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The 9th Grade Wall - Part III 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 3 - THE 9TH GRADE WALL
1976 was 36 years ago and “The Dreamers” bi-centennial graduating class from Washington Irving Junior High School was enjoying their last year together before the great divide that would send all of the student body at least three clear directions to three different high schools. So for the duration of that 9th grade school year a number of friendships blossomed and thrived on what had become known as the 9th Grade Wall.
Years before the Dreamers passed through Washington Irving Junior High School, the ground just outside the front entry of the main school building became the property of 9th graders only. 7th and 8th graders could walk past, but they were not to even think of stopping and staying during the lunch time hour. For the non-tough guys of the school it was a perfect little area that sat immediately outside all of the school offices, which meant that very few of the gang-banger activity was present. Instead, those young men and young women aspiring to something other than prison life were able to interact and enjoy one another. But that all changed for one brief moment just days into the third term of 1976.
I remember sitting on the 9th Grade Wall and up the stairs from the west came five pairs of tan khakis and crease T-shirts led by little 9th grade future gang leader of America, David Rey. In and of himself he was a very short 9th grader, but with the backing of four friends he really became somebody tough. What were they up to, I thought. Then I noticed they were coming my direction with stern looks of toughness on their faces. I suppose I could have jumped down the other side of the wall and ran for cover, but it was just paranoid thought that they were coming to me. With bandanas carefully folded they wore them over their foreheads and halfway down over their eyes and sported their gang’s color. There were on a mission of unknown cause and reason. Maybe they were jumping in a new gang member, like we had witnessed before with Emilio Rivera (See Chapter 1).
A hush came over the 9th Grade Wall crowd as though we were being graced with the evil Darth Vader type presence as they continued to come straight for me. What had I done? Why was I being singled out? They walked up and surrounded me preventing my escape. I realized that all conversations and activities nearby stopped and eyes were upon this rare scene. David Rey stood in front of me with one guy flanking each shoulder to the rear and another on each side of me with the waist high 9th Grade Wall behind me. Without many words being spoken I still remember time slowing down as I spotted David Rey’s right hand by his side and the fingers clinched into a fist, when all of the sudden the quickest punch I ever have personally witnessed was coming up and directly for my face.
I have described it to close friends and family many times in the years since that I felt like David Rey’s fist struck me head on in the mouth and continued all the way to the back of my throat before removing itself just as quickly. It struck with incredible force and the pain was so intense as I realized that my lips were diced and blood was flowing everywhere. As his fist returned equally fast to his side I was doubled over in pain and he muttered some words warning me to never say or do another thing to somebody or something. I had no idea what he was warning because I was in such excruciating pain and trying not to bleed all over my clothing.
Talk about the ultimate humiliation, well this was it. In front of all my peer group that I cared about, I was beat down and humiliated, left crying and bleeding with no idea how bad off I really was from the single punch. I had never been hit so hard, so quickly, and left in such bad shape. As quickly at the pressed khaki’s and T-shirts came, they departed. My friends must have come to my aid and somehow I made it to the offices for first aid attention. You would think that the police would have been called, but that is not how things were handled at Washington Irving Junior High School.
Male discipline at Washington Irving JHS was handled by either the athletics coach or our Vice Principal, Mr. Garbo. Since this did not happen near the gym, it was Mr. Garbo’s issue to resolve. Hey I know, he must have been thinking, I will get these two boys together and they can resolve their differences. Still pushing back the tears of hurt and pain I found myself sitting in his office looking at the Board of Education (swat paddle) hanging on his wall behind his chair being informed of his grand idea knowing that it was really was an insanely bad idea. Yep, I was about to let my attacker know that I had ratted him out to the administration for an issue that I thought I had nothing to do with, yet the attack obviously was directed directly at me.
David Rey walked in with a smile on his face. After all, why not smile? His mouth was not diced, bruised and bloody. He was in perfect shape and he knew the VP’s office well. He had grabbed his ankles many times before taking his obligatory swats for wrong-doings. It was never a question of whether or not you received a swat. Instead, it was how many did you get for the offense. If you got 2, that was okay, 3 was better, and 4 was a supreme act of defiance. Those that received them wore them as a badge of honor without humiliation, yet somebody like me would never endure that type of pain and initiation into the rough and tough brotherhood. Nor did I have any desire to receive such punishment.
I was still sobbing while David Rey stated his cause for throwing the blow. It turns out that one of the up and coming gang-bangers was a 7th grader in the same metal shop class as myself. My schedule had just been changed because I became the mid-year 500 Club president and I had never taken metal shop before and thought it would be a good choice to fill a void created when they switched my schedule to get me into the leadership class. There was a whole slew of 7th grade trouble makers in the metal shop class and I was one of the few 9th graders and really wanted nothing to do with their antics. I had little tolerance for their pissy attitudes, and they were as irritating as a little Chihuahua nipping at your ankles, and basically told them to take a hike. Not worried at all by these kids who barely rose to the height of my lowest rib. I really just wanted to learn how to work with metals and not deal with the prison yard top-dog hiking your leg to mark your territory issues present in the metal shop. I preferred to just wipe them off my radar pretending that they did not exist in my reality and this taught me a valuable life lesson. Little punks have older brothers and cousins. The little guys expect all those not of their ilk to bow down and pay homage to their presence and they rely upon the older relatives to ensure that proper respect is given. But let’s be serious, they were little 7th grade punks. How did I know this was common in metal shop? None of this ever happened in wood shop, electronics, or industrial crafts.
Respect, that is what the future gang leaders were seeking, yet they rarely wanted to give the same. Unless you were the supreme fighter, had a weapon, or had an equal number of fighters backing your cause, then you were the underdog. It seems that I had not given the proper respect (imagine that) and the little guy went and told his older cousin David Rey, who then went to the 9th Grade Wall to beat the respect into my soul. Somehow this explanation made good sense to Mr. Garbo and he deemed the issue my fault. No swats were given. No suspensions or expulsions were ordered, and in fact, there were no punishments of any kind imposed. No record of the event was ever made, except the nightmares that ensued from the scars etched upon my soul as I flashed back to the slow motion memories of David Rey’s fist coming at my face.
LESSONS LEARNED - Mexican gang-bangers almost always fight with group backing. Respect is their mantra, but it is a one way affair. Always remember that little punks have older relatives, so do your best to just keep a low profile and just stay off their radar altogether. And most importantly, flee the environment as quickly as possible and move to a safer locale where you can safely live your life and raise your family.
Imagine how I felt leaving the office of the man who was supposed to provide protection to me, knowing that I would receive retribution for bringing David Rey’s actions to the attention of the Washington Irving Junior High School administration. I was a marked man and walked the campus and halls with even more fear than I had ever before felt. This was so unfair for anybody to have to endure while attending junior high school. I knew that I had no protection. Until my Mom and Dad read this account, I believe they knew nothing of the event. The school never notified them of the bloody punch and I think I downplayed the event when they returned home from work later that evening. Police were never called and to the school administration this was just another day in the life. For me it was a stripping away of yet another layer of innocence; an innocence that I should have had the God given right to enjoy.
Amidst the angst and fear I was still able to create some incredible memories and 2012’s Facebook has helped reunite some of those more innocent friendships...
THE NEXT CHAPTER IS READY...
Michael Leavitt - Orem, Utah - Michael@TheHomeInspector.com - Originally written 2/18/2012
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?