Spring Semester, 1999
In the spring of 1999 the worm finally turned, literally. First, the chair of the English Department changed from Mitch, the laidback dude with a Porsche, to Marc, a Jewish guy with a ponytail. I didn’t mind Mitch — he was seldom around so he never caused me any grief. But Marc and I seemed to hit it off, and he wanted to get organized.
An effort was made to persuade old Jake to retire, but teaching had become his life — he was afraid that if he quit teaching he’d wither up and die. The administration ordered him to take a physical, which he passed with flying colors, but school officials managed to delay the process long enough so that he had to go on a paid medical leave for the semester. Taking advantage of the fact that he happened to have a library sciences degree, they schemed to take away some of his classes and stash him in the library when he came back. I happened to be in the English Department office when Marc mentioned to another teacher that he needed to hire someone to teach Jake’s public relations class. I piped up that I’d spent eight years in public relations, and he gave me the class.
He also met with me and part-time Jake, the newspaper faculty adviser, to talk about our class assignments for the next semester. He said he wanted the three newspaper lab classes — newswriting, editing and photojournalism — to be taught by the same person, and since Jake knew even less about photography than I did, he gave me the three classes for the next semester, which also made me faculty adviser for the newspaper. Even though it meant less work for Jake, I could tell he was steamed. But I was ecstatic. I had been putting out “underground” newspapers since I was a kid, and the chance to oversee a student publication again sounded like a hoot.
But that wasn’t until the next semester, and I had to get through the current semester. In addition to public relations, which I had never taught before, and photography, which I was still fumbling at, I was also teaching Journalism 101 again, which had a whole new crop of football players and was once again out of control. After one particularly raucous session, I went over to the gym and took Coach Dub up on his offer to take care of his boys for me. He seemed more than happy to oblige.
That was a Wednesday, and the next journalism class wasn’t until Monday. But at Thursday’s public relations class, the first student in the door said she’d heard I’d ratted out the football players. Her brother happened to be the captain of the team, and he told her that at the last practice, the coach made all 13 players in my class run up and down the bleachers for two solid hours. Monday, the football team came in moping, but nobody took a swing at me. The ensuing class was not what I would call quiet, but things had receded to a dull roar.
It was also that Monday that “The Worm” himself, basketball player/freak show Dennis Rodman, signed with the Los Angeles Lakers, which meant His Badness would practice at the college several days a week, along with the rest of the team. The Lakers, who had not yet hired Phil Jackson as coach the first time, had recently moved out of the Great Western Forum in nearby Inglewood to the newly opened Staples Center downtown, and were practicing at Southland’s gym until their new training facility was completed south of LAX.
I figured Rodman was the kind of news that might be of interest to the students, and if they wouldn’t calm down to my pace, I’d try to rev up to theirs. At the next class I stepped out from behind the table I usually cowered behind and casually sat on top of it, then began to tell them a story about the world’s worst student — me — and how I was a hippie dropout and all, but that I went back to school and got involved with the school newspaper, which gave me a direction in life, self-confidence and respect, not to mention a lot of fun — that journalism didn’t have to be a drag.
I worked my way around to current events and asked what was going on in the news, and someone said Rodman, like it was a joke. I seized on it. “Do you realize the biggest news story in town is right across the street at this very moment?” I asked.
The football players already knew and acted blasé, but some of the other students were surprised to learn the Lakers practiced in the gym. Reaching the point of no return, I went through with the move I’d rehearsed before class and stood on top of the table. “Playtime is over,” I announced. “We’re going to start doing real-world journalism, and our first real-world story is going to be Dennis Rodman.
“Who,” I barked down at them, “has the balls to go over to the college security office and ask the police if anything is going to change now that Rodman is coming to campus?”
To my amazement, Rashon, a usually surly and scary looking linebacker, took the bait. “I can do that,” he said. “You want me to do it right now?” he asked and started to rise, like he was pulling one over on me. I thought about it for a moment and decided what the hell. “Go for it,” I said, and off he went.
