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The Miseducation of Ericka Griffin 

Ericka Griffin figured she was finally getting her big break when she got a teaching job at an exclusive Santa Monica private school. Instead, the school’s elite taught her the lesson of her life.

Thursday, Jan 13 2005
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She is eager to talk about her reasons for pursuing a lawsuit that has dredged up her past, made her family uncomfortable and turned an entire community against her. She says she is offended by the abuse of social status at Carlthorp. Griffin comes from a family with history and pride. "We are not your stereotypical black family," she says, describing how her grandfather Theodore Reid witnessed his father murder his mother in Savannah, Georgia, when he was 10, then moved to Santa Monica in 1952 after graduating from Meharry Dental School in Nashville. "He sent for my grandmother and their three children, who had been staying with family in Georgia," Griffin says. "My mother was 4 months old. My grandfather set up his dental practice in a small office across the street from Santa Monica High School. The building is still there."

Griffin’s grandmother Norma Payton Reid was a graduate of Atlanta’s Spelman College, class of 1944. The Reids were devoted to community service. Besides his private practice, Theodore Reid donated time at the dental clinic at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. In 1967, he went to work for the Watts Health Foundation, a joint project of Los Angeles County and USC Dental School. He became chief of oral surgery, while Norma Reid worked in child development with the Head Start program. At age 80, she still works for Head Start as a consultant. Her husband, who served as proctor of the USC community dental program until 1978, died in 1992.

Raised in Malibu, Joette Marks, then Joette Reid, enrolled at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1970. She became pregnant before marrying Larry Griffin, a semipro basketball player who had been cut by the Golden State Warriors and had toured with Marques Haynes’ Fabulous Magicians, a spin-off of the Harlem Globetrotters. Reid embraced the counterculture of UC Santa Cruz, while Larry Griffin traveled and played ball in the Philippines, Mexico and Portugal. Ericka Griffin was born in 1972, and by the time she was 6 her parents had divorced, remarried and divorced again.

"Growing up in Santa Cruz was like living in the 1950s," Griffin recalls. "Nobody locked their doors, and you could ride your bike to the corner store and not fear getting abducted." She stood out in the mostly white community, for her height as well as her color. "I considered myself an outcast," she says. "I was more interested in fine-tuning my hoop skills than my social skills." The oldest of three children, she grew accustomed to supporting those around her. She saw her mother as less an authority figure than a young divorced woman struggling to get her act together. "I was never one to open up and tell about myself. I was always everyone’s shoulder to cry on."

Griffin left home when she was 12 and moved to Malibu to live with her grandparents. Her mother followed. With her mother preoccupied with raising her younger brother and sister, Griffin’s grandmother pushed her in a traditional direction. It seemed old-fashioned. "I was supposed to go to a Southern college, get my degree, then marry a doctor or lawyer," says Griffin, who was more concerned with her identity at Santa Monica High School. "Boys wanted a girlie-girl, a cheerleader type," she recalls. "I competed against them to toughen myself. I dreamed of graduating in a letterman’s jacket with personalized embroidering to read ‘Lady Hoopster.’ "

A typical teenager, she fought off insecurity and gave in to youthful impulses. "I had already become attached before I left for college," she says. "My boyfriend was new and exciting, but it was not meant to be. I ended up cheating on him, something I thought I would never do. We barely got to know one another before I was shipped off."

Blue sky pokes through dark clouds along the Northern California coast as Larry Griffin walks into a diner off Route 1 near Watsonville. It is the day after Thanksgiving, and he has taken time from his current family to reflect on his former one. Griffin, a deputy sheriff with Santa Cruz County’s bomb squad, carries a ballplayer’s frame, though he moves slowly and his thick mustache is tipped with gray. His skin is dark, like that of his daughter. "Ericka had all the tools she needed to succeed in life," Griffin says of his daughter, who he says doesn’t call him as much as she should. "Los Angeles was a different world from Santa Cruz, though. All that debutante stuff was her grandmother’s idea. Spelman was not my first choice for Ericka. I had hoped for USC or UCLA."

Griffin shifts uncomfortably as he ponders what his daughter might have been spared, had she not been forced to attend Spelman to make up for the fact that her mother and aunt had rejected it. One night in 1990, as she was just getting acclimated during her first semester, Ericka Griffin accompanied a female acquaintance to the dormitory of neighboring Morehouse College. Atlanta boasts the largest consortium of black colleges in the world, all within close proximity: Spelman, for women; Morehouse, for men; as well as Clark Atlanta University and Morris Brown College. Once inside the Morehouse dorm room, Griffin soon found herself alone with a young man, who raped her, she says. When it was over, she ran back to her dorm at Spelman, took a shower and "crawled into bed for, like, a week."

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