It was 2007, or what was supposed to be my Junior year at John Marshall High. But like most students in the Los Angeles Unified School District that school-year — 48% according to official estimates — I wasn’t set to graduate on time.
Most of high school was a whirl-winding hayride for me, and “the race” in which I fell behind saw me slipping as early as 2004 when I was a Freshman on “B-track.”
At that time, LAUSD still had “track” or rotation systems instead of its year-round schedule, and as opposed to the more pleasant “A”or “C” tracks, “B-track” was supposed to be where “the troubled kids” were at.
But the differences were all the same to me as a Freshman. Almost as soon as I stepped through the gates at Marshall, I looked around — at the teachers and counselors and supervisors — and rolled my eyes with a passion. Like generations of teenagers before me at L.A.’s public schools, I felt at odds with them.
They didn’t know a thing about me, I thought, and yet they wanted to direct my life like if it was their right.
But it wasn’t just that strange adults wanted to teach my teenage mind without knowing anything about me; it was also that so many of the teachers I met seemed worn out by the subjects they were supposed to shepherd us into, and even resentful or downright hostile to me and my peers for being the students assigned to them.
I couldn’t put it into words at the time, but since the first day of class, while my teachers could certainly recite their subject, they had next to no idea why it was supposed to be useful to the students before them. This came off in the tone of their voices as they called our names on the roll-sheet.
One by one like a monotonous record, it’s as if every name they announced was another extension of the hour they had to put up with us; as if they were forced to be there just as much as we were. I could only slouch further into my seat as roll call went on.
Eventually, I knew I’d have to make a choice. I could either go to class and be miserable, or I could just find somewhere else to be. Since teachers and students alike were so disinterested, I told myself, going our separate ways was the only natural thing for us to do.
In the mornings, I’d skip Health and Math classes, link up with some of the handful of friends I’d made over the first few weeks at Marshall, and slither through the hallways with them towards an exit. When we’d come upon a short fence located just a small walk away from the restrooms, we’d jump it with lizard-like sensibilities.
Moments later, we would find a corner nearby, huddle so as not to be spotted, and use the time to chill and “chop it up,” or talk.
For a time, my chosen education was what I learned in these conversations, which were mostly centered around romances, “beef” or trouble with other kids, and occasionally, what we might truly want of ourselves apart from escaping our classrooms.
We’d have these conversations in our adolescent voices, filling them with our “benign” adolescent ideas, but the dialogue we created in the experience still felt more genuine than any I could engage in with either my teachers or counselors at the time.
Around noon, when the bell for lunch would ring, my peers and I would jump the fence back to school for the day’s meal.
Following lunch, we’d just ‘coast’ through the last two periods of the day. And when the final bell rang just before 3:30 PM, we’d dash past the doors of our classrooms and race through the gates towards the street. I thought I was so cool,
But fast forward to nearly three years from that first, disoriented semester in the high school landscape, and my goal wasn’t to get out anymore, but to get back in; at sixteen years old, I sat in the dean’s office at Marshall pleading with Mr. Cook to give me a second chance back into the school.
The time since Freshman year had slipped past me as quickly as my body had slipped past Marshall’s fences. In less than three years, I ricocheted across four different high schools after being expelled from Marshall during my second semester for too many ‘truancies,’ “F” grades, and other offenses.
The clock was ticking, and I could finally appreciate the fact of it, but the question between me and Mr. Cook in his office was clear:
Was it too late?
Seated in the same chair from which only two and a half years prior I’d stare down at an expulsion, I assured Mr. Cook that in fact it was not too late, and that I would “be good” for a second chance indeed. He looked at me then, and I returned his glance in kind.
At the time, Mr. Cook must have been approaching something like his mid to late forties, punctuated by the fact that he was in the early stages of a balding process, and which also showed in his calm demeanor as I made my case to him. There was an earnestness in his demeanor, and when it came time for him to decide, Mr. Cook didn’t quite give me a smile, but he did have this look of resolution on his face; like when a person realizes they’re going to get rid of someone by giving them exactly what they want.
I was back in.
I was given a second chance at Marshall in 2007 three years after wanting so desperately to get out. But there was one catch.
