Last week, as I flipped through my starving-artist-thin daily newspaper, I saw the photo of Barbara Ware, a victim of the elusive South Los Angeles serial killer (or, as Christine Pelisek, the L.A. Weekly reporter who broke the story, tagged him, the Grim Sleeper), who seemingly has returned to killing women on the hard-ass streets of South L.A.
I have to admit that I probably wouldn’t have read the piece — I didn’t want to open memories that I’m comfortable to leave closed — but the photo of an attractive woman who died horribly compelled me to read on and learn that the leads in this case are translucently thin. Then there’s that ubiquitous recording of the 911 call as we hear a male voice drop a dime, describing Ware’s body being dumped from a van into an alley.
It’s a two-decade-old tragedy in a part of town drowning in them. And even for me, a man who taught high school at the epicenter of it all during the mid-to-late ’80s — when black-on-black violence, gang killings, drug killings, just killings were wildly metastasizing — it’s just about too much to dwell on. What the kids I taught at Locke were forced to handle in that neighborhood was, and I imagine still is, like a low-grade war zone.
A few weeks before I arrived at Locke, a girl was found hanging by her neck from one of the big trees near the entrance to the school. The police covered her body and diverted the students to another campus entrance. Later in the school year, a quiet and pleasant girl mentioned, as she turned in an assignment, that it was a relative of hers who had been lynched, and it was her relative’s crazy jealous boyfriend who had done it.
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Walter Stewart, another student of mine, was shot and killed when he opened the front door of his house to answer a knock; another student said she had stopped coming to class because her mother had taken to keeping her baby brother in the oven while she got high and my student said she was spending too much time running away with him.
I bring up these tragedies to maybe put into context what happened when two students in my contemporary-composition class mentioned that they came across their male cousin’s van late one night. They became curious at the loud noise coming from it, and when they checked it out, a woman burst from the van, screaming for her life. The cousin looked busted and sheepish, and drove away. One of the students said in a low voice that he thought his cousin might be a serial killer.
As I looked at the photo of Barbara Ware last week and read about the van mentioned in the 911 call, memories of my students’ comments about their cousin surfaced. Should I have paid more attention back then? At the time, I must have disregarded their statement as hyperbole, but more than likely it was another indication of how overwhelmed I was. I quickly lost interest in the subject of serial killers because later that semester, one of those two students was killed by a shot to the face at a phone booth.
Last week I called in the tip I heard from my two students 20 years ago. But what will stay with me will be the realization of how hard I worked at protecting myself as I prepared my escape from inner-city classrooms to graduate school. I guess that’s how the game works — I wanted to ignore the pain, but the pain of the Barbara Wares of the world keeps getting lost in a sea of tears.