“The Boy in the Hockey Helmet”

by Justin Vyor

(Installment #37 in my ongoing series "ADVENTURES IN EDUCATION” here in Southern California) (3/1/2019)

(For a paper or pdf copy of this piece that includes pictures, please e-mail me at the "Contact" address given on main page.)

With only 30 minutes left in my day subbing as a Teacher's Aide in a 1st Grade/Primo Grado class at the Camino Nuevo Castellanos Charter Elementary School near Downtown LA today, a twerpy, peeved-looking principal alarmedly informed me, “We have a no-touching policy with the students. Please don’t touch Luis.”

More educational idiocy!

I’d been breaking that policy consistently since five minutes after walking onto the campus that morning. And if someone had actually bothered to inform me of the policy when I arrived, I’d probably have broken it anyway.

Luis, I’m certain, would not agree with the Principal's lunacy. A little bigger and taller than the other 1st graders (because age-wise, he’s probably a 2nd or 3rd grader), Luis (it rhymes with “blue geese”) is a cute Hispanic boy and the only student in Miss Mariscal’s class who dons an old, scuffed-up, white hockey helmet decorated with rub-worn play stickers. He’s also autistic – I don’t know exactly where on the scale. “Non-verbal” is the word someone at the school used for him. But he wasn't non-verbal by day’s end.

“You’ll recognize Luis right off,” the girl from the Main Office said as she brought me to the classroom. And I did. The class of 21 students was in the corridor, just returning from an outdoor activity. And there was Luis, walking alone in the middle of the long line. I reached out my hand and without hesitation he gently slid his grip into mine. The most natural thing in the world. Together – touching – we headed hand-in-hand into Classroom #1-104 before a word had even passed between us.

There, a middle-aged black woman joined me. She was another substitute aide for the class – or rather, not the class, but for Luis. As the girl in the Main Office told me, “The teacher will teach the twenty other students. You’ll be in charge of Luis.” The 20-1 odds seemed stacked in my favor. But in the realm of Special Education, such students are seen as a particular burden, a difficulty, a chore. Funny, but I enjoyed every moment of it. And so, I think, did Luis.

Reading time!!!

First up on the late-morning agenda was the free reading period, as the 1st graders fanned out across the expanse of the classroom, sitting here and lying there with picture books taken from plastic baskets. The middle-aged female aide stood nearby, off to the side, above the fray and (I suppose) supervised from a safe, proper and administratively approved-of distance. Me? I plopped right down on the carpet decorated with colored squares in the center of the room among several of the students. Luis was not one of them. He was off wandering somewhere. I didn’t go get him. I wanted him to remember that I had held his hand moments earlier. I wanted him to come to me.

“What are you reading?” I asked one or two of the “regular” kids in the class. They showed me a kiddie book with pictures of babies and pages of text explaining, “This is my nose. These are my ears. These are my feet.” So together, we dove headlong into a critical and scholarly examination of this curious text. Of course, every time we turned a page and began review of a new body part, I seemed to get it wrong – pointing to my shoulder when the text indicated 'elbow'. The kids, amused, were very patient in correcting me: “No! That's not an elbow. This is an elbow!”

And suddenly, there was Luis. He must have heard the commotion and so came to sit on the carpet among us, right next to me. Perfect. We continued our spirited discussion of the junior anatomy book. But now, instead of using myself to point to body parts in question, I used Luis. He was a willing subject. When the discussion turned to noses, I grabbed Luis’ nose and wiggled it. All the kids laughed. So did Luis. And his fingers, knees, chin and so on.

I guess the other aide (who soon disappeared from the room) felt that supervising from a healthy distance was the way to go on his matter. No doubt the school’s Principal would have approved of her methodology. Me – I couldn’t give a shit! The kids were having fun. I was having fun. Luis was having fun. And we all were learning by socializing and not being afraid to touch. Maybe I’m mistaken, Principal Lee, but isn’t that what they call teaching???

Miss Mariscal, the classroom teacher, warned me that when things settled down for an organized activity, Luis would be on the move. Unable to focus on anything, he’d wanderer to the rear of the room and probably take out a laptop and watch videos. She said to let him do this and to stay with him, keep an eye on him. Great.

True to form, when the rest of the class gathered to discuss fiction writing and composing very short stories, Luis checked-out. We went to the back of the room where, per his rebellious routine, he found a pair of headphones, fired up his laptop and did his thing – some sort of animated video crap that all the kids watch. He even knew the web address to type. We sat together, side-by-side, and watched. It was mindless. But I’m a teacher. So I added something educational to the experience. Clicking on the YouTube website, I typed in the title of British composer Ralph Vaughn Williams’ classical music piece Fantasia on Greensleeves, something that always helps me relax. I hit the play button...and in a moment, Luis, who’d been clicking crazily with the mouse to the dictates of the animated video, suddenly grew calm and quiet. It was the music.

A bit later, I had the thought to test the cognizance of my young, autistic friend. Did he know who his new friend was – this person who held his hand, touched his nose/ears/elbows, and introduced him to Greensleeves? Let’s find out!

Still on YouTube, I pulled up one of the Transit TV Teacher videos I used to perform on Metro bus broadcasts here in LA County. Each video is of me, onscreen, delivering a lesson. There I was. Luis watched. I touched my image on the laptop screen with my index finger, and then touched myself. Touched the screen, then myself. Luis made no move. He seemed to be considering the matter. But two of his classmates looking on made the connection.

“Hey! That’s you!” exclaimed a boy and girl seated at the table next to us. They came over and made a fuss. Their interest may have prompted Luis’ continued interest in the video. At least he didn’t get up and wander off.

Earlier in the morning, the other aide had told me it was time to take Luis to the faculty restroom to change his diaper (worn underneath his pants). Did I want to do it, she asked? I declined. Not because of any hang-up on my part, but rather two reasons: first, I'd never done it before and didn't know the procedure/routine. And second, people/adults have suspicious, dirty minds and accusatory tendencies. Why open that can of worms? I let the female aide do it.

