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Fear & Survival - Part I of “I Survived Washington Irving JHS”
THE LONG WALK OF SHAME - The following is part of a series of articles written by Michael Leavitt about his real life experiences at Washington Irving Junior High School in Los Angeles, California from 1974-1976. The events are true and have been documented to help Michael's family better understand the racial tensions he endured during that era.
“DAD, WHAT WAS IT REALLY LIKE FOR YOU IN JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL?”
CHAPTER 1 - FEAR & SURVIVAL
I often think about my survival from Washington Irving Junior High School. Survived is the key word in an era and environment that was anything but conducive to academic learning. Set in the heart of East Los Angeles with young aspiring gang-banger members of Frogtown, Toonerville, the Avenues, and the CP Boys all present in one place. Situated about 5 miles east of Dodgers’ Stadium and just 1/4 mile from the Van De Kamp’s Bakery, the sweet smell of cinnamon rolls helped to overcome the stench of the filth of mini gang-bangers developing into full blown gang-bangers on the Washington Irving campus.
I vividly remember fellow 9th grader named Emilio Rivera decked out in his pressed pendleton, white T-shirt, blue and white bandana, and neatly creased khaki’s down below the Washington Irving JHS 9th grade wall standing bravely before three other Latino 9th graders, completely out of sight of the school administration. Words were exchanged and then the three attacked Emilio with fists and feet both hitting and kicking. Their shoes were a combination of Hush Puppies and the pointy dress shoes we called Cockroach Killers. Cockroach Killers inflicted much more pain and more easily left concealed bruises and broken ribs when they connected. Emilio did not fight back as he fell to the ground and continued to take an incredible beating.
To a caucasian boy raised outside of the gang-banger mentality, I was shocked and yet I dared not make a move to jump down off the wall to lend Emilio a hand. Something strange was happening before my eyes, yet what it was I could not fully comprehend. I continued watching the beating take place and I could see blood trickle from the corner of Emilio’s mouth as he rolled back and forth on the ground with the kicking and hitting continuing. After about 90 second the three gutless attackers suddenly stopped. They did not run. They just stood there encircled around Emilio, who then tried to stand up himself. The three reached downward and helped to lift him upwards as the three started to smile and offer praises while embracing the bruised and battered young man. Emilio was now part of the gang, and whether it was the CP Boys, Frogtown or Toonervile I did not know, although their member entry and departure rituals were the same. You got jumped in to enter and jumped out to exit... Bizarre!
“This can’t be real. What possesses a young man to want to enter a gang in the first place? Who would want to pass through the initiation of getting beat senseless to get in and then getting one even worse if you want to get out? What is the point of all of this. Is it protection? Is it pride? Is it territorial? Is it a form of friendship? Or is this just the way it is and a traditional passed down from those who went before?”
“Where you from esse?” (Pronounced essay with a hard s followed by a long drawn out saaaaay)
These were the words that struck fear into my heart, as this meant a major confrontation. What would it be today? My lunch money? My baseball glove? My basketball? Or just a punch to the gut for giving the wrong answer. The advice given by others was to not look them in the eye? Don’t stand up to them or they will beat you down. They rarely take you on one on one, I was told. They want what you have. And once they mug you once, then you are their regular target forever in those darkened Washington Irving JHS hallways.
The key to survive was to stay in a group one day, walk real fast another day, and try to stay within eyesight of a teacher or administrator other days. It worked for me most of the time, but the sinking feeling as you realized that you were alone and the phrase, “Where you from esse?” came forth. To run meant a pure bloody butt-kicking once they surrounded you. To answer with an opposing gang name was a certain beating. To say “Nowhere” seemed like the only logical answer. But that always resulted in the same repeating of “But where you from esse?” To which came forth another timid, “Nowhere. I mean I really ain’t from nowhere” as I tried to not uncontrollably urinate from the fear. Would they let me go today? Or would this be another day of bruises, blood, and pain? Or would I get lucky and with just a loss of money or other personal possession?
What nobody in adulthood realized was what was really happening on a student level. For boys, fear ruled the Washington Irving JHS hallways. Puberty hit many of those junior high gang-bangers in 5th grade and they were grown men by 9th grade. Puberty was very unknind as I found myself surrounded by many full grown, soon to be convicts, while I patiently waited for the arrival of the faintest of manhairs. This was especially difficult in the daily open showers following gym class. I found myself amongst a smaller group of young whites and Asians trying to figure out why we were being exposed to all of the racial hatred, pride, pain, blood, and misery that seemed to exist around the Latino gang-bangers.
So where was our Boys Vice-President, Mr. Garbo, when I was being assaulted? He was an old military looking bald as an eagle caucasian who sported a long paddle on his office wall emblazoned with “Board of Education” on its length. He freely used this paddle to give swats to all those he deemed necessary. Since he apparently wielded so much power, then why couldn’t he have saved me from the misery? And what if I were to have told on my attackers? Would Mr. Garbo come to my rescue and offer me safety while the filthiness was being cleaned from the campus? Was there really any level of protection that a young man like me could have attained? Or was I doomed to endure the pain until I either cracked from the pressure or graduated, whichever came first.
Let’s face it, my parents had no clue what was going on. The school administrators did not acknowlege what was going on. My older brother kind of knew, but being 7 years older, he would occasionally offer advice but he did not know the full extent of what was actually happening. I chose to just keep all of my frustrations, hurt, and pain inside. This is just how life was at Washington Irving Junior High School. Most of my friends also had no clue, as the embarrassment and shame would have been too much for me to bear. I had to figure out how to make the best of my circumstances. I had to learn how to survive as Mr. Garbo was to prove to be useless in either saving me and/or providing any sort of protection. The reality was that I had to have eyes in the back of my head, run when needed, and pray to be able to endure the pain when necessary, and most of all never find myself in the wrong hallway alone at the wrong time. But this was not always possible. For example, one early morning in October when Frank Reyna had me trapped down by the wood and metal shops.
Michael Leavitt - Orem, Utah - Michael@TheHomeInspector.com - Originally written 2/22/2011
NOTE: Washington Irving Junior High School was 7th, 8th, and 9th grades during my 1974-76 tenure. I see that it is now named Washington Irving Middle School and features 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. I wish the change happened decades ago and I could have completed 9th grade at the much more impressive and friendly Eagle Rock High School.
NOTE 2: Washington Irving has changed again. The internet shows it is now called the Irving Magnet School and is painted white and vibrant blue and features grades 5th through 8th. LINK
What are your thoughts?
Augie shared... "Wow, Washington Irving JHS. I was a 7th grader when you were in ninth. I moved in with my aunt and uncle. Their kids went to Eagle Rock, but I had to go to Washington Irving. Your experience is true. I had to either out think or fight for my existence. The teachers did not care if I got beat up unless I started to win the fight. They would let the guys hit me and wouldn't stop it. The white girls I was friends with would get harassed and groped on a daily basis unless I was there to defend them..."