“Now I need someone with the balls to talk to the president of the college and ask her if anything will change because of Rodman,” I said. Someone else’s hand went up and she took off to chase down the story. Next, I said I needed someone to go ask Coach Dub how things will change at the gym with Rodman on campus. Four hands shot up, all football players. I chose one, and off he went.
“All right,” I continued, “now I need someone with King Kong’s balls to go up to the sports reporters and ask them what they think of Rodman and how he changes their job.” Suddenly the mood shifted. “You’re not allowed to go near the media,” several football players protested. “Pussies!” I bellowed. “Since when did they pass a law you can’t talk to sports reporters? Balls. Who’s got the balls?” Up went the slender arm of one of the female students. “I’ll try,” she said.
I assigned the rest of the students to do “student on the street” interviews and find out what other students thought of Rodman joining the Lakers. Then I said I needed one more student with the biggest balls of them all, Godzilla’s balls, to get to Rodman and ask him what he thought of Southland College. The football players hooted and hollered. Never happen. “How do you know unless you try?” I challenged them.
Haltingly, and then more assertively, a shy and crack-skinny student named Tawnia raised her hand. “I’ll do it,” she said with a shrug. At that moment the player who went to get the quote from Coach Dub came back, and his timing couldn’t have been better. He said the coach had offered to hook up a student with a player for an interview. Class ends and I’m jazzed. I head over to the gym to see if instead of one student, the coach can set up a press conference with several Lakers for the whole class. After being shown into his office, I started out by thanking him for disciplining his players. He chuckled and said no problem, like he enjoyed it.
He said a press conference might be hard to do, but he’d talk to the Lakers P.R. head about letting a journalism student cover the practices with the professional media in the balcony of the gym. And like the rest of the media, at the end of practice the student could go onto the gym floor and talk to the players. That as long as the student behaved, the school newspaper ought to have a reporter covering the Lakers when they were on campus.
Over the weekend, Rodman turned up at the Marina del Rey restaurant where one of my students bused tables part-time. The student had the presence of mind to snap The Worm’s picture, and it occurred to me to create a special “Rodmania” section of The Explorer built around his photo and Rodman stories from the 101 class.
The student who shot the picture of Rodman was Blackjack Loco, a streetwise ex-con who at that point was in my photo class. I first encountered the 25-year-old “retired” gang member the previous semester in my riotous Journalism 101 class — he was the one who liked to say “whack,” as in “that’s whack, dawg,” and brag about his gangbanging days and life in the clink. His gregarious personality and virile physique belied his intelligence and malevolent past, and made him irresistible, especially to females.
Over 6 feet and 200 pounds of restive muscle, he was not someone to trifle with, and I was not especially pleased that he showed up the next semester in my photojournalism class, or that he started badgering me to buy him lunch at the Roach Coach. I took it for a hustle, until I finally broke down and agreed to buy him his damn lunch, only he ended up paying for both of us, which was the real hustle, because it meant I owed him lunch the next day. Next thing I knew, Holden, a lumpy, make that schlumpy, yet endearing, high school gangbang wannabe, who was also in my photo class, got into the act, and we became a regular lunch bunch. And the wall between teacher and students — not to mention black and white — started to crack.
There are basically two kinds of teachers — hard ones you hate at the time but remember fondly, and easy ones you like at the time but later wonder if they were trying to get in your pants. I recognized that if I began fraternizing with students, even a little, I would be forfeiting my chance to become that first kind of teacher. But I also realized that just wasn’t my nature. I was way too curious.
So I let Blackjack and Holden cajole me into driving them to the nearby Burger King, and then to barbecue joints, taco barns and fish shacks deeper and deeper into South-Central, finally reaching the heart of the hood — the Brolly Hut hamburger stand on Crenshaw Boulevard. Holden, who wasn’t quite old enough for his learner’s permit, began instructing me on my driving (I didn’t slouch enough), explaining how I should casually loop my right hand over the steering wheel while dangling my left elbow out the window, turn my cap around, crank up the radio until the speakers buzzed, and for chrissake, weave in and out of traffic more.
