'Without Justice, I Don't Know What We're All Doing'

Larry Strauss, middle, and students

Larry Strauss, 52, teaches AP English at Middle College High School located on the campus of Los Angeles Southwest College at Western Avenue and Imperial Highway in South Central. He's a multi-hyphenate--English teacher, P.E. coach, athletic director, home school teacher, writer and author. A jazz aficionado and New York native, he uses his own jazz-themed novel, "Now's the Time," in class to help teach the most subtle aspects of James Baldwin story, "Sonny's Blues." I blogged about my encounter with Strauss a couple of weeks ago; this is him speaking in his own words about school, life and combinations thereof.

I moved to Santa Monica when I was in high school. I went to Santa Monica College, drifted, and finally discovered writing. I hadn't read a lot, not enough to be a good writer. But I was inspired by movies, especially "Rocky." I got an agent, had a lot of confidence. I started tutoring kids in Beverly Hills--that was eye-opening--and through that I met a guy who let me ghost-write his book. I did lots of writing work for hire, including a biography of Magic Johnson. I wrote my own novels on the side; one, "Fakeout," was optioned by Sony. I also did a screenplay about subway taggers called "Ink," another one about the first all-black team with a black coach to go to the state basketball championship in Southern Illinois in the 1950's. One way you become a writer is you have a need to be heard when you don't feel that's happening. You're not heard, socially or otherwise. I grew up with an autistic brother who didn't pay attention, which was a factor for me.

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I've actually been trying to sell Hollywood the story of Middle College High, how the kids helped prevent it from closing about six years ago when the president of Southwest College at the time wanted us gone. A story of black kids trying to save their school, what could be better? We did a peaceful protest on Imperial Highway, the sheriff's deputies cooperated even though the college president turned hoses on us. But we couldn't get media attention at the time --we were upstaged by an alleged race riot happening at Jefferson High between blacks and Latinos. Just our luck.

I student-taught at Westchester High in 1992, didn't like it at all, it was too big a setting, I almost quit. Middle College was the first to offer me a job. I loved the school. But being white worked against me, at first. Now the faculty is technically very diverse--have about four black teachers, and the rest is mostly Asian and white. Latino teachers are hard to come by at this school; they tend to teach elsewhere. The student population is about 60 percent Latino, 40 black. It was the reverse 11 years ago. Latinos are very strong, especially the girls. Blacks are declining, especially the males, even in this neighborhood.

Just four years ago we had only four black male freshmen, and now we only have one from that class who's a junior. We're a small school that doesn't have a football program, which is part of the problem if you're guy interested in playing football. But there's an injustice going on here with black males that we've got to address. We made some efforts and our classes are more balanced now, but schools generally don't do a good job with boys, black boys especially. Whenever I ask my peers teaching at other schools, 'How are your black males doing?" they just shut down.

Teachers, stop blaming the parents! We should bring parents in, but they don't dictate. Lots of kids don't have parents at all, though I expect nothing less of them. Work with what you have, don't expect perfection. I also home-school kids from Foshay and other places who get lost in the public school system, especially these crazy middle schools, and try to steer them toward Middle College.

When students first encounter me, they're scared. But then they see I'm nice. I actually enjoy it, bumping heads with kids. My most challenging students are the ones who like me, who think they're special and can get away with stuff. In a small school you get to know everybody really well; it's a family, it's close. But you also have to maintain a distance. It's tough.

I also have this clash of images--I teach P.E., kids are scared of me, then they're surprised to hear me use 'big' words in English class. They say, "You look like a coach!" Once, in class, I was reading something and was visibly moved by it. A student, Paul, who happens to be Nigerian-born, shook his head and said, "Please don't ever do that again."

About the Author

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in L.A., with an eye toward the city's African American community, appear weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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