|Photographs by Ted Soqui|
Of all the memories from Ericka Griffins six-year career as a teachers aide and athletic director at Carlthorp Elementary School, one stands out. Griffin, a rare African-American faculty member at the exclusive private school, was on the playground one day in 2002 when she says a kindergartner ran up and licked her arm. "He wanted to see if I was made of chocolate."
Carlthorp is an attractive, tile-roofed school wedged neatly between garden-style apartments on San Vicente Boulevard, four blocks from the ocean in Santa Monica. Founded in 1939 by Ann Carlson Granstrom and Mercedes Thorp, it is the citys oldest private school for kindergarten through sixth grade. With tuition of $15,000 per year, its mission is "to provide a strong academic foundation that emphasizes traditional values and excellence."
On a recent Friday, SUVs are lined up along San Vicente while children frolic after school on the artificial-grass playing field behind a tall gate with bars. Out front, a burly man in a windbreaker stands clutching a walkie-talkie. Less than a mile away, Griffin works at a law office with her mother, one of three jobs she needs to pay for college.
It wasnt supposed to be this way.
Slumped on the floor of her mothers living room one afternoon in November, Griffin sorts through letters from former students, parents and colleagues she thought were her friends. "Dear Ms. Griffin," she reads from a letter by a sixth-grader, "Whats cookin? P.E. is soo boring! And unfun. The new coach said I was a smart aleck and had a chip on my shoulder. All of us really, really, really miss you!"
She comes across a holiday card from an adoring parent: "Dearest Ericka, I dont really think I can express my gratitude for the difference you made in turning my son around. It takes a special person to see whats needed and do something about it. I will remember you forever." A bitter look crosses Griffins face as she comes across another, from a fellow coach: "Ericka, partner in crime, long lost sista. Enjoy your two weeks of freedom, for in 2003 we must return to the cornfields," referring to a Twilight Zone episode where children are punished for thinking bad thoughts.
Griffins employment at Carlthorp ended in 2003, with her being ostracized for speaking out about problems and fired for "unprofessional conduct." She has filed a lawsuit alleging that a teacher persistently taunted her with racial epithets such as "Black Trash" and "Oreo." Facing an uphill battle in court against one of the most prestigious private schools in the area, she has invoked the wrath of a close-knit community resistant to scrutiny. She is practically alone.
With her arms wrapped around her long legs, Griffin rocks back and forth like a child about to get a lecture. Across the coffee table in a modest, ranch-style home, Joette Marks is trying to make sense of her daughters decision to work at Carlthorp in the first place. Between them, on top of the coffee table, is a stack of books: Living Zen, Nine Centuries of African Art and Audubons Birds. A wooden bowl is filled with fake $100 bills, play money. Photographs of their ancestors proud, upstanding Southern blacks hang on the walls.
Something about a young black woman from a middle-class family deciding to forgo college to work for minimal pay at a private school for rich kids never boded well, Marks tells her daughter. "I always had a gut feeling that this was an elitist institution," says Marks, a product of the 1960s counterculture. "Its a gated school that wants to keep the problems of the world outside and its dirty laundry inside."
The 32-year-old Griffin is athletic and tomboyish. Ordinarily she is vibrant. After her parents divorce, she grew up under the tutelage of her grandmother, a graduate of Spelman College, an august institution in Atlanta that has shaped Southern black women for decades. Griffins short time at Spelman ended tragically. In choosing to work at Carlthorp, in 1997, she wanted to prove that she could be accepted in polite society. "Youre going to end up just like your mother," her grandmother used to say, "young and pregnant without an education or a husband."
A Santa Monica High School basketball star with a sense of style, Griffin gave Carlthorp some street cred. Headmistress Dee Menzies told her the children needed to know what the real world was all about. The student body is 77 percent white and less than 2 percent black, which roughly mirrors the faculty. The school has nurtured children of former Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon, retired Lakers star James Worthy, directors Oliver Stone and Steven Spielberg, and screenwriter Robert Towne. "They pretend to dedicate themselves to civic responsibility," Griffin says of Carlthorp. "They promote privilege and cronyism."