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My Response to Frank Reyna - Part V of “I Survived Washington Irving JHS”
MY RESPONSE TO THE UNEXPECTED LETTER - 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 5 - MY RESPONSE TO RANK REYNA
Wow! Frank Reyna... I am so impressed to receive the letter from you. I came into my home office and my wife of 24 years, Shelly, had propped it up on my computer keyboard. I picked it up and immediately read the red stamp that said, “PELICAN BAY STATE PRISON SECURITY HOUSING UNIT - UNIT D-8” and saw the name Frank Reyna. I began to tremble. Your name still brings real fear to my soul. My wife got the letter earlier in the day and it was not well sealed so by the time I came home she had already read it. She did this mostly because of her loving protectiveness of me and her awareness of the emotional scars that I still carry to this day. Much of that scarring came from my days spent in Washington Irving Junior High School.
It does not surprise me that you do not even remember me. I was a skinny and tall white kid with either a skateboard, a yo-yo, or a basketball in my hands. I was at one end of the pendulum, while you were at the other end and everything that instilled fear into the likes of me. I probably never did anything that would have left an impression on you. I was an easy mark for money when you needed some. I was never a threat and knew better than to ever stand up to your assaults. I was never on your radar as either a friend, and enemy, or an equal. It was as though the likes of me did not even exist in your world, other than to come pick on me when you needed some worldly item that I possessed.
What you probably need to know, but don’t currently realize, is that you were part of a much bigger gang environment that inflicted very real physical and emotional pain upon me. I was a good kid. I came from anything but the gang banger lifestyle. I was like a little baby sheep cast amongst savvy hungry wolves. At that time you and I could have never been friends. There was never any level of respect or attention given to me by the likes of you because I was only a target for money and stealing of personal belongings. When you needed it, then I got shaken down. I speak of you specifically, but really am referring to the entire multi-gang environment of Washington Irving Junior High School back in the day.
REFLECTING BACK - I have thought about those days a lot in the last 40 years. I am generally an upbeat person and have gone on to become a father of 4 great kids with 3 grandkids. Immediately after leaving the East LA Hispanic gang environment my Father moved us to Pomona, California for my 10-12th grade years. This was a bigger joke because Ganesha High School had multiple Mexican gangs, but also 3 Black gangs, and the Caucasians and Asians were bused in from another city, and I did not live with them. I was able to make it through high school by arriving late and leaving immediately once the final bell rang and then fled to my pool riding skateboarding lifestyle. I avoided ever getting jumped, mugged, or shaken down in high school because I had learned how to avoid and flee.
Frank, I never understood you guys (Gang members). I cannot understand to this day the upbringing and neighborhood pressures of becoming a gang member. I watched you guys jump somebody as they would join. And then I would watch you jump them when they wanted to get out and join another. I referenced Emilio Rivera as I witnessed this happen to him as he changed gang affiliations. All of it took place just below the 9th grade wall during lunch time.
Of all the people in my life that I would love to sit down with and better understand where they were coming from, you are very high on my list. I have related to my kids my reasons for deciding to raise my family in Northern Utah instead of Southern California. I made the move so that they did not have to experience the levels of fear that I did during my junior and senior high school years. I would love to know what was going on in your head as you walked those long halls. Were you ever interested in any of the school learning? Or was it all about the power as you strutted across campus? I have re-looked through the 1979 Knickerbocker and you were the baddest of the bad. I see others that were tough, but I see none that were above you in the hierarchy of youth gang power.
It was a couple of years ago that I had some free time when I first wrote about my Washington Irving Junior High School years. I was trying to come to grips with my past and document how I came to my current place in life. I did this mainly for my kids and grandkids. I also wrote it for my Mother, who never knew of those events. I also wrote it for my 7 year older brother and 10 year older sister that also did not really know what I was experiencing in school at the time. Rarely were the school officials notified, for fear of further repercussion. The one time I did go to Mr. Garbo, with a bleeding mouth and sobbing tears, I was made out to be the offender. I published my writings in the family portion of my website, and Google must have spread it through the search engines to whoever told you about them. I also told my kids that I shared the real photos and the real names because it was my witness of the events of the day. I tried not to flower up the events and the emotions came from a real place in my soul where the feelings have long been harbored. I joked (in bad taste), that those guys (including you) were probably either dead or in jail, and that it was a sad path that they were upon. I felt that the facts were the facts, and that if I did not document those events, then I was being negligent as a husband, father and grandfather and that the future generations would never know what challenges I had to endure.
And now I sit here wondering about the man who has taken the time to write me and apologize. If you had asked me yesterday if I could forgive you, then I would have said that I had not been able to thus far. I have carried the weight of hatred for gang-bangers of all races since my exposure to them at Washington Irving JHS and Ganesha HS. I never would have expected to receive your letter of apology. It shows that you are really an honorable man with goodness inside, in that respect. If someone would have told me that I was to be receiving a letter and guess its content, I would never have expected the letter you wrote. I would have expected anger, rage, and hatred, none of which is present in your words. Regardless of what transpires from this time forth, I now hold you in much higher regard.
What I do see in your letter is a complete void of memory of the events from junior high school on your part. In talking with my wife Shelly, I can only assume that you went on to do far worse things and that your memory of the day to day events from your Washington Irving Junior High School years are wiped from your memory. That makes me sad. Not that you don’t remember me, but that your life headed down a difficult path. I would love to be part of the healing, and would love to know the events that brought you to the point where you are today. I know there were low points, but what were your highlights of life thus far?
