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The Long Walk of Shame - Part II 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 2 - THE LONG WALK OF SHAME
1976 brought us the bi-centennial celebration of our country as the Viet Nam war was fading into past memories. My Dad was a depression baby who had lived with the scars of living through a tornado that exploded the house where he tried to dodge the storm and his severely injured 14 year-old young body was found hundreds of feet away from where he had originally ducked for cover before the home exploded. His injuries resulted from large wood splinters being shoved through his thigh mid-section and arm and left him being a cripple as he finished off his schooling while trying to convalesce his wounds. He later was able to cover up the lack of full use of his right hand and he served under MacArthur in the post Korean War era. He never really opened up about his schooling years, but I know that kids can be cruel to those that are different, injured, and weaker than themselves and I know that Dad endured the same ridicule as the “normal kids” played sports and enjoyed their teenage years. Dad was driven to educate himself and he was the first in his family to attain a college degree and he worked hard to become a mathematical genius.
That little bit of history is important to understand how this depression baby found himself transferred from Cocoa, Florida where he worked with the aerospace program to downtown Los Angeles, California looking for economical housing. In the hills between Highland Park, Glassell Park, and Eagle Rock, both Mom and Dad found a nice house for rent at 4627 Jessica Drive. The rent was just $200 and the house really was nice and fit our family’s needs. The drawback to the location is that it was surrounded by Latino ghetto. We arrived there when I was in second grade and stayed until the landlord raised the rent to $250 when I was just starting 10th grade. Dad was red hot mad when the rent was raised so and this is what made him take the leap and purchase a home 30 miles east in Pomona, California.
Jessica Drive was a wonderfully secluded street where a kid could slide down the steep grassy hills on cardboard in the late summers, explore endlessly, ride dirt bikes everywhere, and play baseball, basketball, over the line, kick-the-can, and generally just love life without fear while playing on the street. But when you went a half a mile in any direction you found yourself in a much different environment. After moving in, Mom and Dad found a babysitter a mile to the southwest and the environment was filled with alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, while featuring verbal abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse, all within the confines of the babysitters fence line. That’s right, inside the fence. I walked into Glassell Park Elementary School and was in a fight within my first couple of days of second grade. I had never before been exposed to people who hated me because of the color of my skin. I had always liked people, yet the rough and tough wannabe gang-bangers at Glassell Park Elementary School did not like me and we soon transferred me to Toland Way Elementary School and in the process I rarely had to spend much time at the abusive baby sitter’s unhealthy environment and walked the other direction from our house to school each day. I regret that my younger sister Becky did not have that luxury since she was 3 years younger and she endured many things at the babysitter’s home that no young girl should ever have to be exposed.
Toland Way Elementary was a better racial mix and not dominated by Mexican wannabe gang-bangers. I thrived at Toland Way and then was re-introduced into the gang mentality when I graduated and went onward to Washington Irving Junior High School (See chapter1). As I go through my old yearbooks my memory banks become filled with great thoughts of my experiences, mainly because of my girl classmates. In junior high school I became much closer to the girls than I did to the guys, and my young heart experienced many crushes during that same time span (I’ll write about them later). It is kind of strange, but I did not go to junior high school with any of the boys in my nearby neighborhood. The two closest boys, Ralph and Raymond, were sent to Catholic School until high school in an attempt to keep them out of the gangs (and it worked). My next door neighbors, Paul and Chucko Gage, were 4 and 6 years older so they were fun to play with, but we never went to school together. I had to go several miles to church and all of those young men went to other junior high schools. I had one great friend, Tom Hardesty, but he moved when we were ending 5th grade. So all of this left me going to junior high with different people than I played with after school and went to church.