Holden’s parents were separated, and when one couldn’t handle him, the other would take over for a while. His mom worked at a TV station and encouraged his interest in photography, which is how he found his way into my class. Like Blackjack, he was bright and outgoing, and a goof-off. He liked to flash gang signs and write graffiti, and one day he attempted to teach me one of those ghetto handshakes, a quick half a shake, slide, snag and snap. He and I did it a couple of times, but I couldn’t get the snag right, so he and Blackjack demonstrated. Blackjack didn’t want to do it, but reluctantly took Holden’s hand. Casually, they shook, snagged and then snapped their fingers so in unison that it sounded like the crack of a whip.
For me, inappropriate humor is a perverse bonding mechanism, and one day while we were on a lunch run, I told them an old joke about a white guy who wanted to be a Polack. His doctor tells him it’s a very dangerous operation because they have to take out half his brain, but he says do it anyway. And when the guy comes out of the anesthesia, his doctor says he’s sorry, but his scalpel slipped and they had to take out 90 percent of his brain. And the guy says, “Y’all’s shittin’ me, bro!” There was a pause, and then Blackjack and Holden just roared.
And they gave as good as they took. One time the three of us were in the darkroom, and Holden composed a spontaneous rap about his days at a private school in the San Fernando Valley — which he’d gotten thrown out of — where there’d been a lot of Jewish kids. He starts rapping about “Jew boyz in the chood,” and he’s got the Hebrew “ccchhh” down.
They took to calling me “cuz” or “homie,” and on rare occasions “big homie,” but I guess the ultimate expression of acceptance was when Blackjack bestowed upon me my own gangsta moniker — H.B. Loco.
My perception of Blackjack began to change the day I was in a hurry to get home after class and he still wanted to print some pictures, so I let him stay alone in the darkroom. Like a prison trustee, I put him on his honor to lock the door on his way out and leave everything that was inside, inside. It was with some trepidation that I returned the next morning, only to find the darkroom as if it had been invaded by elves. Blackjack had not merely cleaned up after himself, but scrubbed, organized and moved a broken enlarger out of the way. Of course, other times I caught him in there with some brown sugar, and we played cat and mouse on that issue for the duration.
Blackjack lived about halfway between school and my place, and one day he asked for a ride home to the one-bedroom apartment he shared with his mother — he slept on the living room couch. He didn’t talk much about his Caribbean dad, who was somewhere back in Brooklyn, where Blackjack had been born. Except for the weekend busboy job and student loans, he lacked a steady income, or a car, and bumming rides from me started to become a habit (it also became a habit for half the other students in my afternoon classes, who were in similar situations).
Over time he began taking me the scenic route, pointing out such historic landmarks as the car wash popular with carjackers and corners where drive-bys were common. He also gave me travel tips, like never stop for jaywalkers because that’s how you get jacked, and at a stoplight, stop at least a car length behind the vehicle in front, in case bullets start flying and you need to make a quick getaway. Also, never use a drive-through window at a fast-food restaurant, and leave the car unlocked when you go inside, again, for a quick getaway. He also took me to graffiti walls and tried to get me to recognize the difference between ghetto art left by taggers and more ominous gang messages.
After a while I began letting him do some of the driving — as the former wheelman for his crew, he had skills — and asking him about his life of crime. He was convicted, he said, of “borrowing” a car from a girl he’d just met, but he and his fellow “crimies” had committed numerous burglaries and strong-arm robberies, at one point becoming “Dumpster bandits” whose M.O. was to hide in the trash bin behind restaurants and ambush the owner at the end of the night when he took out the garbage. They’d rob the restaurant, split the loot, fly to Vegas and party.
It was a not-bad life and he never got caught for the really bad stuff he did — he claims to have escaped two high-speed police chases in stolen rental cars by driving into covered shopping center parking lots and fading into the crowd — so I asked him what made him decide to leave the life. He said prison. The first time a prison guard asked him to drop his pants for a cavity search, he vowed he would never put himself in that humiliating position again.