Upon Luis’ return, the class regrouped on the carpet to sit before a large monitor on the wall at the front of the room and watch an animated video storybook series titled If You Give A Mouse A Cookie. I parked myself on one of the mini, first-grader-sized chairs behind the kids while keeping an eye on Luis who wasn't yet quite onboard with this new activity. He started out sitting on the carpet with the other kids, but then was on the move again.

Hands-on, I brought him back to the carpet area and sat him down on my lap...where he stayed quite happily until the short video was finished. In that few minutes, the fabric on the front of my pant legs began to feel a damp…a leaky diaper. I didn't mind. Of all the indignities that I as a teacher have had to face in the performance of my duties over the years, this one didn't even rank. Damp pants will dry. We pressed on.

And as the viewing party ended and everyone stood, Luis came over and did something I didn't expect. Standing in front of me, he put his arms around my waist and gave me a long, tight hug. Wow!


The lunch procession from Miss Mariscal's class seems to be the highlight of the kids' day. And while the other twenty kids stand in line at the classroom door and wait for the word to be given, that word waits on the disposition of Luis.

“He needs to be strapped into his chair before we can go,” Miss M. told me. “Otherwise, he's impossible to control outside.” Luis' chair is a four-wheeled Rifton Activity stroller of the type used to mobilize babies. And Luis knows the drill and doesn’t appear self-conscious that this practicality sets him distinctly apart from his peers. Maybe the promise of a free lunch is an inducement. So getting him into position was a simple matter. Two of the kids helped click the restraint straps. I was impressed at how all these young students waited without complaint or comment. There was no impatience, no “Hurry up, Luis!” that you'd expect of older kids. This was just the routine. No judgment.

Quesadillas were on the menu that day. Lukewarm, bland and mushy. As the kids went to stand on line for their free eats, Miss M. told me to cut to the head of the line, tell the kitchen aide I was Luis' butler for the day, and so be given quick access to a tray of food. I picked up an extra tray for myself and headed back to the table where I had left Luis' stroller parked at the head of the long lunch table beneath the rickety wooden roof of the outdoor eating pavilion.

The two of us weren't alone. A group of his classmates sat with us. Madaly, one of the girls who'd read with us on the carpet an hour earlier, sat on Luis' left and, in addition to navigating through her own meal, unwrapped the items on Luis' tray, dug the spoon into his limp quesadilla and fed him with the care and attention of a mother. She did the same with his milk carton and juice box, holding each to his mouth and encouraging him to sip from the straw. I was so impressed as I watched how dutiful and compassionate young children can be with one of their needy, special peers. And yet, as a teacher, I wanted to take a different approach. Sitting to Luis's immediate right, not once did I commandeer his spoon to feed him. He could do it himself (even though he dropped more food from the spoon than actually reached his mouth). I wanted him to do it himself...to watch me eat, and then feed himself. And he did. An idea of what our lunch table looked like.


After chow, the kids head out to the expanse of pavement behind the school: shoddy basketball courts, cement walls for handball, etc.

“We usually put Luis in with the kindergartners,” one of the playground monitors told me as Luis and I walked along, after I’d twice chased him down and directed him out of the way of other students, other games and activities with which he seemed to interfere. “He socializes better with the younger kids.” Fine.

Hand-in-hand, Luis and I entered the small, fenced area where the littlest ones had the run of things – 'run' being the operative word. There were kids on the slides, kids dashing about, kids playing games, etc. I got a kick seeing the carefree way Luis ran about among them. His movements are somewhat spastic, uncoordinated, dorky. But there's a freedom in how he moves; completely un-self-conscious – I supposed because his brain (thankfully) doesn't have that mode of discernment. Watching him run and jump, my wishful fancy interpreted it as a carefree joy – a capacity of expression that we cognizant, overly self-aware adults seem to lose. It touched me. Luis touched me. And that's probably against school policy too!

None of the kids seemed to be using a jump-rope that lay on the ground, so I picked it up and got going. And soon, Luis and I had a pack of friends impressed with my skills in being able to make 20+ consecutive jumps, while they all did a paltry one at a time. Luis did none. He lacks the brain-body coordination, and perhaps always will.

When Luis got bored watching us jump rope, I turned the toy over to the kindergartners and we walked on, encountering groups of kids here and there. I didn't want to get into conversations with them because in those, Luis could not participate. Yet, I wanted to interact, and to include Luis. For some reason – instinct, I suppose – I started raising my index finger at the other kids, wagging it from side-to-side (like former NBA star player Dikembe Mutombo did when he blocked another player's shot) and making the attention-grabbing utterance…


Kids stopped, look at us, and laughed as Luis begin doing too. “NYEAHHHHH!!!” (Later, I realized that this was the sound made by the trash room door in my apartment complex as it lumbers open or closed on its heavy hinges. It somehow stuck in my mind and surfaced at this fortuitous moment.)

For a boy dismissed by the experts as ‘non-verbal,’ “NYEAHHHHH!!!” was a start. It was communication. Luis and I had fun approaching other kids dashing around the yard and getting their surprised attention with a good-natured “NYEAHHHHH!!!” And they gave it right back.

Non-verbal? If Luis can't do words, he can do noises, sounds. It isn't Hamlet's 'To be, or not to be' existential soliloquy or Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. But it's a start. And for a kid pegged on the autism spectrum, maybe "NYEAHHHHH!" is comparable. I knew he had it in him! That boy is Shakespeare in a stroller and helmet!!!

At one point, I approached a male playground monitor and asked him about Luis' hockey helmet (of which, like the no-touching policy, the school and teacher had neglected to inform me. I asked if his head or skull were soft or vulnerable in some way that medically required protection.

“No,” was the fellow's response. “He just tends to lay on the ground a lot when he doesn't want to go where we want him to go. And we don't want him bumping his head, so we use the helmet.” Fair enough. I had actually noticed this about Luis. He isn't able to verbally express his opposition to doing what he’s told to do. Instead, he's learned just to go limp and make you touch him, pick him up, direct him. No problem. I liked reaching down and tickling him as he lay there, and getting him to laugh. Then he was quite pliant, even amenable. But to Principal Lee, as I was to find out later that afternoon, this means of inducement is considered by administrators as an unforgivable affront.

