“Blackjack, put down the news editor!” I pleaded.
Blackjack Loco, a strapping, 25-year-old gangbanger on parole aka photo editor for the student newspaper at Los Angeles Southland College, was striding across the newsroom with the news editor, a hellasexy coed named Tashena, slung over his shoulder like the “Rape of the Sabines.” As the faculty adviser for The Explorer, I was trying to get Blackjack, Tashena and the rest of the newspaper staff organized. There was also the assistant photo editor/high school gangbang wannabe Holden; Tyrone, the movie reviewer/porn addict; Nakida the sports editor/exotic dancer; and Leroy, Caveman and Mars, The Three Stooges of Rap. (To protect the innocent and spare the guilty from cheap shots, most names have been changed, including the name of the school.)
From the fall of 1998 through the spring of 2002, I was a parttime journalism instructor at Southland College in South-Central Los Angeles. For much of that time I was also the faculty adviser for The Explorer, an eight-page student newspaper that came out about once a month when it came out at all. Most people have never heard of Southland College, but President Bill Clinton visited the campus while I was there. So did Vice President Al Gore, former South African President Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife Winnie, and basketball’s Dennis Rodman, who along with Kobe, Shaq and the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers, practiced in the gym.
Southland offers associate degrees and certificates in various majors and occupations, but there wasn’t much of a journalism program when I got there, and there was less of one when I left. Some have suggested that was because of a lack of institutional support, while others said it was because I was a racist, and maybe I wasn’t right for the part. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying.
Rising from the ashes of the 1965 Watts Riots, Southland is one of the few predominantly black colleges west of Texas. It’s in an area between Inglewood and Watts known colloquially as Inglewatts, and to get to work from my residence near Hollywood, I’d drive south through a slice of Koreatown and barrios, then push 100 blocks deeper into the churning underbelly of South-Central L.A. Hemmed in by a Kmart, fast food restaurants and gas stations on two sides, and a freeway and light rail commuter tracks on the other sides, the campus consisted of four angular buildings and several weathered bungalows that housed student services and a magnet high school. The Odessa Cox Building — named after a community activist who spent decades campaigning for a college in South-Central — contained the administrative offices, along with a tiered library and balconied auditorium. Filling the outside west wall of the Cox Building was the most striking feature on the campus, a brightly colored, four-story-high mural called “Evolution of the Spirit.” Created for the 30th anniversary of the school by Compton artist Elliott Pinckney, the mural portrayed red, pink, black and yellow abstract figures dancing, prancing, or perhaps playing basketball, above symbols of the arts including books, paintbrushes, a piano keyboard and comedy-tragedy masks.
South across a teeming quad from the Cox Building was the rectangular, pink and white Lecture Lab, with turquoise tubular railings and grates on the exterior walkways and stairwells. The LL building contained classrooms and “labs,” including a journalism lab on the third floor, where my office was located. Just east of the LL building was the Tech building, which was full of computer, science and engineering gear. South of that was the newest addition, the Rec Center, which featured an outdoor Olympic-size pool, weight rooms, dance studios and sparkling gymnasium where several men’s and women’s professional basketball teams practiced, including the Lakers, Clippers and WNBA Sparks.
There were also tennis courts and a baseball diamond that was mostly used by the community, since the school didn’t have a baseball team. Few students, other than the men’s and women’s basketball teams, got to spend much time in the gym, while the football team had to play in a subterranean “stadium” with rickety bleachers. And the closest thing the school had to a cafeteria was a catering truck, nicknamed the Roach Coach, to which the college presidents (there were three in the four years I was there) turned a blind eye and allowed on campus in violation of college district rules.
While airy and modernistic, the solid, earthquake-proof concrete construction, sturdy doors, noisy hallways and exterior walkways, with their latticework of rails and grates, also had the feel of cell blocks in a minimum security prison. Lacking a student center, the Roach Coach was one of several unofficial hangouts on campus. Others included “the yard” or quad between the Cox and LL buildings; behind the gym, which is where the jocks congregated; and a sidewalk between the Roach Coach and the LL building, which I dubbed Nigga Alley, because in the few seconds it took me to walk it, clusters of set-tripping bangers would repeatedly use the n-word. Nigga this, nigga that, nigga nigga nigga, as I strained to maintain a nonplussed manner, registering neither shock nor amusement.
