1960s, and it took me a long time to forgive them. What they snatched away in terms of more grouping, more in-group and out-group circling, they gave back with upward mobility and deeper thoughts (at times). But it also brought with it gangs. Vatos were our cholos. Slicked back hair. Lowriders. A strange love affair with syrupy ballads. Glorifying prison culture. Etcetera. I was all too familiar, but I thought it was a thing of the past.
This generation, the one I first encountered as a small representative sample of a much larger phenomenon in National City, were all about gangs.
Instinctively, I loved them right out of the gate.
All the qualities I remembered from growing up were still present, but those attributes lay dormant, waiting for expression.
That year, I was given Drama. Yes, Drama. I had no background in theatre, no training. The principal at the time was trying to make her mark, moving staff around as the contract would allow, and attempting to buck against the rising tide of gang mediocrity.
She was losing the battle, and losing in a big way.
I told her gangs were dinosaurs, and I wouldn’t put up with their nonsense. She laughed at my bravado, warning how not only were our kids in gangs, but their parents were in gangs … and their grandparents.
Fuck it, I remember telling her, I got this.
She laughed again.
I took the job, mostly because I needed the work. Students crowded my room, eager to see what I was all about. I was a white dude, young, and didn’t give two fucks what they thought. I opened with jokes. I encouraged them to participate. I tried to get a sense of who they were as individuals.
Dramatic arts were the dumping ground for the school’s crack babies. The majority of drama students were problem students. Counselors tossed the gang kids in Drama. Wonderful.
The room I was given was filthy. Tagging was all over it. Everywhere. Walls. Desks. Seats. The basic lighting equipment was in disarray. The soundboard was unplugged and jumbled into a million parts. The room was covered in a thick layer of dust. The rug looked as if it was a thousand years old.
I had a lot of work to do.
I enlisted my faithful slave, my eldest daughter, LPoS, to come and help me clean. We painted without permission. I put up posters of James Dean, Marilyn, Elvis without asking. I arranged the room to suit my lecture style, allowing the room to function as it must: a Drama room and a place where I would also teach English. I pulled the stage’s fucked up curtains shut. I was ready for them.
The kids were kids, sweet and open to learning. They were open to learning if you were not a fucking asshole. If you met them the right way, they’d trust you enough to take risks. They’d get a sense of what you’re about, and they’d allow themselves to absorb ideas.
It helped I had no idea what I was doing. I flew our Drama plane as I was building it. The kids enjoyed watching me grope for lessons, for meaning in this stupid class.
Kelso, when are we going to put on play? one of the nameless wannabe cholos asked, almost daring me.
You want a play, kid, you better learn how to act. You better, because I will make sure the entire school and all of National City comes to see our play just to laugh at you, I pointed at him, calling his bluff.
What was I going to do now?
These kids couldn’t even read. They had no discipline to learn lines. I had no sense of blocking, scene building, or any of that shit. I was way over my head. Way. Like, way.
That never stops me.
I love chaos, disorder. I love them because I am a tinkerer. I like to mold things to my will. And human situations are filled with chaos and disorder, and the plasticity of such scenarios fills me with a perverse sense of hope. I feel always as if I can make things better.
With more questions from Drama students about when this play would happen, I still had no clue as to if it was even possible.
Shy Boy II changed all that.
He was a very popular tagger. He tagged all over the city, and he was being groomed to take his place in our hamlet’s gang culture. I didn’t know him well, but my kids did. As the moniker implies, he was shy. Tagging was his outlet for expression.
He was killed in a drunk driving accident. It was my first taste of just how close National City residents were to one another. The entire school basically shut down. Students roamed the halls, refusing to attend class. It was wild.
Adam knew the kid, or at least the kid’s circle of friends.
Kelso, Shy Boy’s parents don’t have the money for a headstone. That’s fucked up, huh? Adam said. Maybe we should raise money for them.
That was all we needed.
The play, and I still had no earthly idea what it was going to be, would be a benefit to raise money for Shy Boy’s headstone. The Drama knuckleheads would finally focus, and only because so much was on the line. They knew my threat to get everyone out to Granger to watch was about to come true.
