Our principal, Dr. Rawls, was an aloof WASP, choir leader at his San Fernando Presbyterian church, and some sort of alderman in an all-white suburban Christian clubhouse where men of his sort felt validated and encouraged. He didn’t get a lot of support down in the hood. He had integrity, and I came to believe that being an old-fashioned gentleman was not entirely a bad thing. There was far too much ghetto compassion, too much understanding and sympathy which only served to validate the nightmare. It made the perpetrators from the drug dealers to debt collectors, the street walkers, and the bouncers feel absolutely comfortable in their abominable trades. Prim Dr. Rawls disapproved of the entire enterprise, which is what Watts was, as much so as Silicone Valley, with everyone from the probation officers and grief counselors to the security guards and the pimps raking it in. When Rawls stood alone on the cafeteria patio, he looked like one of those Victorian gentlemen wandering down a darkened Dickensian alleyway, soon to be bopped over the head and robbed. He always wore a spiffy banker’s suit, steel gray with cuffs. His shirts were fresh from Disneyland, marked at the pocket with Mickey Mouse ears. Cool as a cucumber, he never said so much as boo in response to the daily outrages. His worst day was when Latisha Williams smeared her ketchup-y fingers on his jacket sleeve to get his attention. He looked stricken. A good man, I’d wager, but way out of his depth.

Still, lip pursing was better than exploitative approval, which was the common practice. Every morning, Rawls could be seen parking his sad Accord in the principal’s parking space with pride. You couldn’t get him to believe fancy cars were the answer. His was the antithesis of ghetto excess. Once elected to the school-based leadership team, I’d had occasion to visit the homes of several colleagues. They’d cook up a feast. Grand platters of black-eyed peas and spoon bread, stacks of BBQ ribs, delectable mounds of mac and cheese, always enough to feed an army. When Rawls had us over, there were five of us: he offered five skinless chicken breasts, sliced tomato with Wishbone low-fat Italian dressing, and frozen strawberry yoghurt on a stick. The ghetto for him never represented poverty; it symbolized the sins of greed and gluttony.

I had witnessed Rawls in an emergency and perhaps learned something about staying calm. My room had adjoined my neighbor’s. We shared a couple of closets at the back of her room which I could access via a door at the rear. She found a jack somehow and had brought in an old phone. She usually took it home at the end of the day. Anyway, one day it started ringing and wouldn’t stop, so I went back there to answer it. Ms. Sullivan came running finally but slipped as she maneuvered around some old desks, slipped and fell, and seemed to have broken her arm. She lay on the concrete floor looking up at me and I nearly went to pieces. I was screaming for help, really acting like a nut. Rawls showed up, took one look at her, said nothing, not a single word to her, but spoke into his walkie-talkie: “We are going to need a substitute in room 18A.” He pursed his lips as he awaited a reply. As soon as he received confirmation, he left the room, again without saying a single word to poor Ms. Sullivan who looked so frightened and helpless lying there on that cold floor.


And so it was when Lafayette came running into the room and slugged me in the face. I hadn’t been hit by anyone since I was a young teenager, so it came as quite a shock. I’d been sitting at the back of the class chatting with a few of the students. Sylvester was there. Amanda, maybe Latisha. We were relaxing at the long projects table before class when Lafayette came charging in. He was ecstatic, his face radiant with youthful joy. His tongue hung from his mouth, his arms swung wildly. He ran full force into my table and came barreling down it like a drunken cowboy in a saloon fight. He came whizzing by and as he did so, he clocked me upside the head with his protruding elbow. I lost my glasses—which flew across the room—as well as my composure.  I stood up and showed real anger. Momentarily, the world stood still. Lafayette was paralyzed. He’d never seen me so angry, nor had I, as my words came from deep within and were frightening. I quickly pulled myself together. Lafayette and I shook hands and we both forgot about it, but I made the mistake of telling my colleagues at lunch. Kelly insisted that I take it to the police. “There’ll be a record in case he does it again.” He threatened to press charges himself on my behalf, so I rushed to Officer Pine to explain what happened. “Would you say he hit you deliberately?” “Absolutely not.” And that was the end of that. As Pine said, “Things flair up and then die away. It’s the natural rhythm of the day.”

