“I don’t ever want to feel
Like I did that day
Take me to the place I love
Take me all the way …”
– Red Hot Chili Peppers, Under The Bridge
She’s driving just above the speed limit.
“And there’s my former school. When I worked there, I used to do the craziest things to get to my kids, but it worked.”
It was the first time I ever met Liz Dwyer, now writer extraordinaire for TakePart.com. For years, we ranted online, bounced ideas off each other, and became great friends. So when we first met, it didn’t hit me that this was my first time meeting her. Making my way to Los Angeles felt ethereal by the first evening. By day 2, I traversed East LA, saw extensive parts of Sunset Blvd., and saw almost every star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
I just didn’t expect to actually make it out to Compton. For those who’ve never been, LA is every bit the sunny, sprawled out citadel you’ve heard about. Coming from NYC, I already felt an affinity for the bustling sections of downtown, the hipster eateries, and the Starbucks shops every few blocks. I appreciated the 97-degree weather outside since most of my summer was spent in air-conditioned conference rooms. I liked going to the neighborhoods with only two-story buildings so the sun and the stars get their time to shine throughout the day.
I contrasted that with my walk down Sunset Blvd., and my drive with Liz through our favorite rappers’ neighborhoods, where the word “desolate” came to mind immediately. Whereas hits like “California Love,” “Gin and Juice,” and most recently, “Alright” painted pictures of street parties with local gangbangers, hoodlums, kids, and other denizens of the Black and Mexican variety, the streets I drove through felt like everyone had left these otherwise glorious homes alone. I must have counted 15 people over a 10-mile drive. Black churches made neighbors with one-star motels, and open playgrounds had no children swinging in them.
Even though I couldn’t get over the initial shock, I’m not sure if people wouldn’t have made similar assumptions about the Lower East Side pre-gentrification.
As Liz recounts stories from her teaching days, I wondered about all my fellow teachers in California and elsewhere working in seemingly impossible situations. When teachers face 40 students a class, each with the kids’ knapsack full of awe and rage, in environments that don’t lend themselves to unpacking these feelings constructively, it makes the job LA teachers do all the more commendable. Some people talk out of all sides of the same mouth, decrying our summers off, whining that they don’t know how we do what we do, and telling us to what to do anyways. If you’re a teacher in South Central, Watts, or Long Beach, all of these elements are incompatible, contradictory, and parcel to the work that must be done.
To wit, without my summer off, I wouldn’t have had a chance to experience this. For that, I’m grateful.
Michelle Pfeiffer is not walking through that door. Edward James Olmos is not walking through that door. Hilary Swank is not walking through that door. But the stars are already working in the classroom.