- Did you ever get married?
- Do you have kids?... Grandkids?
- Did you finish high school?... College?
- Did you choose a profession?
- Did you ever have a really cool car?
- Did you ever backpack, fish, kayak, cave, sail, surf, ski, become a Boy Scout, get involved in church, or any of those things?
YES, I SURVIVED - Yes, I survived my years at Irving, survived my high school years at Ganesha High School in Pomona, California, and then floundered for several years while competing in skateboarding and doing a lot of skateboarding and surfing. I went to college off and on again and finally came to the point where I knew that I needed to return to the straight and narrow path that was instilled in me as a young man as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (The Mormons). At 21 I decided that I wanted to be a missionary and it took me about 3 years to clean my skeletons out of the closet and be able to worthily serve as an LDS proselyting missionary. I was assigned to serve in the Porto Alegre, Brazil mission which is all the way south next to Uruguay and Argentina for two years. Upon returning home I was turning 27 and I soon met my wife and we quickly got married and started raising our family in the Azusa and Glendora, California areas. Having been out of Southern California for two years, while in Brazil, I returned to once again feel the fear of the area. When our oldest child was two I knew there was a safer family centered lifestyle area where I could raise my family to be trusting of others first, instead of fearful until somebody proved themselves to be good. It was this trust that was non-existent at Irving. I had to be very careful as a 7th, 8th, and 9th grader to never be alone where the likes of you would physically shake me down. Shelly and I relocated to Northern Utah while the rest of my family relocated to Cincinnati, Ohio, Denver, Colorado, and even Nashville, Tennessee. I currently have no family residing in the Southern California area, as all have found a better quality of life elsewhere.
- So were you a bully? Absolutely. You were a gang bully. But you were not alone. There were at least a couple of dozen more at that school during our 9th grade year.
- Did you physically rob me of money? Yes. But what you really robbed me of was dignity and self worth.
- Were you a tough guy? Absolutely. But it always seemed like you were fighting to defend your pride and reputation.
- Do I have a single good memory of you? Not one.
- Did I ever have a class with you? Maybe a gym class, but we travelled in much different circles.
AM I STILL MAD? - Am I still mad at you? Let’s see,… I hate the things you did. I hate what you apparently stood for. I hated being used and abused. And I am still very mad at the 9th grade Frank Reyna’s actions. But that is in the past and we have both moved on and experienced so much of life. It is now almost 35 years later and my writing about the experiences has helped to place a Balm of Gilead on the long festering wounds. I have come to peace with the events of those days and wish there was a way we could go back and get some resolution back then. I think of what all of our lives could have become without all of the gang based hatred. What would it have been like to be friends? What talents, interests, and joys could I have learned from you if we could have stripped away the gang centered lifestyle?
I feel so bad for the events that have brought you into incarceration. I have no idea how much pain you have had to endure due to decisions made way back then as a youth. I wish that we could have been rescued from the pain and that today you were able to enjoy the freedoms that have been taken away. I have no idea what you have done, or how long you have had to spend behind bars. I can only imagine how lonely it must be. I can only hope that better days are on your horizon and that you can once again walk freely amongst society. I know that both you and I are sons of a Heavenly Father that loves each of us. I know that he is patient with our bad decisions and he allows us the free agency to make our own decisions, whether they be good or evil. I know that through the repentance and forgiveness process we become better people. I know this is what brought your letter to me and mine to you. Responding to your letter has allowed me to write this letter to you which is helping to bring peace unto my soul. I have such innocent questions to ask of you...
- What were your thoughts during your 9th grade year?
- What did you think of the whites and Orientals at school?
- Did you have resentment or hatred towards me? (Whites in general)
- Were you all about trouble, or were you interested in school, sports, and fun?
- Do you resent being raised in the gang environment?
- Would you have survived if you weren’t in a gang at that time? Did you really have any options?
- Why didn’t the races get along in our school?
- Why did I get mugged regularly for money?
- Why were multiple basketballs stolen from me?
- Why was my treasured baseball glove stolen?
- Why was I tapped on the shoulder and punched in the face?
- Why did David Rey punch me in the face, in front of my friends, for defending the punk actions of his 7th grade cousin towards me? I never understood the pride and violence then, but I think I have come to grips with what all of you were trying to prove then.
So Frank, I don’t expect you to remember back to those days and I certainly don’t expect you to remember me specifically. You are one of just a few people that I have made contact with in the past few years from the Class of 1979. By way of internet searches I made contact with Yvette Burton (Long strawberry blonde hair with fair skin), Patricia Steinman, Kelly Pruett, Richard “Dickie” Tom, Diane Drummond, and Christine Scott. I tried to find Danny Lombardi and Richard Doherty via Facebook, but still no luck. The Washington Irving Junior High School memories are fading the older I get. But even amongst the fear I made a lot of good memories during those 3 years. Life has been very good to me since that time and I have been very blessed. I have taken lots of hard knocks, some by my own choices, and some because that is what this mortal life is all about.
I would love to understand you better and the events that have brought you to this 52nd year of life. If you have any knee jerk thoughts or questions you want to share, then please write away. Any insights I can gain into your memories will help my healing process. This letter from me to you was written in just that format. I just started typing and there has been very little editing.
NOTE: I could edit this letter by 75%, but I am going to just go ahead and print it and send it just as it flowed from my fingertips.
I look forward to hearing more from you.
THE NEXT CHAPTER IS READY...
Michael Leavitt - Orem, Utah - Michael@TheHomeInspector.com - Originally written 11/25/2013
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