the notoriously segregated and ever-dangerous playground of Los Angeles degraded
into trench warfare, our public schools mirrored it in microcosm. My own
sun-dappled Neutra-designed homeroom was rife with anxiety -- racial and otherwise -- and
more and more cliques were cohering along ethnic lines.
census broke down the school's current population as 54% Hispanic, 22% black,
17% white (including a sizeable Iranian community), and 5% Asian, which is
roughly how I remember it. And throughout my time there, Ralph Waldo Emerson
junior high made claim, perhaps apocryphally, to a tradition called the Royal
Rumble. Legend had it that, at the end of spring semester every year, the 9th graders would gather in our cement-bound playground and fight until, if not the
death, at least the very bloody. There were tales of bats, chains, shanks, and
brass knuckles -- tales that make Hunger
Games look like a Pixar movie. And implicit in every tween Homer's
retelling of them was the racial concession: the unspoken acknowledgement that,
during the rumble, bands of rioters would align with like-skinned classmates to
wage war against all others.
Few of us
had classmates we'd known from the first grade. A huge number of us were bussed
in and, to quote Tupac, when these kids were growing up rough, that's not even
what you called it. Shouldering their way into the Lord of the Flies hierarchy of the student body, some were forced
to form alliances with, shall we say, fraternal organizations. Our bullies
didn't want your milk money, they were bustin' caps for their set -- XVIII Street
Crazies, West Side Locos, and other fan favorites were well represented.
At the best
of times, the gangbangers on campus were like roving jokers, ready to unleash
chaos -- at the worst, ticking time bombs you ran from first and asked questions
about later. Though we loved them, the vaguely affiliated tough black girls who
had "Poison" airbrushed on their overall shorts (one strap undone) wouldn't
tolerate li'l white boys. Not even the security guards would tell the
face-tatted vatos in creased khakis and wife-beaters to get to class. And already
on edge, after the video of a Korean liquor storeowner executing Latasha
Harlins at point blank range went public, Asians throughout the city, and
certainly at school, were forced to bond together and radicalize to protect
themselves from blowback.
About a week
after the National Guard trucked in and shut down the city, effectively ending
the looting, we went back to classes, but the school was on lock down. Even if
the Rumble had been a yearly occurrence, in the present climate it was not to
be. But still the student body roiled. For some never-explained reason, two of
my tagging buddies -- one black, one Hispanic -- suddenly turned on me and, instead
of confronting me themselves, organized, through a circuitous series of
maneuvers, for me to fight a (black) patsy.