In the second half of the 2006-2007 school-year, I was behind on an entire year’s worth of credits, meaning that I was a Sophomore when I should have been a Junior, and that I would be a Junior when it was time to be a Senior getting ready for graduation.
The likelihood that I could graduate on time was thereby slim, but like generations of young people at L.A.’s schools before me, as the prospect of a basic education flailed out of reach, I took my chances.
After all, at that point, with so much time away from Marshall despite starting there, I was just happy to be back at my home school. I could sit in Marshall’s classrooms again, and this time, start off on just the right note.
When I first got back, I was re-entered into “A-track,” which was colloquially known as the track for “the smart kids” because it contained the school’s Magnet or advanced classes.
I was originally a B-tracker when I started at Marshall in 2004, but on A-track in 2007, I did just what was needed: getting to class on time, turning in my homework and assignments, and otherwise keeping a low profile.
There was only one problem: I didn’t know or very much like any of the A-track kids. The A-track kids usually came from the uppity sides of town like Los Feliz, Atwater Village or Silver Lake, and it showed in their lingo; they spoke in much “cleaner” or complete sentences than my friends and I, and therefore lacked any sense of coding or subtlety for good measure. In other words, they were like, ‘totally,’ white-washed.
At the same time, since the A-track kids all knew each other, they invited each other to one another’s house-parties. I’d never known any of my old friends to have houses, which seemed like weird extravagances to begin with, but then when the A-trackers would talk about them in their totally complete sentences, I just felt more out of place.
As the months went on then, although my academics on A-track got me off to a strong start back at Marshall, I lobbied mom to help me get back to “B-track,” where the lot of my friends from the old neighborhood were.
I figured that being back around so much of the old crowd wouldn’t prove to be that much of a challenge, but once I got the chance to see for myself, it wouldn’t be so simple.
In the fall season at the start of the 2007-2008 school year, in what was my second semester back at Marshall, mom and I got me back to B-track, where the rabble-rousers and old friends were at.
My schedule subsequently turned into a mixture between two types of classrooms. In one period, I’d find myself with students who were right on schedule with their graduation date, and in the next, with my old peers again, most of whom were not set to graduate on time.
Apart from graduation though, it was personally reassuring to be back in classrooms with students who knew the same corners of the neighborhood that I did, and who walked into class with the same gusto; it was this very familiarity that I was looking for when I asked Mr. Cook to let me back in to Marshall to begin with.
To no one’s surprise though, when my old peers and I found ourselves reunited again, we’d make a ballad of it. I rabbled with them not in each and every class where we’d reconnect in again, but just in the ones that met the right conditions.
In English class, for example, where we’d have a different substitute teacher every three days because our actual teacher was constantly dealing with health problems, my friends and I ran circles around the subs with the age-old antics: spitting paper-balls at one another, writing letters to the romances, and unifying against most, if not all of the subs’s agendas.
As it was in Freshman year, if substitutes came in to establish authority over the class, my peers and I weren’t having it. But unlike in our Freshman days, instead of resenting our subs and making our way out of class, this time my friends and I simply laughed them out of the room. We had learned.
By contrast, when it came to Geometry class, I still joked around with the few of my peers who sat in the room with me, but just on occasion since I knew I couldn’t afford to fail and retake the course later.
In my Programming course, where I had none of my old friends alongside me, I was in the top tenth percentile of the class.
I had different types of performances then, but because I opted to joke around with my old gang in classes like English, my strong start back at Marshall was om precarious footing.
Two months into the 2007-2008 school year then–which was by then also supposed to be my last at Marshall–I was still not projected to “catch up” on enough credits graduate on time.
And soon, the two types of performances I was putting up since returning to B-track would have to come to terms with each other. This would be no clearer than in History class with Ms. Hart.
Ms. Hart was an older Jewish woman with curly gray hair in the History department at Marshall. There wasn’t much that was extraordinary about her as a teacher, but like so many of the disinterested types from my Freshman year, she was clearly just not a big fan of her job.
Classes like History at Marshall were a traffic jam, with ay least 30 students to the room. There were also virtually no Teacher’s Assistants for History, and since it was a subject riddled with events and timelines that seemed to speak little to the present moment, it was easy to derail lessons into debate about what actually was and wasn’t important for us students to know in the present day.