At one point, Blackjack won a $1,000 photojournalism scholarship from the Los Angeles Times, and he decided to use it to buy a camera. I agreed to drive him to a camera shop, and on the way I stopped at an electronics store to buy a computer chip. When the clerk went into the stockroom to get the chip, Blackjack quietly asked me for my keys. I gave him a puzzled look, but handed them over. He casually pressed his elbow down on a corner of the top of the glass display case, and with my key, deftly pried another corner up high enough to reach inside. “Your keys can unlock a lot more than your car,” he whispered, and then silently laid the glass back in place, without taking anything.
Next we went to a little camera store in Culver City that was crammed with new and used gear, and I turned to him and stated the obvious: It must be hard to spend his scholarship money on something he could just as easily steal.
“Damn straight,” he chuckled, yet with an edge. He explained how easy it would be to knock over the place, pointing out the locations of the two security cameras I hadn’t noticed, obstructed sight lines to the street and other factors I would never have thought about.
“But then I think about that prison guard,” he said. “I put that camera in one hand and the prison guard in the other hand and I think, is one worth risking for the other? No way.”
Another touchstone for Blackjack was a physical therapist he’d once seen at work in a prison hospital. The therapist was helping victims of car crashes, shootings and other traumas rehab their bodies, and Blackjack thought it was a worthwhile thing to do. So after four years in Folsom, San Quentin and several other California prisons, he enrolled at Southland College to become a rehabilitation therapist himself. But to get a degree he also had to take some composition courses, and an academic counselor told him Journalism 101 was easier than English, which is how he ended up in my class.
As for why Blackjack enrolled in my photography class the next semester, I assumed it was because he had pegged me for an easy mark. It took me a long time to realize, and longer to accept, that something I’d said or done in that 101 class had made an impression on him, and like the prison guard and the rehab therapist, I’d become a touchstone. This baffled me, because I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to be like me. I didn’t even want to be like me. But Blackjack was a high risk parolee — two of his former crimies were already back in jail, one after a couple of months, the other after a couple of weeks — so a square like me might be what he needed to avoid the same fate.
Or not. Sometimes we went out at night, and one time he asked me to take him and one of his posse, Sammy Loco, who had just gotten out of jail, again, to dinner. We were driving through the hood when we passed by a production crew shooting a music video “on location” at a block party, and it was quite a scene, with Klieg lights illuminating a large crowd of partying people milling about, hoping to get into the show.
Returning from dinner we came upon the video shoot again, only this time we stopped and got out. The timing was perfect, as they were finally ready to roll tape. Someone with a bullhorn explained that everyone was supposed to imagine there was music and to merrily dance past a buffet table that had been set up. Most of those who had been partying for hours were unaware that the taping was finally beginning, so we found ourselves at the front of the line. I felt awkward, trying to sashay past the food. But when Blackjack conga’d down the line, the spotlights lit him up.
Afterwards, the three of us wandered through the crowd to where some of Blackjack’s former associates were drinking beer. It was the first time he had seen them since getting out of prison, and they did some catching up. It was clear that the associates were very much still in the life, and one of them began asking Blackjack if he’d thrown weights while in the pen. They began bantering back and forth about who could lift how much and how many reps, and I got the prickly feeling that if either of them gave a number that was too high or too low, there’d be a rumble.
As the conversation progressed, Blackjack and Sammy kind of shifted to my left, and the associates rotated to where I was almost behind them. When the weightlifting discussion ended in a stalemate, one of the associates suddenly noticed me.
“Whodat?” he growled, like a bear coming out of hibernation, and his companions started to glare at me.
“I’m with them,” I said, and began to sidle over to where Blackjack and Sammy had moved.
Blackjack paused, just long enough for me to imagine him saying what Tonto said to the Lone Ranger when they were surrounded by Apaches: “What do you mean we, paleface?” But eventually he said I was “cool,” although, at that moment at least, I definitely was not.
We made an odd couple, but there was also the matter of street cred. By hanging with a teacher, Blackjack gained credibility on campus, just as I got cred for hanging with a banger. Sometimes I was his bitch and sometimes he was mine, but it was reassuring to have someone who could walk the walk watching my back. Like the time we were walking up the stairs to my office, and from across Nigga Alley, Alonzo, the starting fullback on the football team, who was in my 101 class, was standing with some of his teammates. “Hey, Mr. K.,” he yelled up at me. “Let me hold a dub.”