Back to the classroom!!!

I loaded Luis into his stroller as the class formed a line. During lunch, I’d asked Madaly and another girl what the afternoon session of class consisted of, and mentioned nap time, story time, song time – the things I remember from my earliest years in school.

“We don't do those,” she told me. “Why not?” I asked. “That's what I did in 1st grade.” She just shrugged her shoulders and then propositioned, “Could you sing to us?”

First up, however, was another “Give A Mouse A Cookie” video. His traditional seat on the carpet with his classmates was now no longer an option. I sat on one of the midget chairs again, and Luis parked himself in my lap and reclined backward against me. Had he witnessed this, Principal Lee would have had a fit! There we were, Luis and I, cheek-to-cheek, watching the video screen as I wrapped my arms around him, wanting him to stay put, wanting him to pay attention to the story. When he squirmed, I held tight. But when I finally released him, I saw that he was squirming not to get up and leave, but to readjust his position and get comfortable.

With my face close to his, I pointed at the TV screen: “Look at that boy!” I whispered as if this was the most amazing, compelling cinematic moment in history. “Look at that mouse! Look at that pig! Look at that dog! What are they doing there? Why did that mouse pick up that spoon? What's he gonna do next?”

Luis didn't respond. He sat and watched quietly – maybe for the first time in his life.

Meanwhile, the fabric on the pants that constituted my lap was again feeling damp after drying during lunchtime. Not a problem. They'd dry again later. I wasn't gonna move.

When the video finished, Miss Mariscal came over to me. “The kids are asking if you’ll sing to them.”

Song time!!!

When did 1st grade change to this new millennium format where stories, naps and songs are not on the daily agenda? Yet, whenever I teach at this grade level, these new millennium kids still ask for the things we were given as a matter of course when I was that age.

“Sure,” I told the teacher as I displaced Luis from his damp perch on my lap. I grabbed my mini-chair and carried it to the front of the classroom where I faced 20 little upturned faces seated on the carpet in front of me. For a moment, I forgot about Luis as I told my attentive audience that this was a song about one of the states in America. One of the kids thought San Diego was a state. Another, Los Angeles. A third, America itself. I guess it didn't matter because my song was about a state all the way across the country, named West Virginia – Take Me Home, Country Roads.” I told the kids that the last time I sang it was for my 4-5th graders, eighteen years ago in 2001 when I was a student-teacher during summertime under my much loved master teacher Marcia White at an elementary-middle school in South LA. And if Miss Mariscal's 1st graders wanted a song, I'd sing it for them too. They wanted a song…

Country roads take me home to the place I belong

West Virginia, mountain mama, take me home country roads

Believe me, John Denver need not worry about any vocal competition from me – and not just because he's dead! I have a chorus voice at best. Still, most of the kids seemed to like it. They clapped to the rhythm. A few picked-up the chorus and sang the ending with me. And Luis...

It didn't matter that, distracted by the request to sing, I'd forgotten him. Luis hadn't forgotten about me. During the intro as I talked about the states, Luis grabbed one of the mini-chairs, walked it to the front of the room, placed it next to mine and sat down beside me to face the class. I put my arm around his shoulder. He didn't say a word, of course. Didn't sing. But he knew this was something different. He was paying attention. He focused. He wanted to be there next to me. And he did what any “normal” kid would have done to get what he wanted. Not disruptively, not autistically. For those few moments, he was as normal as all the rest. And then…

Fantastic Friday!!!

A weekly event at Camino Nuevo Castellanos Charter Elementary School, during which all grade levels and every student gets to frolic on the paved playground for the last hour or so of the day and take part in organized activities: face-painting, bubble-blowing, telescoping, building towers out of plastic cups. Just keep them occupied, entertained and active. Fine.

Luis wanted his share in the festivities, so together we joined the line of our classmates (this time we left the stroller in the classroom) and trooped back outdoors.

Oh! Luis was in his glory! And in everyone else's hair! Shamelessly and without scruples or inhibitions, that boy pushed straight to the front of every line of kids: those viewing the Downtown skyscrapers through the telescopes; those building cup towers. And what's more, all the kids knew Luis and let him do it. (I really should have directed him to the face-painting area, but for such a static activity he wouldn't have sat still that long.)

It was at the bubble-making station that Luis was in rare and memorable form. There, kids wielded two long sticks and dipped a triangle of rope into a bucket of suds, lifting it to the breeze to produce huge, morphing, soapy bubbles that floated through the dirty Downtown air. After usurping turns from two older kids, Luis chased the bubbles across the pavement, bursting them if he could catch them – looking like a total 7-year-old dork and having a ball! I just stood and watched, and in doing so had almost as much fun as he did.

Another aide had warned me that at 2:35 p.m. Luis' day would end (25 minutes before the other kids'). A special van would pull-up to the front of the school and he was expected there promptly. I had an eye on my wristwatch as the time drew close...and so began nudging Luis in that direction. But Luis was not having it! He didn't want to leave. And so when I took him lightly by the arm, Luis resorted to his tried-and-true strategy: going limp and laying on the ground. Delay! Obfuscate! Obstruct! I laughed. And I reached down to tickle him to make him laugh too.

Just then, a voice came from behind us...

“Excuse me! We have a no-touching policy with the students. Please don’t touch Luis!”

Jogging up to us came a pasty-looking Asian man, middle-aged but with hair beginning to gray. I explained, “I have to get him to the front of the building soon to catch his ride home.”

“I know; I’m the Principal,” was his response, “but we don't touch the students.” I was mystified.

“Why?” I asked. And I learned later that Principal Lee didn't like being asked that question.

