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Sparks Flies

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Phil (Left) and Patrick at Emerson Learning Center in Westchester

In Westchester, on a quiet street that dead-ends into a field and a full view of the jets landing just south at LAX, is Emerson Learning Center. Emerson is that rare school in LAUSD's adult education system that has its own campus, which gives it a tucked-away feeling, a bit of small town in this part of L.A. that's been busily gentrifying for the last several years. If you didn't know it was adult school it would be easy to mistake it for a neighborhood elementary school, part of a neighborhood that, gentrification notwithstanding, has been undisturbed for a long time.

For Phil Sparks, Emerson is home. He doesn't live here, of course. He lives in Inglewood. But he's spent so much time here over the last 26 years, as a student and as a volunteer, that it would be accurate to say that in a real way, he does live here. Over the decades the school has nurtured Phil, academically and socially. It's given him a family of teachers and staff who have embraced him, who look out for him. For Phil (full name is Philip Darwin Sparks), who has aphasia and has trouble communicating clearly, this is huge. He doesn't say this -- he doesn't say a lot of things, not directly anyway -- but I know he agrees.

I've been hearing about Phil for many years through my mother, who for many years worked in the front office at Emerson. The stories she routinely told me about work had a whole lively cast of characters, but Phil always stood out. I'd never met him, though, until last week at Emerson -- naturally. He came with Patrick Meyer, the director of Emerson's individual instruction lab and Phil's closest friend at the school. Also, I sense, his closest friend outside the school. Patrick downplays the relationship a bit. "We're all a support group for Phil," he explains. "It's a family here, the Emerson family." Still, the connection is obvious. As we talk Patrick more or less translates for Phil, re-phrasing my questions, helping him make connections.

The contrast between them is stark, almost comical. Phil is black, burly, and intense; throughout the conversation he sits leaning forward, large hands clasped on the patio table. He doesn't want to miss anything. Patrick is white and reedy, a lifelong surfer with a laid-back smile and almost laconic air. Phil grew up in the Crenshaw area, Patrick in the valley. But their lives have a couple of interesting parallels. Both are 46 and came to Emerson in 1989, Phil as a reading student and Patrick as a teaching assistant finishing up his degree at nearby Loyola Marymount. Both have an extraordinary commitment gene: In 26 years, neither has missed a day of work. Phil's actual job is at Ralph's grocery store on Olympic Boulevard in Century City, where he works a graveyard shift cutting open boxes. When he gets off at 7 a.m., no matter how tired he is, he heads to Emerson for math and other classes, and to do his daily volunteer work of separating trash for recycling. It's a tradition that Phil has held down since 1990, when the Emerson student council voted him in charge of recycling; the council has long since disbanded, but Phil kept to his task. Not keeping it doesn't seem to occur to him. He donates the recycling money -- roughly $100 a year -- to a scholarship at Emerson.

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Despite his communication challenges, Phil has always been independent. He got his GED years ago. He has his own apartment, a job, and a car (not at the moment, though; he and Patrick are working on that) He belongs to a couple of bowling leagues. He loves roller coasters, the more daredevil the better. He could do without surfing; when I ask him why he won't consider taking it up, he holds up a finger and says solemnly, "Sharks." Patrick brings him to his family Thanksgiving dinner in Van Nuys, another tradition that's been going on 15 years or so. Phil loves parties and celebrations of all kinds. He never misses one at Emerson, Patrick says -- retirement, graduation, birthdays. On one such occasion he volunteered to bring pizza. When Patrick went to pick him up, Phil loaded up his car with no fewer than 50 pizzas -- on the way to Emerson, Patrick recalls, "my windows were all steamed up -- I could barely see!" Each year in November the school gives Phil his own birthday fete. Phil also loves to sing. He's been in the choir at more than one church in town, including Brookins A.M.E. And he knows the lyrics to most songs in the Motown catalogue.

Yet there is much about Phil that Patrick doesn't know, things that Phil can't or won't talk about. He has family, but it's unclear how involved they are in his life. At least one time Phil stopped coming to Emerson -- an unusual development -- and when he reappeared, his eyes were bloody and he didn't say what had kept him away. Patrick worries about Phil navigating the world outside what he affectionately calls "Club Emerson," a world that almost certainly will misunderstand him, literally and in other ways. He worries, for example, about police encounters. About Phil being misunderstood in ways that could be dangerous, or even fatal.

But Phil has come this far just fine. His main concern these days is finding another part-time job to supplement his Ralphs gig, which after 26 years still only pays minimum wage. Over the years, the economy has gotten more unforgiving and he needs more just to afford rent and the basics. We can all relate to that. Phil is hoping to get a dish-washing job; Patrick and a fellow Emerson teacher have been working hard to get it for him. No luck so far. But Phil is assuming that luck will change. So is Patrick. Despite their difference in temperaments, another thing they seem to have in common is a rock-ribbed optimism. "He just brightens your day because he never gets down," Patrick says of Phil.

One thing that brightened Patrick's day recently -- dazzled is more like it -- was something that happened as he was walking down Wilshire in Santa Monica. He spied a small piece of paper on the sidewalk and, half-hoping it was an unclaimed lottery ticket, stopped to pick it up. It wasn't a ticket; just a slip of white paper with three words written on it in bold black ink: Watch Phil Sparks.

Not that Patrick needed to be told that, but he kept that paper. It was a sign. Of what, he's not exactly sure. Phil didn't seem surprised at all.

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