Stevenson Jr. High is where I served a three year sentence after
leaving elementary school. I was in science class, learning about modern
medicine when the teacher asked which antibiotic would cure a certain
infection. I was still riding high from my smarty pants sixth grade year and I
raised my hand high.
“Penny-celeene,” I said, stressing the syllables as one would in
“Which one?” my teacher asked again. He was either confused or just
setting me up for the punchline.
“Penny-Celeene…” I repeated innocently.
“Penny-celeeeeene?” he mimicked quizzically and then paused
“Oh!!! You mean PENICILLIN?” The class burst out laughing. It was
very funny. Asshole.
That experience marked the beginning of an exciting year. One guy thought it
would be hilarious to throw dog biscuits at me in Algebra class. He didn’t
think it was so funny when I went over and dug my fingernails into his flesh,
clawing bloody red gashes down his face. Because he was a gentleman and only
threw dog biscuits at girls but drew the line at hitting them, he vented his
anger by picking up his desk and hurling it out the window of our second story
classroom. The teacher sat at his desk and pretended nothing happened.
I am second from the left on the top row.
I made Lamplighters, which is what the Stevenson Honor Society was called. The
Biscuit Thrower christened me “Hunch Butt,” which was horrible
because even I had to admit that it was funny and therefore had legs. A group
of marauding boys threw an orange at my ass as I crossed the field. It exploded
and left a big wet spot on my pants. The students on the yard fell over
themselves laughing at me. My anger simmered as I plotted a million ways of
exacting revenge, none of which would ever come to fruition. I saw a group of
cholas jump a girl into a gang in the gym locker room. They mercilessly
punched, kicked and dragged her around by her hair, literally mopping the floor
with her before the coaches found out what was happening.
I’d had a growth spurt in sixth grade and was almost normal weight, but by
seventh grade my weight caught up with my height and then some. I was 170 lbs
and wore a size twenty in women’s dresses. I had buck teeth, frizzy hair and
glasses and I was completely lost in that savage, evil place named after the
author who had written about bloodthirsty pirates and the hideous Mr. Hyde.
None of the things he wrote about were as scary as this East
L.A. middle school that was named in his honor.
Before the year was over, I had signed up for Service, also known in some
circles as Lapdog. I worked in the student store for a semester and then my
past came back to haunt me and I was assigned to the girl’s bathroom. I tried
to enforce as much as possible but I couldn’t control the gang jump-ins that
took place all the time in that bathroom. I would’ve felt bad if someone had
been beaten during my watch but these girls were willing participants. It meant
so much to them to be accepted by these surrogate families that they were
willing to have their asses kicked. It seemed to me that they were even sadder
than I was. My parents might have been fucked up, but I knew they loved me. I
didn’t want or need a surrogate family.
I was lost during my first year at Stevenson Jr. High. I had no clue how to
parlay the few social skills I had picked up during my last year at Eastman Avenue School
and make them work for me in this new setting. The school was big and
overwhelming. The kids from a nearby housing project called Estrada Courts had
their own gang called Varrio Nuevo Estrada or VNE. They were a
huge gang at the time and today they’re one of the biggest and oldest gangs in L.A. One of their rivals
was another large gang called White Fence, or WF.
Me on the yard at Stevenson.
Although I grew up in East L.A., I never felt
the presence of gangs when I was in elementary school or at my home on Ditman Avenue. Oh,
I’d see the graffiti on the walls and there was a family who lived on our block
that was deeply immersed in gang culture. The parents were gang members and the
grandparents were veteranos (respected gang elders) and the
kids, although too young at the time to be actual gang members, were expected
by their family to be gang members some day. But most of the families on our
block were not in gangs; they were just poor, working class people with a
desire to get ahead.
I didn’t really understand the gang mentality. What were they
fighting for? An old, overcrowded apartment building, a liquor store, a bus
stop, all of it was prized turf. I saw them as divided and conquered, fighting
over scraps from the master’s table instead of pulling up a chair to join the
dinner party. I couldn’t relate to their goals. They didn’t seem interested in
becoming brain surgeons, or pilots, or President of the United States,
like I was. They didn’t want to live in a house like the one The Brady Bunch
had. They wanted to rule their turf and grow old and become veteranos.
Needless to say, I knew very little about gang culture but soon
found myself in the middle of it. In East L.A.
at that time, it was impossible to escape it. It was not unusual for rival
gangs to drive slowly around the perimeter of our school football field, trying
to find a particular target. Sometimes their bullets found their intended
victim, but just as often, “civilians” (non-gang members) sitting in
the bleachers studying their textbooks or watching a game got caught in the crossfire.
Every so often, someone would post a bulletin about a memorial service for one
of my classmates.
It was like trying to sit in a classroom in the middle of a combat
zone. Just when you started thinking you were in a regular school you’d walk
into the bathroom or gym class and see someone getting jumped in, or you might
see someone spray-painting a wall, or sniffing the paint from a plastic Baggie.
Stevenson had lots of other problems besides gangs. There were plenty of drug
dealers on our campus. It was the easiest thing in the world to buy reds,
whites, black beauties, yellow jackets, joints and nickel or dime bags. I
avoided these during my first year, but would eventually sample a little of
everything while I was there.
That first year was the hardest for me. I wanted so much to do
well but doing well only meant that someone would threaten to beat me up if I
didn’t let them copy my work. It seemed that the answer was to not do so well.
Maybe I shouldn’t strive to make Lamplighters, the high GPA group that got you
labeled as a nerd and made you an easy target. Yet, if I didn’t do well, I
would have to contend with my father’s wrath. My looks didn’t help either - being
fat, wearing glasses and having crooked teeth didn’t win me any friends. I
looked the part of a stereotypical nerd and even some of the least popular kids
at school teased and bullied me. I was at the bottom of the food chain.
It was during this school year that I started to go home and go to bed while
the sun was still up in the sky. My sister had already married her junior high
school sweetheart. My mother had started working as a teacher’s aide. I was all
alone and my best friend was my pillow.
In eighth grade, I wised up totally by accident. I was still in
Service but now I was working in the girl’s Vice Principal’s office. This was
exciting, high stakes stuff. I started making friends with the female thugs and
ring leaders of the gangs at school. They were always being called down to the
VP’s office and they always had to wait a long time with nothing to do. With no
magazines or weapons to keep them entertained, these girls would eventually
talk to me. They were nice, too.
“Do you know why they called me down? How much do they know?” they’d
ask. Pretty soon, I was on friendly terms with cholas from rival gangs and
believe it or not, I even had one or two stick up for me. I started to
appreciate them. They had so much style, they were so fierce looking and they
didn’t take shit from anyone. There was a code of loyalty between them that I
admired, but not enough to endure the jump-in ritual.
I don’t know if being around all these cholas started to rub off on me but one
day, one of my usual tormentors pushed me as I was walking up the stairs and
without thinking, I immediately turned around and pushed her back. She was a
couple of steps below me on the stairs and had a Bic ballpoint pen clenched
pointy side in between her teeth. My open hand shoved the point of the
ballpoint pen into the back of the girl’s throat, causing blood to come gushing
from her mouth. The ambulance was called and I was suspended from school for
two weeks, during which time I enjoyed watching TV and having no homework.
I might as well have brought some 8x10 glossies and a Sharpie to sign
autographs when I finally returned to school. I was almost famous. People
smiled at me and said hello to me in the halls. I found four friends to eat
lunch with (one of them was Viola) and my days of dodging projectiles and
taunts were over. I took shop as an elective the following semester and learned
how to make a plastic shank.