“That's our school policy,” he informed me as Luis still lay there on the pavement at my feet. And I repeated my question – “Why?” – which only served (so I found out later) to annoy the Principal further. My tone was placid, not snotty. I didn't ask it to be belligerent. I just was really curious. And the answer returned was typical bureaucrat-speak, tinged with resentment in being asked to explain...

“Because that's the policy. The parents don't want their children to be touched. If you need to move Luis, come to me and I'll handle it.”

(Yeah, right, pal! You look like you couldn't lift a bird! Don't you have some paperwork to push around your desk? And if parents don't want their kids to be touched – which is probably a lie – you should tell them to find another school.)

Thankfully, Luis chose this moment to get up and take off again, justifying me turning my back on this idiot and returning to my duty: caring for Luis. With me close behind – and me now fearing to touch him – Luis veered this way and that, cutting in front of kids in various lines, until we neared the main gate, where a school aide approached us and said it was time to get Luis out to the front to catch his ride. And Luis went right into his spiel, lying down again on the pavement where he was dead weight – dead weight which the Principal told me not to touch.

“It’s okay,” the aide assured me when I relayed to her Principal Lee’s petty directive. “For this, we can touch him. Are you able to carry him?”

I was indeed able. I coaxed, tickled and then finally lifted and cradled in my arms a rather pliant, never seriously obstructive Luis, carrying him half-way to the gate before he apparently saw the handwriting on the wall and decided to walk the rest of the way himself. A white van waited curbside with another similarly situated boy already buckled into the back seat. The driver and I brought Luis around to the other side and buckled him in as well, closing the door. I waved to him – the boy in the hockey helmet who had treated me to such a memorable experience and rewarding day. And through the window, he waved back to the teacher who, I hope, did the same for him. I stood and continued to wave as the van drove off…and then turned to find Principal Lee standing nearby, scowling.

“Did you carry him?”

“Yes,” I answered him. “She told me I should, to get him to the van,” I responded, indicating the female aide standing beside me, who took her cue and explained further. But I knew Principal Lee didn’t need an explanation. He knew the logistics, the practicality, the necessity of getting Luis to his van ride by any means necessary. He was only here now because he was gunning for me. So I walked away and left it to the other aide to handle him. I didn’t see it anywhere in my job description, the requirement that I had to deal with a schmuck with a stick up his ass!

And as I returned to the playground area and sat watching 1st graders having their faces painted with bright colors in Wonder Woman and puppy dog designs, I realized why Principal Lee was so hot to nail me: I was a lowly substitute aide, a first-timer on his campus, and I had dared to twice ask the question: “Why?”

Why do you (why does your school) have this policy? . . . with all the implied ancillary questions: Whom does this policy serve? Why have a policy that makes it more difficult for teachers to teach, relate to students and perform the fullness of their jobs? And, is a sense of guilt the reason you're so intimidated at being asked to respond to an honest question, to which you should have a cogent answer at the ready?

My sense about Principal Lee turned out to be spot-on. Something nagged at me as the school day ended and I headed home. So, two days later on Sunday when my e-mailed blank time card arrived from Scoot Education (the company that sent me on the assignment), I made l lengthy notation on it about how no one at Camino Nuevo bothered to inform me of the “No Touching” policy at the start of my work day, the first time I’d ever been on the campus. And I wrote of my run-in with Principal Lee and the possible retaliation I sensed.

Come to find, I was correct. On Monday morning, my supervisor at Scoot called and said Lee had indeed contacted them to complain about me being hands-on with a student (Luis) in violation of a policy (of which they’d failed to inform me). Is it any wonder that teachers feel demoralized and even persecuted by these bloodless, useless, sniping, self-serving, administrative twerps!

“It's all about the kids,” we hear hypocrites in the education industry spout. But that's a lie. And they know it. Administrators like Lee are looking out for themselves, not the kids. Teachers cannot teach when they fear their students; fear touching them and connecting with them; fear administrators who support complaining parents and retaliatory bureaucrats, while admonishing and abandoning teachers.

The bottom line is that, particularly in an arena like Special Education which deals with the most vulnerable children (but not vulnerable in the sense administrators manipulatively claim), education should indeed be special, not sterile. As educators, we're either going to fully try to reach these kids – reach through their autistic barriers and blockages – in order to touch them, or we're gonna warehouse them, leaving them withdrawn, incapable, isolated, and thus damned to a lifetime of existence rather than a lifetime of life.

You give me a month with Luis, and I will have him talking. He will have an attention span. He will enjoy every hour spent at school. He won't be as “non-verbal” as he is presently diagnosed and regarded. And he will be happy. But apparently, I'm the only one who thinks that's what school and learning should be about. That's not the kind of aide or teacher with whom Mr. Lee and his ilk want to contend. Don't engage! Don't enjoy! Don't question! Don't touch!

Pay me, or don't pay me, for that month of teaching Luis. I don't care. Would Principal Lee give up his paycheck to help – to save – his students?

Frankly, I think it's crucially important that Special Education students get educators as 'special' as they are. And I think the talent is out there. But it's been cowed, discouraged and repressed by “policy” to the point where such teachers are afraid that being 'special' will cost them their jobs.

I remember working sub assignments in Special Ed classrooms where, after my first day, the teacher would pull me aside and say, “Will you deal with so-and-so, please? You're the only one he responds to.” So-and-so was a kid who would not look at or interact with anyone. And so the rest of the teachers stood around, picking their noses while so-and-so and I played a spirited game of ping pong on a table that no one ever thought to use. C'mon people!!!

I don't claim expertise in understanding the anatomical complexities of the young, developing brain, particularly one exhibiting the limitations of autism. But it makes sense to me that making strong efforts to work with – to touch – such children before they age to a point where the brain synapses stiffen and harden into a less pliable, more permanent position presents the best chance. It's our responsibility, our duty as teachers. More than that, it's the duty of administrators and the school system to sweep away the policy obstacles and support teachers in this.

Forgive my sounding pie-in-the-sky naive, but the word that sums this up is love: showing a loving, caring compassion for such students in order to “touch” them, reach and help them develop past anatomical limitations to the fullest and most fulfilling extent possible. For the time I was with him, that's what I hope I did for Luis: showed love.