The explanation — not that I ever asked — was that there’s a difference between “nigger” and “nigga.” The former is what Richard Pryor learned not to say while in Africa, while the latter is like “chick” or “dude.” Of course whites could use neither word, although the term seemed to be creeping into Hispanic conversation. One day at the Roach Coach, my stone-faced demeanor was severely tested when a tiny Latina high school student standing in line in front of me turned to her Latina friend and nonchalantly asked, “What are you gonna have, nigga?” and her friend responded, “I don’t know, nigga, what are you havin’?”
There were plenty of gang members on campus, but no gangs, and the buildings were remarkably free of graffiti. Nor was there noticeable friction between black and Hispanic students, at least on the surface, which is where I was most of the time. I was told the neighborhood was more Crip turf than Blood, and you’d see more blue than red clothing on campus. But in general the school was a degangsterized zone, and especially on hot days, a lot of the niggas would wear neutral white sleeveless undershirts called wife beaters.
Since the 1960s, the population of South-Central had changed from black to blackspanic — roughly half black and half Hispanic — yet of the college’s 6,500 students, only 15 percent were Hispanic, while nearly 80 percent were black and 5 percent “other.” The percentage of blacks on campus was even higher during the daytime, because many of the Hispanic students took night classes. The faculty and staff were nearly 60 percent black, and everyone mentioned should be presumed to be African-American unless otherwise noted.
The difference in the demographics of the campus and surrounding community reflected a creative tension in the school’s mission, between Odessa Cox’s vision of a gateway for inner city blacks to advance in a multicultural society, and a bastion for the preservation of black culture — both a way out and an extension of the hood. A two-year vocational program, sports factory and feeder school into the state’s four-year universities, and a welfare system of grants and loans for long-term students, “lifers,” whose tenure — and clout — at the two-year school often lasted longer than their teachers. One more unstated mission of the college was as a political base for the “community.” While Southland is funded by state and local taxes, and administered by a countywide board, its primary political benefactor was the feisty six-term Democratic congresswoman from Inglewood, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters.
Given the makeup of the college and surrounding community, there were a surprising number of white teachers and administrators at the school, and for a few years a white interim president. But over four years, I could count on one hand the number of white students I had in my classes. Then again, in the five years I’d once taught an English composition class at a community college in central Illinois, the same could be said of my black and Hispanic students.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that for a white, Jewish, middle-class 40-something who grew up in a small town in the Midwest, an immersion into the “black experience” was one of the lures of the job. Another was becoming involved with a student newspaper again. When I’d been in college in the heady post-Watergate 1970s, working on a college newspaper had been both a blast and a turning point of my life, pointing me toward a career in journalism. Now it seemed like an opportunity to relive the experience and perhaps be a positive influence on “at-risk” youths. If I didn’t get whacked.
When I first interviewed for a teaching job at the college, one of my interrogators, the burly and brooding vice president of Student Services, Dr. Wesley, asked me how I would adjust my teaching methods for “urban students.” I said I didn’t anticipate changing anything, and that I thought everyone should be treated the same. But I was bluffing. The closest life experience I’d had to being immersed in another culture was the eight years I’d been a public information officer for a state agency that funded services for people with disabilities.
What I’d learned there was to treat people with disabilities the same as the non-disabled, that is, neither to pity nor extol them as “super gimps.” I also learned that people tend to be proprietary about their pain. Within the disability community, the deaf, blind, paralyzed and retarded argue over who is worse off, and compete with each other and other minorities for scarce government resources.
One of my assignments at the state agency had been to publicize the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. One way to do that was to explain how it added another category — disability — to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, sex, national origin or religion. At one point I wrote a press release making the analogy that while blacks had to sit in the back of the bus, people in wheelchairs couldn’t get on the bus at all, and while literacy tests and poll taxes were used to deny blacks the right to vote, inaccessible polling booths kept people with mobility impairments from exercising their democratic rights. I also noted that like other minority groups, there’s a lot of irrational fear and hatred of the disabled that justifies a federal law to protect them from discrimination.
The press release was approved by my superiors, but our office secretary — the only black in my division — said she was offended that I was comparing the black struggle for civil rights, with its history of lynchings, fire hoses and police dogs, to crippled people dragging themselves up the steps of Capitol Hill to show the inaccessibility of Congress. But it’s not just a black thing. Some Jews take umbrage at blacks who describe slavery as an African Diaspora, or segregated neighborhoods as ghettos. So even though I disagreed with the secretary, I realized hers was a visceral reaction shared by many blacks, and I stopped using the black civil rights analogy in my ADA propaganda.
It was a lesson I should have heeded when I started teaching at Southland College. You gotta be careful about what you say.