I smiled at Alonzo, but under my breath I whispered to Blackjack, “What’s a dub?”
Blackjack rolled his eyes. “Dub is short for the letter ‘W,’ which is short for Washington,” he whispered back.
“Like Coach Dub?” I asked.
“No, dawg, George Washington,” Blackjack hissed. “He wants to borrow a dollar.”
“You can hold my dub,” I hollered down at Alonzo, “while you blow me.”
I could see Alonzo stiffen, like he’d been dissed in front of his friends, and the English Department secretary, Dejanna, who happened to be walking up the stairs ahead of me, turned around and gave me a look of sadness, like I was about to get mugged. But I had Blackjack behind me.
Meantime, for better and for worse, I had unleashed the Rodmania theory of journalism on Southland College and was trying to ride Dennis Rodman To Sir, with Love, standing on tables and challenging students to bring me the balls of Godzilla. Needless to say, any scheme hinging on Dennis Rodman was high risk.
Coach Dub had suggested I attend the next Lakers practice, and I decided I should go through the motions of being a student reporter before assigning the exercise to a student. So the next time the team practiced at the gym, I dug out my reporter’s notebook and joined the professional sports reporters on the upper level of the gym. Ten of the Lakers were running plays under a basket, while their gargantuan center, Shaquille O’Neal, sat facing them on an oversized medicine ball, like the king on his throne. Intruding into the scene, like a court jester, meandered the team’s newest acquisition, Dennis Rodman, who was trying to juggle three basketballs. But he bobbled the balls, which bounced into the practice area, disrupting the scrimmage.
As the practice came to an end, I followed the dozen or so reporters onto the floor. Shaq was still sitting on the big ball, only now he was rocking back and forth and pressing a basketball between his knees as a trainer threw more basketballs at him.
With gold rings sprouting from every facial orifice, Rodman suddenly came bounding by, batting a basketball off his arm and checking me out with a psychotic grin. In a corner, Eddie Jones and Kobe Bryant were doing TV spots for L.A.’s WNBA team, the Sparks, which also practiced in the gym, while player Rick Fox was being interviewed by KCBS sports reporter and former NFL player Jim Hill.
I joined a small cluster of reporters who had formed a semicircle around the Lakers’ interim head coach, Kurt Rambis. After grilling the coach about trade rumors, the reporters turned to Rodman rumors, asking whether he’d been late to practice again. Rambis denied Rodman had been late and the pack moved on.
Finding myself alone with the coach, I introduced myself and asked him what he thought of Southland College.
“I like it,” he said. “I mean, I’ve only seen the gym, but I like it, the gym and the weight room.”
Mission accomplished. Confident that my students could do the same, the first student I chose to attend a practice was of course Tawnia, the one who had raised her hand when I had asked who had the balls to ask Rodman what he thought of Southland College. Holden, the high school gangbang wannabe, got wind of it, and on the day of the practice he begged me to let him tag along and take pictures. Since the agreement with Coach Dub was for only one student, I shooed Holden away. Until it dawned on me how monumentally stupid it would be to not have somebody take pictures.
With officious laminated Explorer press passes I had created on my home computer dangling around their necks, off went Tawnia and Holden to cover the Lakers, and I began to teach my class. But within minutes they were back, looking sheepish. Holden said that because more than one reporter had shown up, Coach Dub had thrown them both out, and wouldn’t let them back in unless they got a note from me. Embarrassed but unrepentant, I hastily scribbled a note explaining how one student was a reporter and one student was a photojournalist, etc., and off they went again.
After class I went over to Coach Dub’s office to apologize. But he shrugged it off and the “miscommunication” was well worth the risk. Damned if Holden hadn’t shot off four rolls of film.
In what would become a pattern, the student I sent to cover the practice didn’t show up for the next class, and the next class after that she showed up late.