In the beginning, I was hesitant to let my hair down. This is well-illustrated by my frequent exchanges with Lafayette, a boy whose skin glowed like a polished eggplant. He was moody, but more often than not just shimmered with youthful zeal. He was agitated, restless. He rocked in his chair. His knees clapped. “Let’s go!” He sat at the edge of his ringside seat. “Come on, teacher. Let’s have it. Teach me something.” He was an eager beaver, delightfully, obnoxiously inquisitive. But he was also easily distracted and, as a result, arrived late to class. I always let him in because otherwise I wouldn’t see him for another hour or so.  It bugged me that he came tardy so often, but by the time I had figured out how to respond, I was ready to blow my stack. “Are you going to come late every day?” I had given him some papers and a pencil which had fallen to the floor. He was too keyed up to notice. “Can’t you even pick them up?” At this point, I was ranting. Weeks of pent up frustration boiled over.  My voice was so loud, so over the top that Lafayette drew back in his chair. Suddenly, words shot out of his mouth: “I DIDN’T KNOW YOU LOVED ME! WHY DIDN’T YOU SAY SO?”  His words ricocheted off the walls. I’d prepared myself for “go fuck yourself,” but not for this. What in the world did he mean? I scarcely knew what to say and don’t remember now what my response was, but I’ve thought about it a lot. My explanation is that he had come to associate anger with love, no doubt from being surrounded by his aunties and grandmother who found living in the projects with a young teenaged boy more than a little taxing. I assumed he caught hell often and got lots of whippings and hugs from these same women. For Lafayette, getting yelled at was comforting, expected, perhaps desirable in a weird way. I had been trying my best to play it cool, but for Lafayette, and I assume for many others, my practiced coolness looked like a lot like indifference.

For one thing, Lafayette was big and very emotional. When he cried, and I saw him do it a few times, his tears didn’t just fall; they flew. I couldn’t say if his cheeks got wet at all. I watched with amazement as his tears shot straight out as though from tiny sprinklers. After I had settled in—I mean, late in the school year when I’d gotten quite used to the kids and was better able to be myself, relaxed and more confident—one afternoon, Lafayette ran in and, when I wasn’t looking, pulled out a gun. It was a small pistol heavily wrapped in electrical tape. It looked to me like a classic Saturday night special, menacing. He’d had it out for a minute before I caught sight of it and realized instantly that I might now be part of some horrible incident. I put my hand out flat as though I were feeding a giraffe at the zoo. “Lafayette, uh, Lafayette, you can’t have that in here. Put it in my hand, please.” We looked at each other. I knew he wasn’t crazy, so I was counting on a happy ending. He stepped toward me and placed the gun in my outstretched hand. I indicated that we’d have to go to the office right away. As we headed out, he became hysterical, begging me through his tears not to take him to the office. “Please, Mr. Lohrey.” He was really bawling. If there had been a no-tolerance policy, he would have been finished, but we had nothing like that, and I intended to fight for him if necessary. But just before we made the turn, Lafayette took off running through the front gate, out into the street, and then collapsed in the middle of the two-lane boulevard. I went to get help. In the end, they were able to calm him down. The gun turned out to be a toy, and as he hadn’t pointed it at anyone and hadn’t brandished it in anger or threatened anyone, the incident came to nothing.


There had been a time when the school district flirted with the notion of shared decision- making, but teachers were at each other’s throats in no time. The new principal had been groomed as part of the new breed of school leaders dedicated to bringing order out of chaos. Nobody dared call her Beverly, although she insisted. Her full name was Beverly Hinsdale Nash. In Rawls’ place, the district had brought in a black female Stalin, whose response to their struggle for shared leadership was to purge. She was a troubleshooter type. She had no loyalties. She was a house-cleaner, hired to kick ass, straighten things up, and then get out.