Part I: H.B. Loco
Chapter 1: Spring Semester, 1998
Like a lot of life’s more interesting adventures, my sojourn at Southland College was born of panic and desperation. After a lackluster career in journalism and a stultifying decade as a flack for a state agency in Springfield, Illinois, in 1995 I was ripe for a midlife crisis. In my mid-40s, single, no kids, stuck in a dead-end job in a no-fun town, no prospects and nowhere to go. Oh that magic feeling.
So I did what a lot of lonely people were doing at the time, which was troll the chat rooms of America Online, where I met a woman in the entertainment industry, who lured me to the city of second chances and encouraged me to rekindle my dream of becoming a writer. I got a six-month stint at a film school, where I took a couple of screenwriting classes, then became a part-time editor at a news agency. I also wrote columns for a weekly.
Back in the Midwest I’d enjoyed teaching composition at a community college, so I applied with the Los Angeles Community College District, which has nine campuses from the San Fernando Valley nearly to Long Beach. The newest and smallest of the campuses, Southland, which I’d never heard of, called me in for a job interview. When I looked it up on the map, I realized the school was in South-Central, which was not one of the places I had been hanging out, so I wasn’t overly disappointed when I didn’t get the job. But a year later, out of the blue, the chair of the English Department gave me a call that went something like this:
“Can you start next week?” “Is this a job offer?” “According to my records we already interviewed you, right?” “Right.” “Whew. That means we don’t have to interview you again. Yes, this is a job offer.”
The English chair, Mitch, was a laid-back speech teacher and musician in his 30s who lived near Pasadena and drove a Porsche. He said there was a last-minute opening for a part-time instructor to teach three classes — an evening Journalism 101 class, an afternoon newspaper editing lab and a photojournalism class, also in the afternoon, where I would be teaching students the soon-to-be anachronistic art of developing black-and-white film. The English chair didn’t ask and I didn’t bother to tell him that the last time I’d been in a darkroom was my junior year in college.
Actually, I was less concerned about my lack of darkroom experience than my lack of dark people experience, especially “urban students.” Back in the ’70s I went through my hippie stage, hitchhiking around, smoking pot and listening to the blues. I’d been to the demonstration and was hip to civil rights.
But being streetwise for the ’70s didn’t make me streetwise for the ’90s, and truth be told, I tend to be uneasy around blacks. Scared of getting mugged, guilty about the slavery thing, intimidated by the jive. I think of it as a phobia — Afrophobia — like homophobia, which is an irrational fear of gay people. Then again, I tend to be uneasy around most everybody, not just blacks and gays, which is at least equal opportunity. I’m not proud of it, but I tell myself that as long as I make an effort not to let my paranoia affect how I treat people, I’m not a bigot.
However, turning down a job at Southland College just because the students were mostly blacks and Hispanics would not only have been racist, but cowardly. I could give in to my fears and insecurities or I could confront and perhaps overcome them. I could teach the students or I could fail to teach the students, but I at least had to try. I hadn’t sought out this opportunity, but now that it had presented itself, how could I turn it down without feeling like a sissy? And most compelling of all, how could I pass up a journey into America’s own heart of darkness, its racial abyss?
On my first day in the abyss, I met the two other journalism teachers — another part-time instructor and a tenured professor, both named Jake. We were all white, and two of us were Jewish. The parttime Jake was the faculty adviser for the student newspaper because the full-time Jake, although a popular teacher and seasoned journalist, was nearly 80 years old. Both had worked for newspapers and wire services, as had I. But I was also computer savvy, while they barely knew how to transfer a file from a floppy disk to a hard drive, much less navigate the emerging Internet.
The journalism lab was a regular-sized room carved up into two tiny faculty offices and a bullpen area that doubled as a classroom and newsroom for the student newspaper. In a corner was an ominous revolving door that led to a cramped darkroom with stools, sinks and a couple of old enlargers for printing pictures. There was no broadcasting equipment.
I had expected a student newspaper in the hood to be a muckraker, but there weren’t many journalism students around, and The Explorer was mostly rewritten press releases and class assignments. The newspaper was supposed to be produced by journalism students under the general supervision of the journalism faculty, and the students did write most of the stories and take most of the pictures. But the publication was mostly put together by the faculty adviser, who did the editing and layout.
I was supposed to team-teach an editing and layout class with part-time Jake, but he did the lectures and I oversaw the lab, which was more like study hall. The photography class I was inheriting had been taught by a professional photographer who left to start her own photography school, so when I took over, the students were getting nowhere near the same level of instruction. And except for the old enlargers and a couple of broken shell cameras, there was no equipment.
