Aside from raising two fairly well adjusted good-hearted children and making a successful marriage after starting out clueless as to what that was, I guess the thing in my life about which I am most proud is having been a teacher. I taught for a year at a Compton middle school, having started as a day-to-day sub and ending up after a year as the chairman of the bilingual department, even though I'd had no experience teaching and my Spanish skills were pathetically limited. I discovered adult school the same year and found this so much more gratifying and while not easy, a lot easier. I left the middle school at the end of the school year and then taught at night for over ten years at Roosevelt, Lincoln, Hollywood, South Gate and other adult schools in predominately Hispanic areas. I retired from teaching when my first kid was born because I no longer had the stamina but it was wildly satisfying and I still miss it.
The budget for the Adult Division of LAUSD has been slashed to smithereens and given the financial crisis, adult education is being eliminated entirely in many cities throughout the state. My own coddled white child with the turbo charged helicopter mom couldn't hack a big urban high school and flew the coop after two weeks. Fortunately his parents were sophisticated enough to get him instantly admitted to a small charter school but for thousands of other kids who find high school unbearable the adult ed. alternative of academic and vocational coursework might well completely evaporate and it doesn't take a crystal ball to see that the consequence of this will be reflected in our prison population.
There were gang-bangers at just about every school I taught. I am embarrassed now to think about how frightened I was at first. I soon learned that most cholos lapped up attention and were ready to return a smile. The cultivation of a scary appearance was really just a buffer from the mainstream culture that was perceived as malicious and exclusionary. Better to walk the planet with a fearsome countenance than a frightened one. I hired a few adult school students to work at my film library and I never regretted it. None were cholos but they were all kids whose childhoods made mine, with a narcissistic mother and disengaged father, look like Ozzie and Harriet and without the grounding of adult school they could easily have slipped through the cracks.
Oddly, the one gang member I did hire was the daughter of the president of our synagogue. The girl was five when her mother died and her father struggled to raise three daughters and the youngest, motherless, with a harried father, gravitated toward a gang. All of the gang girls and many of the boys use cartoon character monikers and gang loyalties and the attendant violence perhaps cloaks a yearning for the innocence of an idealized childhood. My chola was called Snoopy and this was tattooed inelegantly on her forearm and many other crude gang symbols graced her hands and face. She started work at a time before most of our business was done by Internet and people still came into the office. A few customers commented about the girl with the tats and when I noted that while I didn't mind tattoos, hers were really shitty, and then asked if she wanted them removed she responded affirmatively.
Having taught in the East L.A environs I was familiar with Father Greg Boyle's work with gang members through Homeboy Industries, which provides social services, job training and placement and tattoo removal out of its 1st street office. I arranged for Snoopy's tattoo removal which she said was quite painful but except for a scar from a gun shot wound on her abdomen, obliterated all of the physical evidence of her lousy youth. She now has a good position at a bank which I doubt she'd have been hired for if she were still all tatted up.
I heard Father Boyle speak at the Downtown Library a few weeks ago and ordered an audiobook of his recent “Tattoos on the Heart-The Power of Boundless Compassion.” I was expecting a collection of heart warming redemption stories and a sense of connection with a kindred spirit who gets it that gang-bangers aren't garbage. The book has all that but I was gobsmacked how Boyle's book touched me in a way few others have. Boyle reads the book himself on the audio version which is unusual for a non-celebrity writer, but perfect because he completely nails the cadence and vocabulary of the street and his delivery is dead-on but not mocking. Spuds requires much transport this week and while I listen to my Father Boyle tape he tunes into music on his Iphone and wears headphones. He often looks over and sees tears streaming down my face and asks if I'm ok and if maybe I should pull over. At other times I laugh so loudly that I penetrate the thudding bass in his ear-pods. Scientific studies conclude that people are unlikely to laugh out loud when they are by themselves but Boyle got to me a few times when I was on the freeway, after dropping Spuds at school. A bit alarming given my coffee addiction and fifty-five year old bladder.
The theme of the book is kinship and it challenges our ideas about compassion and charity. We go though the motions of ministering to those flung outside the margins but we still cling to the notion that we are superior. We strive to inculcate the downtrodden with our own values and standards and fail to drink in their grace. Father Boyle was slated to head the department of student services at the finely manicured University of Santa Clara but after spending time among the impoverished of Bolivia he asked if instead if he could work with the poor, whose holiness is palpable. He was sent to Dolores Mission, in one of the poorest and most gang ridden sections of L.A. and his ministry there grew into the legendary Homeboy Industries.
Boyle is a member of the Jesuit order, sort of the long haired, brainy branch of the Catholic Church. Father Boyle reminds us that Catholicism is not really about the institution but the teachings of Jesus. I do wonder how much free rein Boyle has and how he feels about the home office position on issues like birth control and gay rights. When interviewed by Pat Morrison, at the chola operated Homegirl Cafe, Boyle says, “..within [my] own sad, tragic church, there's a clerical culture that's not very helpful -- it's just about power and privilege and secrecy and sometimes even a willful wandering away from Jesus and the living of the Gospel. I think that the church can be returned to itself. It's about standing at the margins and with the right people, with these people and that's what the church ought to be.” Boyle also voiced some skepticism about Opus Dei affiliate Jose Gomez who was named to replace Cardinal Mahoney, although he also indicated he would give him the benefit of the doubt after an eloquent press conference in which Gomez posited that the real home for any priest and bishop is in the love for the people.
This is a big news week when Proposition 8 is overturned. As a reminder that Catholicism is not synonymous with Vatican doctrine, Pew Research reveals that 53% of American Catholics are in favor of the legalization of gay marriage. More locally, the revelation regarding the sexual abuse of children at a local school has snowballed into a public relations nightmare worthy of an acid social satire by Tom Perrotta and bodes to result in a huge financial hit to the already destitute LAUSD. I presume that Boyle had in mind the revelation of decades of child abuse perpetrated by Catholic clergy in his reference to the church's code of secrecy during the Morrison interview.
In “Tattoos on the Heart” Father Boyle recalls how excruciating it was to forgive gang members who shot and killed a twelve year old boy he had known and loved. He adds that a much larger obstacle than poverty or lack of skills and education for those outside the margins is a sense of worthlessness and shame. I think in this way the experience of gang members mirrors that of those who prey sexually on children. These outcasts also have in common, in most cases, childhoods marred by neglect and abuse. There are options such as Homeboy Industries available for those weary of gang life. Those driven to sexually molest children do not set out to be mentally disordered sex offenders. Usually the uncontrollable urges are manifested during horrific childhoods but the subject is so taboo and we have so stigmatized those who suffer from this mental illness that it must be near to impossible to locate preemptive psychiatric treatment. The thought of children being preyed upon is painful to chew around but true compassion does not require us to condone the actions of the outcast or minimize the suffering of the victim, only that we see ourselves in all of mankind.
It's when we face for a moment the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know the taint in our own selves, that awe cracks the mind's shell and enters the heart.