“I’m having trouble getting started,” Tawnia said when I pressed her for her story.
In front of the class I asked her what had happened. “Well, Magic Johnson was there,” she said grudgingly
I said that was news and wrote it on the chalkboard. “What else?” “Well, Kobe Bryant doesn’t want Eddie Jones to be traded.”
How do you know that? “I axed him,” she said. “That’s great,” I said. “What else happened?” “Well, I sort of had my picture taken with Kobe,” she said. I scolded her lightly, reminding her that reporters aren’t supposed to be getting autographs and having their pictures taken, and she said it wasn’t her fault, that Kobe forced her to be in the photo.
“More news, player sexually harasses student,” I joked and wrote it on the chalkboard — somewhat presciently, as Kobe later got accused of rape in Colorado. “OK,” I said, “that’s at least three things you could write about. Order them for emphasis, write a lead and write a story.”
So she sat there and by the end of class had written about 150 words. No order, no lead, no story, just the basic facts. I asked if she could stay after class to type her story into the newspaper’s computer, and she sullenly said OK, and off we went to the “newsroom.”
She typed her story into the one working computer, which was in one of the cramped side offices, and then we switched places and I made her sit behind me and watch as I edited her story. I could feel her sneaking a peek over my shoulder, not necessarily comprehending, but at least curious.
As I corrected her spelling and grammar and cross-examined her to draw out more details, it didn’t take long to flesh out a decent story. At the end I said that even though she hadn’t written a very good story, she had been a very good reporter — making observations, asking questions and writing down quotes — so that as an editor I was able to construct a story from her notes, which was the most important thing.
I don’t think any of that made a dent. But then she said, “Can I have a copy? I wanna show my mama,” and for the first time I felt like the Rodmania method of journalism was starting to pay off.
Blackjack and the rest of the photography students helped Holden develop his film, and the pictures came out great, with a variety of far, medium and close-up shots, enough for a “proper” picture page. Not just “grip and grin” posed shots, like the one of Kobe and Tawnia, but
Shaq practicing free throws, Derek Harper sitting on the floor, Magic and Shaq together, and most impressive of all, a close-up of Shaq’s enormous feet.
When I asked who wanted to be next to cover the Lakers, about the only hand to go up belonged to Javana, another crack-skinny student with extensive tattoos. And like Tawnia, it took a couple of classes for her to come back, and then she said she didn’t have a story. So we went through the same drill — I asked her what happened, and she said nothing — except, well, it was the first practice for Glen Rice, who said he was happy to be with the Lakers … and Shaq really is tall … and Ruben Patterson is rude … and Rodman didn’t show up.
Sounds like a story to me, I said. Write a lead, put in quotes and just write what you said. She tried, but by the end of class she still had notes rather than sentences. But we went up to the newsroom, she typed her notes into the computer, I edited them and we had another story.
Finally one of the male students — though not a football player — said he was ready to cover the Lakers. And it was the same deal with Kendell, who disappeared for a couple of days, then showed up with notes but no story. But when I asked him what happened at the practice, it turned out he’d done some serious reporting. He said Rodman showed up late again and had a private meeting with Coach Rambis and that afterward neither would say what the meeting was about.
“What do you mean they wouldn’t say what the meeting was about?” I challenged.
He said he axed them and they wouldn’t tell him. “Wait a minute,” I said. “You asked Dennis Rodman what the meeting was about?”
“Sure,” he shrugged, like wasn’t that what he was supposed to do?
At that point I announced to the class that Kendell had won the Godzilla balls award. By asking Rodman a serious question and getting a quote, even if the quote was “no comment,” he had brought back the balls of Godzilla. (Within days, it was reported that The Worm’s brief marriage to former Baywatch babe Carmen Electra was crumbling, and she soon filed for divorce.)
It was getting close to deadline for the final Explorer for spring semester. Using desktop publishing software on my home computer, I laid out Holden’s pictures with the students’ stories and added headlines and captions, creating a two-page centerfold spread, which I called “Lakers Beat.” Ah, but when you hitch your wagon to a Rodman, you’d best expect the unexpected.