Littering the educational landscape with insinuations of physical or sexual abuse and such, fueled by fears of lawsuits prompted by the rare, outlier cases reported on the evening news, creates a chilling effect on the expression of educational love as demonstrated through creative, caring, compassionate teaching. Bureaucrats maintain that policies generated within that climate of fear are simply prudent cautions meant to protect students. No!!! They're meant to protect the bureaucrats...and leave Luis and students like him unreached, untouched, unloved.

# # #

NOTE: I will not return to Camino Nuevo Castellanos Charter School. I won't jeopardize Scoot Education's contract with that small charter school chain by working there again. I refuse to teach a Special Ed child whom I am prohibited from touching and treating to a fun day of growing and learning. And so, I will not see my little friend Luis again.

Satisfied now, Principal Lee?



by Justin Vyor

(Installment #33 in my ongoing series "ADVENTURES IN EDUCATION” here in Southern CA) (1/16/2015)

(NOTE: Photos accompanying this story do not transmit to this web page. Ask me if you want a pdf version.)

How must it feel...

...to wake up one morning in your stark, cold, cement walled-and-floored jail cell, shivering beneath a thin fabric blanket unworthy of the word...

...to dress yourself with quaking fingers, donning baggy, demeaning, horrid-orange colored prison scrubs and sit heavily, ponderously for a moment, longing for the recollection of a long absent sensation known as peace; until...

...a stiff-backed guard (his approach unwelcomely heralded by the dreaded thuds of blunt boot heels stepping sternly on the stone cell block floor) appears at the bars of your Spartan quarters, not to visit but to shackle your hands to chains encircling your waist, held fast by stainless steel cuffs bound harshly on your wrists...

...to now (as the rest of the cell block slumbers fitfully) begin the gut-wrenching journey...escorted solemnly through a dreary, warren-like complex; then with cold ceremony, loaded gruffly, friendlessly aboard an ominous, heavy-plated, vault-like bus (its interior comprised of fenced compartments), under the scrutiny of inscrutable, stone-faced guards chatting low amongst themselves and armed with guns meant to remind you that you are less than human and nothing but inconvenient freight on this chilly morning – living, breathing freight with a racing, panicked pulse...

...to be in this manner driven forth, bound and caged, through the early urban pre-dawn gloom as the City of Angels begins to rouse itself to what will – for free men, women and children – be just another blissfully uneventful day...

...to feel that sickening twinge of dread in your gut as the bus glides smoothly to an abrupt halt inside the steel-enclosed loading area in the secured bowels of a courthouse-fortress, where you and several criminal comrades are offloaded, inter-linked in chain gang fashion, marched silently onto (appropriately) a rude, industrial-sized freight elevator, ascending 15 floors to view-less confines high above the dawn-brightening city...led penultimately to a narrow, windowless holding room where you are unlinked from your cowed comrades, seated and chained individually and alone to a hard, wooden bench...

...and now can only watch the relentless hands of the clock on the wall, tick-tocking time towards your fate...

...and wait...

...until summoned to judgment – the moment of all truth – stumbling, shackled, at the sound of your name, “The People of the State of California Versus...”...

...into a nondescript adjoining courtroom where justice, incarnated in the aged flesh of a grey-haired man in glasses and black robe, and armed with an imposing file folder of papers that represents your human worth (or worthlessness), will look up from the hundreds of pages of printed words, and then gaze the distance down upon you from his seat of high judgment...

...and in quiet tones which, even if delivered with a measure of compassion, still ring cold, terse mocking as they pronounce the dreaded word “Life...” – the continuation of the living hell your life has (by your own rueful hand) become and may, for the remainder of the time left before you die – every single day of it – forever be.

Oh, and before contemplating how this must feel, add to it the fact that...

...just six weeks before this moment, you turned the tender, life-affirming age of 21.


My last installment was set in the Men's Central Jail in Downtown LA where I did my first substitute teaching assignment with inmates back in September. Amazing experience! Somehow, the several people who read and commented on the piece all kept asking about one young inmate I mentioned almost incidentally in the long narrative. I think my father's comment was most typical of the popular reaction. Every time I spoke with him on the phone back in New York, the very first words out of my father's mouth, even before asking about me, were...

“I'm very worried about that David boy in your story. How is he doing?”

The prolonged opening of this piece is what 21-year-old David experienced the morning of Friday, January 16th, his day of judgment after conviction a year earlier on the charge of Murder in the 2nd Degree, with “gang enhancements” mandating a sentence of some yet-to-be-determined number of years (25, 50) -to-Life.

I write this subsequent installment for those curious to know the fate of a kid who, 16 days after his 18th birthday back in 2011, on a December evening just before midnight, was there on the street with a friend who parked his car, took out his gun, approached a local Hispanic kid, asked for his gang affiliation and then shot him to death. This senseless turn of events got 20-year-old Edgar (himself a local punk gang member) a mercifully quick death sentence, bleeding away his young life on the sidewalk 20 feet away from the front door of his dilapidated Northeast LA apartment home.

David was the accessory, not the shooter. But in California, as in other states wrestling with the confounding plague of gang-related violence, that's enough to get you Life.


I'd promised David I'd be there at his sentencing hearing. This was about six weeks prior when I went to see him in jail during weekend visiting hours – partly so that a then-20-year-old kid I barely knew could take heart that someone was thinking of him, someone cared; and partly just for the sake of visiting a prisoner in jail. You see it so often in TV dramas – talking in a narrow, confined booth via old wall-mounted telephones; prisoner on one side of the glass, you on the other. Well, in reality, it's exactly like that. And when the phone cuts-off without warning, your visit is over...and the prisoner (at least David did with me) puts on a brave face, looks at you with eyes that try not to appear as if they're pleading for just a few more precious moments of time, and resigns himself to recede with a forced measure of dignity back into the dark recesses of harsh, inescapable confinement.

