|Photos by Slobodan Dimitrov|
THREE YEARS LATER, SITTING IN AN EMPTY coffee shop with nowhere else to be on a Tuesday afternoon, Ami Motevalli remembers the day she was hired to teach at Alain LeRoy Locke High School. Motevalli, tall with thick, dark hair and almond-shaped eyes that seem incapable of hiding emotion, knew she wanted to teach. She knew that Locke nestled a few blocks from Watts in a neighborhood of small stucco houses and wide, flat streets dotted with liquor shops, taquerías and storefront AME churches had not had an art teacher for years. An artist herself, Motevalli was excited by the challenge of starting a new program, especially at a school that so badly needed one. She drove down for a round of interviews and, at the end of the day, was told she had the job. Unable to wait to give her mother the good news, she stopped at a church to use a pay phone. "I was so excited," she says, "I told everyone at the church that I just got this job. The people at the church said, 'Well, maybe you can do something about it, but be careful. Wear your vest.'"
It was not, in the end, a bulletproof vest that Motevalli would need, but a different sort of armor, one that might protect her vital organs from the soul-shriveling assaults of apathy, petty vindictiveness and demagogic paranoia generated when a stagnant bureaucracy goes rank. A few days later, at the Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters on Grand Street, Motevalli would get a subtler but more realistic warning about the trials that awaited her. Qualified teachers were no less scarce in 1999 than they are today, and Motevalli was a desirable candidate. She had no teaching credential, but she had a master's degree and a year of teaching experience, and she wasn't just trying the job on for size. When she went in to fill out the paperwork required to begin at Locke, a district official asked her, "Why do you want to go there? Wouldn't you rather go to this school in the Valley?"
Former Locke teacher
Motevalli went to Locke regardless. Before we follow her there, be warned that this is not yet another Blackboard Jungle, TV-ready tale of a tough but idealistic teacher who against all odds sways her wayward students from the lures of ghetto life onto the path of middle-class achievement. There is more real heroism and cold tragedy to it than that. Its lessons are hard to pinpoint. The losers here win, and the winners lose. This is not in fact Motevalli's story at all, or not just hers. It is the story of a group whose voices are almost entirely absent from the public discourse on education, but who at Locke demanded that they be heard the students themselves.
Like Motevalli, they too had been warned. Sitting in the shade in a Cal State L.A. courtyard, Rosa Cuevas, a shy 18-year-old Locke graduate with big, round eyes, long, straight hair and a soft voice that retains traces of an early childhood spent in Mexico, remembers being scared of Locke. Growing up in the neighborhood, she heard rumors "that people got killed there every day." When she found that the violence wasn't nearly as constant as she'd heard, Locke didn't feel so bad. "Things did seem kind of weird," Cuevas says, but she didn't think much of it. Since elementary school, she says, "I thought everything was supposed to be the way it was. Nobody ever opened up my eyes to seeing that everything was wrong."
Ivan Zuno, short with small features, tiny hands and lively, energetic eyes, was in Cuevas' class, and started out with her in the honors program. In a booth at a Jack in the Box not far from the fast-food restaurant where he now works, Zuno says that at first he didn't notice anything particularly disturbing about Locke either, just "the usual things that you see at other schools, the typical fights and stuff like that, but nothing too crazy." Only gradually did he begin to notice "small little things that were missing, things that were just normal in other high schools" things like books and teachers.
To Ami Motevalli, it was clear right away that something was very wrong. Physically, Locke was falling apart. There were pigeons nesting indoors. There were rats. Trash covered the floors, and there were no garbage cans in the halls. "I found out later they were afraid people would start fires in them," she says. But the dirt was the least of it.