Logistics played a huge role in friendships back then, except for girls. We had a rotary dial telephone with a private line (not a party-line) and I loved to talk with girls from junior high school on the phone. This meant I spent much more time talking with the girls at school than I did with the boys. With the guys, I played lots of basketball, baseball, and football, but with the girls we would talk about almost anything and almost everything. I also loved the beach and waves, and was really starting to love skateboarding. This was pre-urethane wheels days, so I always had road rash on my knees, hands, and elbows from the daily wipeouts. Rotary Dial PhoneNone of the boys at Washington Irving Junior High School were into skateboards, but many of the girls were attracted to the Surfer look (or so I believed). Many a Pee-Chee folder could be found with “Surfers Rule” written on the outside with that big cool “S” that was so fun to draw. I adopted the pookah shell necklace, the mood ring, Hawaiian shirt, and layered hair parted in the middle as my identity. Clearly it distinguished me from the creased Levi’s, creased white T-shirt, and pendleton look that dominated the Mexican gang look. I wanted nothing to do with them, and wished that they wanted nothing to do with me. I often dreamed that we lived a few miles to the north and in the boundaries of Eagle Rock Jr/Sr High School. This school was predominantly Caucasian with much less gang activity, and beautiful friendly people. What got me through many hard days was knowing that once 10th grade came along I would get to go to Eagle Rock. I was quite satisfied knowing that the gang-bangers would go to Franklin and Marshall High Schools and I would be free of them at last.
I absolutely adored the girls and their friendships. They were fun and it was a much more innocent time. They were so attractive. And they smelled so very good. I can easily rattle off a dozen of my favorites and with a quick look at a yearbook can find at least one or two dozen more. Of those first dozen, I came to know their likes, their dislikes, what made them laugh, and what was inappropriate. Saying good-bye at the end of each school year was very difficult. Many tears were shed when junior high school was over and the majority were heading off to other high schools. We had truly become friends during the 1973-1976. Many of these girls were Caucasian, while several were Asian. Some of these girls were Latinas and I took time to learn about their culture and the darker gang violence. I found that I could talk to them, while it was impossible to talk with their gang member male counterparts. In the years that have passed, many of my scars have disappeared, while several of the wounds fester to this very day.
WAIT A MINUTE... Let me try my experiment.
Yep, that was easy!
Much of my healing has been very slow due to the pain inflicted upon me by those with the physical power in junior high. Most of the miserable feelings and anger I was able to discard/shed and keep moving through life, but some were shelved until they could be dealt with later (if ever). I find myself still dealing with them to this day. It is hard for me to count the number of times I was verbally threatened, robbed, and physically harmed while at Washington Irving Junior High School. In order to survive, 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.
Frank was a man-child; the type who was fully into puberty by 5th grade. As a 9th grader he truly was the baddest “Vato” in the school. If there was somebody who thought they were badder, then a fight would ensue. He ruled the grounds and as a Caucasian, I did my best to steer clear from his presence. This was easy between classes due to the crowds. But one cold October morning found me having to go from the farthest shop class to the main office mid-way through class. I walked out the door and headed east when I saw Frank coming down the stairs towards the shops. I could not turn around. I could not enter one of the other shops. An 8 foot chain link fence prevented my turning and heading out onto the sports fields (Asphalt... no grass). All I could do was walk towards him and pray that he would turn into one of the first shop classes, but he didn’t.
Frank saw me and a huge smile came over his face. Not a friendly smile, but a Cheshire Cat type of smile where he saw the answer to his financial difficulties. “Hey essayyyyy! Where you from?” he asked. And then he physically shook me down and I gladly gave up my lunch money for the day. I was trembling and the punch to the gut was not my normal way of communicating. I was a whimpering fool hoping to escape with only concealed bruises and no blood. There were no video cameras on campus. We had no on-campus police. What had just happened to me happened without anybody else ever knowing. He threatened me with more violence if I told and I had already learned my lesson about trying to get the administration involved. There was no safety. Where was my solace?
To Frank, I was just another easy source of income. If I had no money, then he would take my personal possessions and sell them. To him I was a nothing other than a source to gratify his selfish needs. I flash back to the dozens of times I have heard the advice that to avoid further shakedowns, you have to fight hard the first time and then they will respect you and leave you alone. To that I say, “Phooey!” It may work with somebody who is striving to be a bully, but it is a bogus concept if you are actually up against an experienced bully. I was fortunate in that I never had to deal with knives or guns, although I knew the knife threat was ever present. I was never trained in self-defense or martial arts, so the ability to fight back with those that loved to fight did not seem like a viable option. Instead, I chose the option to endure the pain and ultimately survive the experience.
Michael Leavitt - Orem, Utah - Michael@TheHomeInspector.com - Originally written 2/11/2012
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