THE JEWELER’S EYE
Fuck a duck.
I threw myself headlong into the project. That’s the only way I know how to do anything.
I scoured for material that might connect. I really couldn’t find anything I liked, and so we turned the play into a series of skits, of scenes from real life. But at least I had something to give them, something for them to focus upon.
I pushed students in this and that direction, and all of them were so scared they just accepted whatever role I chose.
Adam lingered before class, during lunch, and after school. He was always around.
He didn’t really fit in. The dudes at the school liked him enough. He was funny and easy to get along with. But he didn’t play sports to any significant degree, and he wasn’t about to do anything even mildly gang-related. So he was stuck in a social purgatory.
Afterschool, I walked to my car with Adam in tow. Shit, I said, do you live close? He nodded, and I gave him a ride home. At the beginning of the year, we were given a briefing on gang hotspots around National City, and as I drove Adam home the street names and complex titles were ringing a lot of bells in my head.
He lived in the fucking heart of gangland. Smack dab.
We pulled up to his house, a rented flat in a thrown-together neighborhood.
You like dinosaurs, Kelso? Adam asked, leading me through the front gate and into his house.
There, his mother thanked me profusely for giving her son a ride home. She continually referred to me as “Teacher.” She was respectful and doting, and she offered me food and drink. I politely refused, tapping on my watch and taking steps to the door.
Kelso, Adam insisted before I could escape, come back here to my yard.
The door opened, and I entered a movie set. A junk yard, a place for refuse and garbage, was transformed into a series of movie sets. I shit you not. Adam welded, snapped together, cut, and otherwise molded what people threw away … into art.
It might be the purest art I’d ever seen.
Adam had no training. No classical background. He taught himself through trial and error. He experimented. All Adam had was time. He used it to try and recreate popular movies of the time, like Jurassic Park.
I grabbed at his shirt and pulled it from his skinny frame, making him lunge back and forth. Kid! You are going to design the sets! I announced.
Damn, Kelso. Calm down, Adam laughed.
Every morning for months, around 6:30am, Adam’s lips would squeeze through the crack in my room’s double doors, and he’d ever so lightly tap, Kell-show! Kell-show! Titz me. Kell-show! Titz cowld. Lemme in!
He built the sets. He painted. He fixed the sound system. He figured out the lighting. He was the first to learn his lines. He helped the other kids. He recruited friends, like the great Jack, to help with blocking and anything else that needed to be done.
I was in awe of him.
He saw problems way before I did, if I ever did.
And when he scratched his chin while taking a break outside my room, he looked up and announced, Kelso, we need a sick marquee!
Off to Home Depot we went, and I let him loose on that store. A few hundred dollars and a bunch of equipment later, he was ordering me to cut this and cut that. The marquee hung over the awning of the room’s entrance, and it was lit by small bulbs. It was right out of the 1950s.
It was beautiful, original, with a nod to tradition.
It was Adam.
People who do anything well, I try and study. I love competence. I love ability. I admire the will to struggle and create. I have spent a lifetime watching people do everything, anything, well: cutting lettuce; organizing schedules; mathematics; dance; painting; writing; loving. Whatever. If you’re especially talented at anything, I want to know why.
Adam had the jeweler’s eye. He focused and obsessed over the finest details. He taught me how to teach, how to create.
The play was a roaring success, a first for Granger. Hundreds of people over three nights packed that ghetto space, and we raised a ton of money for Shy Boy’s family. Shy Boy’s mother walked over to me on the last night, as I was barking at the kids to clean before they left, and she introduced herself.
Her deep mascara was running; tears collected in her cleavage. Thank you, Teacher, she lowered her head. Thank you.
I began to silently cry in response.
I am tearing a little as I type this to you now, so many years removed.
You sure you’re not gay, Kelso? Adam laughed as I walked away from Shy Boy’s mother.
And I mean it.
And I mean it.
See more of Adam’s work, HERE.
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