She set out to get rid of them all, one by one. Her first order of business was to tell Mrs. Jackson that her “monstrosity” had to be moved forthwith to the faculty parking lot to make room for Dr. Princess’s Mercedes, which belonged next to hers in the VP parking space allotted to administrators only. She sent a memo to both the campus police and the custodian to keep the school gates locked at all times. She told Dr. Princess that if she was afraid her car would be scratched, she should keep it covered. Next, she ordered an audit of the school’s books—all of them—which is what people said triggered Minnay’s retirement. But nobody saw the clash with Symphony Hughes coming. She was thought to be untouchable.

Beverly was a tyrant all right and demanded respect, which in the hood meant obedience. Diss her at your own peril. The whites, of course, ran for cover. No problem there. Each and every one was eager to grovel, but the black ladies had been in charge for years and didn’t know how to handle servitude. Her first stroke had been to order all personal property off the walls of the classrooms. All “paraphernalia,” as she called it, was to go. The rooms were to be readied for inspection. “Yes, Mrs. Hughes, that includes all postures, pictures, displays of any kind. I expect to see the school calendar and student work, with parental permission.” Symphony refused. But she was happy to pack up her instruments and go. She had been appalled by the new testing regime. She simply wasn’t interested. She just wasn’t going to spend time preparing kids for silly exams when there were more pressing things for them to do, so she resigned. I’m told she left with her chin up.

Adelina should have warned her. She read poetry and would have known not to court power. Pasternak had famously warned Mandelstam to stay away. But they wanted to be kingmakers, or queenmakers as the case may be. Outmaneuvered, these astute women were out of their depth. Too bad Mrs. Link wasn’t still around. She knew how to use a knife. First came Lev Borisovich Kamanev, then Grigory Zinoviev, Nikolai Bukharin, and then Leon Trotsky; the last of the Bolsheviks had to go. All perceived rivals—real or imagined—of Stalin were dead men. The same went for the teachers. Off with their heads. Not to be shot, as was the custom in the Kremlin, but each was unceremoniously shown the door, to be reminded one last time that she, too, was just a little teacher.

Not a plaque, not a sign, not a statue, not so much as a roll of toilet paper remains in place to commemorate their years of service. Some of them had been teaching the grandchildren of their first students. Curiously, when most teachers departed, they spent days—literally days—packing up their belongings, and then backed their cars right up to the classroom doors to load up. After twenty years or more, most teachers had accumulated tons: books, supplies, furniture, lamps, VCRs, piles of old DVDs. Their classrooms were their homes. Rose Staunton ran a museum out of her classroom; it was a basement, an attic, a garage, a storeroom all rolled into one. Yet when she left, she took nothing. She carried her keys over to the main office, dropped them on the counter and walked away. After our last public exchange over that reading program, she took to calling me “Ruben Two or Ruben Too.” Somehow, she could pronounce those words so they sounded distinct. We’d both laugh and it made me realize she was okay.  Her body would just fold up. She’d start down, and then just before her knees hit the floor, she’d start back up. All the while, she’d be laughing. Oh, she was better than okay.

One wouldn’t dare refer to their replacements as dames, I know. I wish them well. It is, as someone once said, a tough assignment.

Toward the end of the term, I receive my termination notice. I will not be reassigned classes for next semester. No explanation is offered. The office secretary reminds me that teachers on contract are never guaranteed renewal. Perhaps somebody has spoken against me. Of course, I wonder if I might have said the wrong thing. Maybe they wanted to get someone in under the new contract that withholds benefits. Maybe I forgot to say good morning to somebody important. Who knows? That’s just the way it goes, as they used to say; or in today’s parlance, “fuck it.”


For all installments of “In the Shadow of Watts Towers,” click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1