When I proudly presented “Lakers Beat” to Jake, who was still the faculty adviser, he said he thought it was more appropriate for the school newspaper to cover the college’s sports teams, like track and tennis, than a professional basketball team.
He reminded me he had let me put two Rodman stories in the previous issue and that as far as he was concerned there had been more than enough Rodmania already. He was willing to put one of Holden’s Lakers pictures in, as long as it wasn’t of Rodman. One. But no more stories on the Lakers. None. And certainly no — I thought he was going to pop a vein in his forehead — circusy two-page spread with that clown Rodman. He added that I could do whatever I wanted with the newspaper in the fall, when I would be faculty adviser, but this was his last issue, and he’d be damned if he was going to be embarrassed by having another batch of Lakers stories on his watch.
Now I had to face my students and try to explain. Rejection, I told the class, is the writer’s stock in trade. Writers — people — can be defeated by rejection, or they can learn from the experience and become stronger. Different editors have different philosophies about the news, and just because one editor rejects a story doesn’t mean another won’t print it. Shop it around, I advised.
I considered various possibilities, from the Los Angeles Times on down, but eventually settled on News To Use, a four-page newsletter produced by the journalism class at the on-campus high school. When I gingerly broached the idea of publishing “Lakers Beat,” the high school journalism teacher agreed, and Rodmania was back on track. Sort of. The high school newsletter didn’t have quite the panache of the college rag, and wasn’t really printed at all, but Xeroxed on legalsize white typing paper turned sideways and folded in half. But it was better than nothing, so I went home and reconfigured my layout, turning the two-page spread into a four-page “Special Insert” into their newsletter.
I was relieved that I’d managed to salvage something out of Rodmania, and the student reporters felt a little better. But Holden was inconsolable. Disappointment became resentment when the annual L.A. Times scholarships were announced. To honor a former Southland student who became a promising photographer for The Times, before he died in a domestic dispute, The Times doled out three scholarships a year to Southland journalism students.
Blackjack got one, as did Mars — one of my 101 students who’d written several stories for the newspaper — and the third went to Bethany, the newspaper’s student editor. Holden was odd man out.
Adding insult to injury, the faculty adviser told Holden the reason he didn’t get a scholarship was because the committee felt he didn’t have enough pictures in the newspaper. It was hardly lost on Holden that the reason he didn’t have more clips was that the faculty adviser had rejected his Lakers pictures.
When I came into the journalism lab, Holden was bouncing between tears and rage. I told him to hang in there. He was still young and he’d get the scholarship next semester if he kept taking pictures. Then I half-joked that at least he couldn’t cry racism, because all the winners were black. By how quickly he responded that he was glad Blackjack had won, I could tell he had already done the math. Another Columbine was averted, but Holden had lost what little interest he had in photojournalism.
Fall Semester, 1999
Still smarting from his Monica Lewinsky impeachment ordeal, in early July 1999, President Bill Clinton went on a “poverty tour” of the United States. Stops included Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, East St. Louis and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Ostensibly promoting an administrative initiative to encourage investment in areas left behind during the Internet boom of the 1990s, the tour afforded Clinton an opportunity to visit some of the few places in the country where he was still popular, and that included South-Central Los Angeles.
It was about a month before I was scheduled to become faculty adviser to the student newspaper when Marc, the chair of the English Department, called to tell me U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters had convinced the White House to add Southland College to the president’s itinerary. In less than a week, President Clinton would be on campus for some sort of economic summit, along with Waters, Gov. Gray Davis, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Magic Johnson, actor Edward James Olmos and a bunch more celebs and policy wonks.
Marc said the interim president of the college — a white woman with the unfortunately antebellum name of Dr. Roberta E. Lee — had made arrangements for the school newspaper to have a student reporter and photographer included in the White House media pool coverage. Who did I want to send and what were their Social Security numbers for the Secret Service? I stammered I’d get back to him, he said not bad for my first newspaper as faculty adviser, and I said yes sir howdy and hung up.
There was just one problem: There was no newspaper staff.