I'd also paid a visit to David's lawyer, Joel Isaacson, a noted criminal defense attorney who plies his trade from accommodations in a posh legal suite in a prestige office building in the swank Century City neighborhood of Los Angeles. David's Hispanic family residing over in the Highland Park section of LA certainly isn't well-to-do. But his oldest sister has a decent position with a national bank, and so was able to pull together $40K for Isaacson's services in representing her youngest brother and baby of the family of five children.

Other than his extensive background in his field, Isaacson, I learned, came to prominence in the mid-1990s during the O.J. Simpson murder spectacle, tapped by local KCAL-TV Channel 9 News as the station's nightly on-air legal correspondent giving daily updates on the case. I e-mailed him one day, expressing my interest in David's situation and offering to provide a character reference at sentencing if it would help his cause. The attorney graciously invited me to his tower-top office with spectacular views over the pricey Westside. He was gregarious but measured with me; an entertaining storyteller. We even realized we had a friend in common. And Isaacson promised to keep me apprised of things to come in the matter of the boy facing Life in prison.


I was nearly the first person inside the huge, high-rise courthouse that Friday morning at 7:15, thinking (as indicated online) that court began at 8 a.m. Turned out it was more like 8:45, so I had to wait. There was one moment of weirdness right off the bat. As I entered the restroom on the 15th floor, a scraggly naked guy dashed in front of me from the sinks on one wall to the cover of the toilet stalls on the other. Turned out he was recently released from San Quentin State Prison up north. I don't think he had a court case today. But people in his situation use facilities in an array of public buildings to satisfy the basic needs of hygiene we law-abiders take for granted. Resourceful.

The 15th floor corridor of the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center at 210 W. Temple Street in Downtown LA is at least a football field long, with courtrooms (“departments”) along the entire length. Steady phosphorescent overhead lighting glares off the drab tan and gray tiled floors and bare, nondescript walls. And hard, stone benches provide no welcome. I sat and waited on one of them near to the locked doors of Department 134.

Attorney Isaacson stepped off the elevator around 8:30 and approached, remembering me from our earlier meeting. And he had good news re. behind-the-scenes developments. The shooter of murder victim Edgar had been caught and jailed last month. David had agreed to testify against him for the Prosecution at trial. Isaacson had negotiated a deal with the District Attorney. All parties were apparently on board. If the judge accepted the agreement – and that was a big “if” – then 21-year-old David would avoid the minimum mandatory 25-Years-to-Life sentence.

The stale, recirculated air on the 15th floor of the waking courthouse began filling with sounds of shoes scuffling on the dull marble floors. Up and down the long corridor, courtrooms were going into session. It was 8:40 a.m.


The nameplate on the elevated bench at the front of the courtroom read “Ronald H. Rose, Judge.” And a small chamber (maybe 20' x 40') dourly decorated in brown (the walls) and blue (the carpet) was crammed with participants awaiting his presence: clerical staff, bailiff, several uniformed police officers, and various attorneys conferring with various family members/moral supporters of various prisoners scheduled to appear for sentencing this day. The latter were kept in an adjacent secured room, the door to which was monitored by the bailiff.

The public seating gallery is separated from the courtroom by a glass partition, probably bullet-proof. Only authorized personnel are allowed to pass. I sat in the front row, positioned for the best view of prisoners as they emerged. But while waiting for court to begin, I found myself watching attorney Isaacson, working the room like a skilled showman; first in solemn conference with the D.A.; then joking convivially with bailiffs and officers; schmoozing and back-slapping department staff like a musician playing his instrument. The court system is his instrument. In this, he stood out from the other men of law and letters who had today come to ply their trades on the scales of justice.

Unlike the families of other prisoner-defendants who likely hired attorneys from their own poor, East LA communities, David's sister had gone to the Westside and paid more money than was financially comfortable in order to retain a sharp, seasoned attorney highly experienced in the field of criminal defense. This morning, she and her family had come to see if the investment would pay-off.


The entrance of Judge Ronald H. Rose, a small, mild-looking, grey-haired man with glasses was without ceremony. No “All rise!” command the way Judge Judy is announcement by the bailiff on her TV program. Rose slipped in quietly, took his place on the dais and the proceedings commenced. Those of us seated in the four rows of (fittingly) church-like pews which comprised the gallery seemed to tense, cease conversations and turn attentions forward.

Four quick cases ensued as, one-by-one, the names of prisoners were called, and the indicated detainee emerged from the hidden holding room, clad in faded blue scrubs with black “LA COUNTY JAIL” lettering on back. Oh, and the chains – cuffed hands bound at their sides to metal links encircling their waists. Each nodded curtly to families/friends in the gallery on the other side of the glass partition before taking his seat at the Defense table to the judge's left (my right). Their lawyers stood or sat beside them, their best and only hope for freedom – a longshot.

The case of the first defendant, a Mr. Self, had something to do with threats and a gun. He rejected an offer for 2 years in prison if he pleaded 'no contest,' and instead risked 15 years by choosing to go to trial. A date was set and he was dismissed, taken from the courtroom back into the holding room to continue his detention.

Then three other cases, all uneventful and disposed of in moments. The cast of characters milled about the chamber, conversing quietly. I looked over at Mr. Isaacson, hovering off to the side, still working his courtroom sources and doing what he does best. Heading toward the door out of the courtroom, he caught my glance and came over to where I sat attentively, looking pleased.

“The judge is gonna do it!” he whispered a report on the fruits of his negotiations. “That's great!”


I heard his name called vaguely, just above the low din in the courtroom. The clock on the wall indicated 9:35 a.m. Seconds later, he emerged through the nondescript holding room door in the wall behind the bailiff – a 21-year-old boy, hair recently trimmed neat (prisoners with a talent for barbering provide that service to their fellow inmates) and wearing orange-colored scrubs.

In Men’s Central Jail, orange designates “high-power” inmates who are placed on special restrictions. Contrary to what you might assume, such prisoners simply require escorts whenever they are moved within the confines of MCJ because they might be attacked. For their own protection, they live alone in single cells instead of dorms with dozens or hundreds of others. (David told me he prefers the communal accommodations over solitude. He likes the company of the friends he's made during his first three years behind bars.)

