Compton has a special place in my heart, and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t excited about the movie “Straight Outta Compton.” Its release has made me remember how West Coast rap impacted me and reflected who I was then—a teenage girl living in poverty.
This music was the soundtrack of our neighborhoods.
NWA’s first single, which my lifelong neighbor Damon “Krazy D” Griffiths, wrote and was featured in, was my favorite: “Panic Zone.” The lyrics captured how I felt, in life and in school, during that era.
So out of your home, you’re on your own
In the land of the unknown
It’s the darkside, the dirty side
It’s called the Panic Zone
I would sing that part over and over. I felt alone, outside my home. In my head, I wasn’t succeeding at anything. At school, I was failing. My relationship with my first boyfriend, who was caught up with drugs, was falling apart. I blamed all of that on me.
During my freshman year of high school, I fell behind. Sophomore year, it got worse. I failed a couple of classes. I had to redo most of my junior year classes to graduate on time. I found the closest class-credit recovery program, Maxine Waters Occupational Center in Watts. I stopped working that year so that I could complete my packets. One by one, I got through about 10 classes.
No one knew that after school, on Saturdays and during breaks, I was in a room full of other Latino and African-American students. We were from Compton, Watts, South Gate and Huntington Park.
I was smart and had been identified as highly gifted in elementary school. But I stopped learning in middle school.
My sixth-grade English teacher, Manuel Rangel, was the last teacher who taught me. I had two English classes with him. These two hour-long classes allowed us enough time to learn. He had enough time to teach this important subject to a room full of students who learned Spanish as a first language and I had enough time to ask questions.
I was in overcrowded classes with 40 students each in schools built for 1,000 students but housed 4,000. Several years after I left high school, the civil rights community finally sued Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and the State of California citing that students’ civil rights were being violated.
Teachers were expected to pull miracles. I’m torn; on the one hand I blame them for giving up, yet on the other, I understand why they felt defeated.
But no child should be dispensable. And we all knew we were.
Our schools were funded whether we learned or not. We were forced into failing neighborhood schools. Charters or any other option would have been a lifeline.
As I got bolder with my questioning, I learned that the workplace rules for teachers were defined by the terms of their contracts. The teachers’ contracts required a set number of instructional minutes. If we didn’t understand what they taught and class ended, they would leave rather than stay and help us. We were pushed out of class as soon as the bell rang, for the next round of kids. There were no invitations to come back after school. Even now, I wonder why they set themselves up to fail as teachers—and why they would set us up to fail as students.
I also wonder why they didn’t strike because students were being failed. The strikes that I remember were because they weren’t getting paid enough.
No doubt our community was challenged. We were poor. The crack cocaine epidemic took hold. Gangs and cops were out of control. In my home, my father, like so many of our neighbors, lost his job as manufacturing jobs fled the country leaving poor and working-class people out to dry. We ate a lot of soup and spaghetti, cheap food that went a long way.
Despite our poverty, we, the children, the faceless, nameless kids, deserved better from our schools.
I carry with me memories of some of the kids who, during our breaks between packets would tell me, “You don’t belong here. You’re a good kid, you’re smart.”
I wish they believed me when I told them: You don’t belong here, either. You’re a good kid. You’re smart.
We consoled each other. We blamed ourselves. We didn’t realize that the systems were working against us.
We shouldn’t have been straight out of luck or straight out of options.