Luckily, one of the students in the class knew more about photography than I did, being the house shooter for a strip club, and until he dropped out, I had him teach me as well as the students how to mix the chemicals, develop negatives and use the enlarger. Other times I’d take the students around campus with their mostly automatic film cameras or pass around my single-lens reflex camera from home and assign them to shoot pictures of the weather, a softball game, computer lab, student art exhibit or whatever we stumbled upon.
I could teach the basics of photography, like how to work the controls on their mostly automatic cameras, and the relationship between lens opening, shutter speed and depth of focus field. But when it came to explaining how exposing emulsified silver dust to a blink of light could result in an image of what the camera was pointed at, I confessed to them that it was magic to me.
Besides, except for hobbyists and artists, photo film was going the way of vinyl records. More important, I told them, was what I called Rule No. 1: When using any camera, and especially my camera, place the strap around the neck and keep it there. Some days went OK and some days were a bust, but my camera always came back intact.
Another delicate lesson was explaining how to get facial features to show up in pictures of dark-skinned people. Either the rest of the picture would be underexposed or their faces would turn into featureless blobs. The previous teacher had left behind primitive dodging tools made out of wire and duct tape, so during the printing process, I showed them how to wave the flat spoon-shaped “magic wands” over the faces of what I called “people of low contrast,” so the faces would have more detail but be lighter than the rest of the picture.
The Journalism 101 class was a Wednesday night affair with only five students — an older woman who liked to talk, a young Latino taking the class to learn English, a stylish Latina who was considering going into broadcasting, and two other young Latinas who would rather have gone clubbing than be at school. They were all taking the class at night because they worked during the day, and for any given class at most three would show up, and usually late.
Some nights I’d sit there for 20 minutes, eating a bagel from the Roach Coach and doing the slow steam before anyone would arrive. Other nights I’d finish my bagel and leave in a huff, only to be snagged by one of the students just driving up in the parking lot. Somehow it never occurred to me that between their jobs, L.A. traffic and family obligations, making a 7 p.m. class wasn’t that easy, and I should have pushed back the start of class by a half-hour. New and insecure, I was more concerned about imposing discipline and order and establishing my authority as teacher.
My classes lurched along in fits and spurts. I kept waiting for that Hollywood movie moment where the teacher and class “connect,” but it wasn’t happening. And by the end of the semester, assigning grades posed a host of ethical dilemmas. On the basis of attendance alone, everyone in my 101 class deserved to flunk. But when I factored in their English skills and how prepared they were for the class before they took it, how well I’d taught it, their goals in life and the impact on those goals that flunking them might have, assigning a letter beside their names became a slippery curve, or what I came to call “holistic grading.”
In that first Journalism 101 class, I gave the stylish Latina an A, even though her news stories were pretty basic, because I wanted to encourage her interest in journalism and she showed up for class the most. The Hispanic guy still couldn’t speak a lick of English, but I gave him a B for showing up and trying. The older woman who liked to tell stories got a B for talking too much, and the two nightclubbing Latinas got C’s for never buying the textbook.
The high point of the semester involved the older woman and provided a learning experience — for me. She’d written a story about the small magnet high school on the campus that had a 90 percent graduation rate, which is exceptional for any high school, especially one in South-Central. Her lead simply said, “Central College High School has a graduation rate of 90 percent.” I showed her what a feature editor might do to her story, schmaltzing up the opening something like, “It’s in one of the poorest areas of the city and many of its students are from disadvantaged families, but Central College High School graduates 90 percent of its students.”
She gave me that ofay look and said she wanted her byline off the story. Breezily I told her she had a right to her opinion, even though it was wrong, and that after the story came out in the school newspaper she’d feel different. I gave the story to Jake the newspaper faculty adviser, but when The Explorer came out, the lead was back to the way she had written it. When I asked Jake what had happened, he said people in the hood don’t need to be reminded about where they live, which is why the school was called Southland College instead of South-Central College.
At the next 101 class, I used her story to talk about audiences and how the same story should be written different ways for different audiences with different sensibilities. And I said that in this case, the student understood the audience for the school newspaper better than I did — that she was right and I was wrong.
She brightened and launched into one of her stories: “You know, I was talking with one of my friends down at the welfare office (where she happened to work), and I told her I used to think my teacher was pretty hip. But after what he did to my story, now I think he’s a racist.” Realizing what she’d just blurted out loud, she quickly added, “but now I don’t think so, anymore.”
It was the first time I would be called a racist at Southland, but, somewhat inevitably, not the last.