The last time I'd seen 5’7” David during visiting hours in early December after first meeting him in my classroom while subbing at Men's Central Jail in late September, he had looked a little heavier; a little more worn from stress. But still boyish. Now, what struck me most was how thick the chain links around his waist looked, standing out in stark relief against the orange scrubs.

The first thing he did within seconds of entering the courtroom was to look to his left, out into the gallery, searching (as would any prisoner) for a friendly, supportive face at such a monumental moment in his young life. He saw mine in the front row, and smiled slightly and nodded. Then those of his parents and siblings behind me in the third row. Smile, nod. Then he sat at the table next to his attorney.


D.A. Amy Ashvanian struck me as a no-nonsense, aggressive shark. And it wasn't just the black-and-white tight leopard print skirt and scarf that went well with black leggings, black blazer and black boots – a perhaps tellingly monochrome ensemble. The only color (not at all colorful) was in the odd-looking blond streaks in her dark hair. Pretty woman, but she could use a fashion consultant.

She had a toughness about her; and of all the players in the room whom Isaacson had to schmooze, only she seemed somewhat immune and resistant. I had noticed them talking quietly about the case out in the corridor before trial, heads together conspiratorially. Isaacson playing the congenial good ol' boy – ‘C'mon! Be a pal!’ And Ashvanian, an adamant expression in her body language: ‘That ain't gonna work on me, Buddy! If you want this deal, here's what your boy is gonna do!’

I knew Mr. Isaacson had cajoled and reasoned with D.A. Ashvanian on David's behalf, giving several reasons to warrant leniency: (1) he was only 18 at the time; (2) he made a stupid mistake; (3) he was the lookout, not the shooter; (4) he's been a model prisoner in jail these past three years. ‘Come on, Amy, give the kid a break!’ Ashvanian held firm with Isaacson re. what she (representing the state) needed to get from this deal...

(1) Your client will meet with detectives ASAP and answer all of their questions about the death of Edgar on the night of December 22, 2011; (2) he will testify truthfully at the first-degree murder trial of the shooter, Oscar, age 22 at the time of the killing and taken into custody six weeks ago after three years on the run; (3) if David fails to abide by this agreement in any manner, the deal is off and he will get the maximum sentence possible.

And it was agreed.


Watching David closely and just barely able to catch his left-side profile as he sat with Isaacson at the Defense table, I wasn't paying close attention when the clerk called case #BA*******, “The People of the State of California versus David *******.”

On the bench, Judge Rose gravely browsed a notated copy of the sentencing agreement the opposing counsels had submitted for the court's approval. Rose had presided over the several day span of the trial a year prior. The verdict was handed down January 21, 2014, exactly 360 days earlier. A jury had found him guilty on the charge of 2nd Degree Murder. Because of gang enhancements, the minimum sentence was 25-Years-to-Life.

Rose seemed sad it had so tragically come to this. How could he not realize the waste of a life that, under ordinary circumstances in a better world, would be so promising: a good-looking Hispanic boy, bright and personable; full of potential and just starting out in life, with so much to look forward to . . . throwing it all away in one stupid moment, with consequences he could never take back. Edgar's life had been lost forever. Now, maybe David's would be too. And Judge Rose undoubtedly had seen it go this way dozens of tragic times before.

Not realizing at the time that I'd write a story on this hearing, I didn't take many specific notes about the events, nor record any direct quotes except one above attributed to attorney Isaacson. But Judge Rose began his remarks by referencing the sentencing agreement negotiated by the attorneys. He asked David if he understood it. He asked if he would abide by it. Yes. Yes.

And then the sentence . . .

- The Defendant's request to be released on probation with time served is denied...

- The major sentence of 25-Years-to-Life is hereby stayed (meaning stopped)...

- The sentence of 15-Years-to-Life is hereby imposed; and the Defendant will be remanded “forthwith” and taken to state prison after meeting with and being interviewed by LAPD detectives regarding the case to be filed against the person who shot and killed Edgar.

- The Defendant will be given credit for the 1,107 days (just over 3 years) he has already served in jail, which brings his minimum prison time remaining down to 12 years;

- Judge Rose will recommend David be kept on “keep-away (status) in the Department of Corrections,” meaning that for his own protection (against inmates who target others who testify against gang members), he’ll be segregated from the prison's general population.

- All pertinent documentation testifying to David's progress during the past three years spent in Men's Central Jail, including the high school diploma he earned and his status as a ‘trustee’ prisoner, will be attached to probation and parole reports which may come into play on the appeal of his conviction the Defendant is entitled to pursue.

- With good behavior during the next 12 years in prison, Judge Rose will personally recommend parole for the Defendant at the earliest possible time (the year 2027).

And one thing that surprise and heartened me and everyone else in the courtroom...

- Judge Rose himself acknowledged and commended 21-year-old David on the (quote) “phenomenal progress” he has made during his time in jail.

Defendant David, seated next to his skillful attorney, looked up at the judge and quietly stated his assent to all the terms of the sentencing agreement. Isaacson had hit a home run for his 21-year-old client. The kid had dodged a bullet.

And it was done.


Out in the corridor afterward, I saw David's family huddled nearby and went over. His sister had introduced herself to me quickly in the gallery just before the proceedings. I had e-mailed and spoken with her several times in the prior few weeks, asking her permission to visit David in jail. She happily gave it, and said she appreciated my attending the hearing this morning.

But she didn't look happy now, even after the great result Isaacson had achieved. Neither did the family. Rather, sad and resigned instead of relieved. I guess the prospect of a 21-year-old spending at least 12 more years in state prison will do that to his family. But I assured her, “This is a good result; the best he could have gotten. Twelve years is a long time, but it's not Life. He'll be getting out.”