By then, it also must have been Ms. Hart’s tenth year with the subject–if not longer–and so she had plenty of reason to be exhausted.
But along came me and my peers like a pack of young hyenas, and all we saw in her weariness was a green light for our coordinated folly; even if we were in the later part of our teens at that point, and even if we could still graduate if we “just put our minds to it,” the fact of the matter is that most of us didn’t want to hear about graduation because we were resigned to the prospect of not graduating.
That’s where the complication lied; even though I identified with so many of my peers being behind on credits, replete with the anticsg of it all beside them, I still personally believed that I would somehow manage to graduate just in the nick of time.
Sure my grades were mixed since I’d gotten back to “B-track,” but even if I joked around like it didn’t matter to me, there was a resounding belief within me that I could and would still make it happen somehow.
I’d feel good then as I’d walk into Ms. Hart’s classroom with a mischievous smirk on my face, ready to rile up some rowdiness and turn in just enough work for a “C” grade.
At two months in her class, I showed her that on the one hand I was capable of any of the assignments she gave me, just like when I was on A-track. On the other hand, I also showed her that I was even more prone to getting carried away joking with my friends at the expense of the lesson plan; a true B-tracker. This contradiction would only get me on her bad side.
Ms. Hart’s class took place during fourth period, and I remember the one late morning when I got to our classroom early and she wasn’t in yet; I kicked my feet back on the desk, hollered at ‘my boys’ as they made their way in, and prepared for another hour of casually sabotaging the class.
A moment later, when the bell rang for fourth period to start, Ms. Hart walked in curtly, scribbled a few instructions for an assignment up on the board, and took a seat at her desk.
She then pointed at the board without saying a word; it was her way of telling us that that she wasn’t the one to be clowning around with that day.
When I registered this, I made a half-hearted attempt at abiding by her request, but my effort didn’t last long. Within some ten minutes, I crumpled up a piece of line paper down to a tiny paper-ball and set my sights on my old friend Brian a few desks away.
Brian nearly always got a kick at even a hint of disorder in class, and the sound of his laughter was usually so contagious that it nearly always served as the spark which lit up the rest of the belly-aching throughout the room.
I then flicked the tiny paper-ball towards Brian, which patted against his cranium and floundered across the floor. His infamous cackling proceeded to bellow out, and predictably turned the other heads of the class in our direction.
But this time, Brian was hardly at the outset of his laughter before Ms. Hart’s eyes shot up from her desk and fixed their gaze on me with laser-sharp focus. Ms. Hart then proceeded to march towards my seat, and I gulped, knowing that one way or another: it was coming.
Ms. Hart would go on to call me out that day. About how I never took anything seriously. About how life wasn’t just some big joke. And about how she actually knew just why I was such a clown.
By then I was used to hearing the first two statements from her, but the idea that she suddenly knew something about my character was different.
Maybe she had discovered some part of me that perhaps even I didn’t know about at that point; her words both perplexed and engaged me.
And so I asked Ms. Hart then, half in curiosity and the other half in a type of defense:
“Well, just why am I such a clown Miss?”
That’s when she slammed me with it:
“It’s because it’s clear to everyone that you won’t be graduating on time.”
For a moment I was astounded at the certainty in her voice, and unsure if I could trust what my ears had heard. So I asked Ms. Hart just what she meant by what she said. That’s when she repeated from the high tops of her lungs:
“IT’S OBVIOUS TO EVERYONE IN THIS CLASSROOM THAT YOU’RE A CLOWN BECAUSE YOU WON’T BE GRADUATING THIS YEAR.”
After months together, she had finally gotten my full attention, even if it was only by hurting me that she could do so.
I didn’t say anything to Ms. Hart for a moment, choosing instead to just shrug off her words until I could finally muster,
“Okay Miss, if you say so.”
But I remember going to lunch that day feeling broken.
Ms. Hart hung me out on a limb in front of everyone, and suddenly the gravity of being a year behind on my credits weighed in on me like the tagging or writing on the walls that filled so many of the school’s restrooms.
It didn’t look good, and if I didn’t do something about it fast, Ms. Hart would be right, just as Mr. Cook would be wrong for allowing me back in to Marshall in the first place.
Only then did it dawn on me that I had a choice to make a again.