Learning Places and Races of Los Angeles in High School and Today

Posted on January 18, 2012 by

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“You know how I knew you knew what LACC (Los Angeles City College) was?”

“No, how?” I asked.

“Because you’re of color,” said the 76-year old Jewish business math professor at LACC.

I went to high school at a private all Catholic boys high school.  It’s been 10 years, this coming June.  Much has happened to me.  Much has happened there.

Before I entered my freshman year, the school was championed as the good school that all the boys wanted to go to and needed to aim for.  The smart boys.  The white boys.  Highly selective, as in there was a college-like admissions process.

I didn’t have any interest in attending till a white, blonde-haired boy who gave me a little jilt one December night, “Why don’t you apply there?  You scared?”

He got me thinking.

Applications were due in a month.

I could try.

I applied.  Took the tests (thinking I did bad).  Did the interview with a guy who looked “very Loyola” (tall clean-cut white guy), even though I admitted not being a straight A-student.

Got in.

Celebrated.

Read everything I could about the school.  Read the summer books we were assigned.  Read the manuals word by word.  One of the books was the “School Directory,” which contained phone numbers and addresses and parents’ names.  I would stare at it for hours after chool.

Freshman year was a constant learning of place.  Place in the hierarchy of athletes.  Place in the hierarchy of smart and dumb students.  Place in class.  Places where people lived and came from.

The very first science project I did highlighted my lack of geographical knowledge about LA.  We were supposed to take a picture of a sunset.  I was wondering how I wouldn’t get one without the the power lines and buildings in the way like I saw in sample projects.

My family had lived in Glendale at the time.  We’d moved from rented apartments to rented houses, and were now living in a condo that we would later lose to bankruptcy.

My dad and I took a camera shot by a street in Glendale.

It was good — till I saw that other students had postcard-esque shots of sunsets.

Wow, did I do something wrong?  It sure felt like it.  I wondered where in the hell they had to be get such shots, contrasted with my shot, full of urbanness and being in the city and my folks and I not getting out much.

Later in the year, I’d learned more about these places classmates lived.  To me, they were an impossibly long car ride away.  I remember watching a video in a social studies class; students actually lived with their houses near a beach. How the hell was that possible?

Of course, I didn’t understand anything about socio-economic and/or racial difference.  I thought everyone was at my level of means, and I truly thought everyone was equal and we all were on the same playing field and all got in on merits.

I remember myself doing a video in a social studies class — my dad took me all the way to South Pasadena, a big house with a basketball court and a treehouse, and a living room the size of my parents’ 3-story condominium.

The school directory was one of my favorite books that year.  In its promotional posters, the school bragged that it was a central location and schooled boys from “all over Los Angeles.”  As I learned more classmates’ names, I looked their addresses up in the school directory.  I learned more about who came from and where.

I would eventually later learn that amongst the white kids, there were actually divisions between East and West, those who lived in Pasadena, and those who lived in the Pacific Palisades, Santa Monica, Manhattan Beach.   I found this out through where people hung out during recesses:  white kids living in the Palisades had their own seating, kids from Pasadena hung out with their own.  To me it was strange, because they were all just white boys to me.  I knew that they listened to KROQ and stuff, but that was the only difference between me and them, right?

Meanwhile, there were the rest of us — Filipinos living in Glendale, Eagle Rock, Atwater Village.  A few Latinos living there in the neighborhood – Pico-Union. Thought I had a lot more in common with the Latinos, but it’d feel like I was abandoning “my group” if I went over and ate lunch with them.

I later learned that the best way to sidestep the groups was to play sports during lunch.

* * *

The old Jewish math-teacher hoped she wasn’t “politically incorrect” when she made her comment to me.  “I” would “automatically” know what Boyle Heights and LACC were.

Of course, I was the only person of color in the room in a room of 20, mostly social science professors, some of whom I’d taken classes from.  But, fuck if they knew who I was.  It was funny, odd, and indicting to think that I was the only person of color in a room in a topic covering cross-cultural studies.

We were at a talk on Mathematics in other countries,  a topic strongly related to my soon-to-be thesis topic — math at the community college.  We were at my undergrad institution in a 1-hour talk hosted by a department that I technically graduated from and know that I align with, interest-wise.  I’d caught a few of them laughing and shaking their heads at the mistakes community college students seemed to be showing.

This talk being closely related to my soon-to-be-thesis, I had questions that I wanted to ask.

But, so did everyone else.  The speaker kept choosing everyone else, maybe because I with a t-shirt, a samurai haircut, and baggy pants would probably not have an “interesting” question.

There were questions all over the place that I knew the speaker would not be able to answer.   One question about the broad future of education.  One question about being teachers.   One particularly pedantic commentary on ethnography of childhood, which I was unable to follow and track after 3 minutes into his comment.  One question that took the question that I’d been valiantly raising about the math textbooks from other countries was taken by the Jewish professor sitting next to me, she’d been teaching business calculus for 20 years — were the textbooks from high-achieving math countries any different from the US ones?

I eventually asked my question, the last question of the talk — homework in high-achieving countries.  Apparently, they didn’t have any in Japan.  An interesting insight for me to package away and brood on for later.

I asked the Jewish lady where she taught business math.  “LACC?  You know where that is right?”

“Yeah!  Of course,” instantly bringing to mind, memories past and present.

“You know how I knew you knew what LACC (Los Angeles City College) was?” she asked

“No, how?” I asked.

“Because you’re of color,” said the 76-year old Jewish business math professor at LACC.

“They don’t know anything about being at the community college or being disadvantaged, these people,” she told me, covering her mouth.