David's older brother (age 26) came over and thanked me for being there. He said it sounded to him as if the D.A. had threatened his brother in the hearing re. the harsh consequences of not living up to the terms of the agreement. Was that an appeal-able issue, he asked?

“She didn't threaten him,” I had to laugh a bit as I tried to calm his resentment toward the D.A. “It wasn't a threat; it was a promise. Mr. Isaacson got your brother a great deal. All David has to do now is live up to it. If he doesn't, she (Ashvanian) is gonna slam him. She's allowed to do that.”

His sister was confused about the sentence, asking what the term “stayed” meant. Isaacson, standing there in our little group, told the family it meant 'stopped'; that the sentence of 25-Years-to-Life which David would have otherwise received is now gone. This clarification went over well. In the light of logic all were now resigned to, twelve years is a comprehensible number for a 21-year-old kid. The indefinite-ness of “Life” is not. So this is a good thing.

Attorney Isaacson said his goodbyes, assured the family he'd be there to wrap-up things with David, and headed off down the corridor. I stayed behind, chatting with brother who introduced me to his father, age 58. Nice man; spoke English well enough; thanked me for coming to support his youngest son. His brother asked me for a copy of my Installment #32 story about my MCJ teaching assignment in which David is mentioned. I didn't have one on hand then, but did give him a copy of the online news story of the murder. He had never seen it before. I thought he should.

David's mother came over to me and, speaking Spanish, handed me her cell phone and said, “David.” I thought he meant to show me photos of him on the screen. But no – there was a call for me on the line from the 21-year-old boy who had just been sentenced to twelve more years in state prison.”

“Justin? It's David. Thanks for coming today.”

He had called his mother and, of all people, asked to speak to me. Beyond being stunned that he was even allowed to make a phone call at this moment in time, I was humbled.

“I told you I'd be here. How are you doing? What'd you think of the sentence?”

Like his family, the thought of twelve more years behind bars was a difficult pill to swallow. But to his credit – an impressive display of his maturity and intelligence under immense pressure – he said he knew this was a good result; that he accepted it, and he was happy. Wow! The kid had grown-up.


After having dropped-out of high school many years earlier, David's brother recently went back and got his diploma, and was now studying in college. He's not a great student, so he said. I volunteered to help him with tutoring – no charge. One of his two younger sisters dropped out of school too, but is about to get her diploma. I offered my tutoring services there as well. She and her brother each have young children – not uncommon in minority families growing-up in low-income areas of LA. I joked with them – but wasn't joking – as we rode the elevator down to the ground floor, when I commented, “You've gotta stop dropping out of school, and stop having babies!”



Figuring it may be the last chance I (ever) get to see him due to his imminent transfer to some yet-to-be-determined state prison, I visited David in jail the morning of Sunday, January 18th, two days after sentencing. He was in surprisingly good spirits. He received the letter I sent from New York during my Christmas vacation there, and a Sudoku puzzle book delivered via Amazon.com, and Nicholas Nickleby by my favorite author, Charles Dickens. The latter might be a bit over his head, but he's giving it a try and was 100 pages in.

I told him his sister had e-mailed me his graduation photo taken in jail, and that I'd printed out a color copy to show my father what the boy he keeps asking me about looks like. He laughed. I'll likely have moved back to the East Coast by the time David finishes serving his sentence, I told him. And not owning a car in LA, making the trip to visit him in some far-off facility isn't highly likely. But never say never.

The phone cut-out after the usual 30 minutes, ending our chat. But before I left the visiting area lined with narrow stalls and hard, circular stainless steel stools, other visitors waved to get my attention and call me back. David was still seated there, and the phone line had come back on for another 30 minutes – a valuable and unanticipated gift for inmates desperate for hope and friendly contact from someone out in the real world. How could I refuse!

He said he wants to write a book while in jail, to help get other kids his age come to their senses and save their young lives before it’s too late. I told David that I’d write him to keep his spirits up, and send more books to help him pass the time. I’d even help him write his book. I wouldn't forget him.

Pass the time . . . twelve more years of precious time. More than half of the time he has already been alive and living in this world – so harsh a punishment for just one careless moment of time that he, as would anyone, wishes he could take back; wishes he could have it do over again. Edgar would still be alive; and David would have been spared fifteen (or more) years locked harshly away in the terrible-ness of prison

Three of those fifteen years are past now, David. Stay strong and positive, and get through the next dozen. And then one day, so regretfully and irretrievably paid for . . . freedom.

# # #



A journal entry by Justin Vyor (October 8, 2013)

Eighteen years is a long time. A generation.

It was back in 1995 that I first met “My Kids” – that's what I called them – 24 Hispanics and one black who lived in a not-so-nice part of LA, north of the even less nice South-Central. I was going through some personal crap at the time and needed new digs. So I moved to a nice 3-story Victorian-style rooming house on South Manhattan Place down there, right-smack next to a grubby, roach-infested tenement.

And the minute I rode up on my flashy yellow Kawasaki Eliminator 600 motorcycle, I found I had 25 brand new friends, curious about the new “white boy” on the block. Jason was the youngest, age 3; Cesar, the oldest at 13. In need of some pleasant company to keep my mind off other things, I spent time with them, learned all their names and who was brother/sister to whom; taught them how to play all the games I'd played years before as a kid growing up on suburban Long Island: Uno, Concentration, SPUD, Red Light Green Light, Duck Duck Goose, The Stick Game, etc. Even dancing The Macarena, to the delight of their parents and local gang members and homeless people who watched us with smiles on their faces.

I only stayed a month at the rooming house (the owner turned out to be a cocaine addict) before moving to an apartment 10 miles away in North Hollywood. But I found myself going back to the tenement at 1519 South Manhattan Place several times a week (sometimes more) to be with and play with the kids. Seeing every kid on the block come running, screaming, cheering each time I rode up – “Justin's here! Justin's here!” – what more motivation and validation could there be!

About a year later I moved to San Diego, and then cross-country to New York. I stayed in touch with the kids as best I could: letters; an occasional pop-in visit when I could get back to LA. But you know how it is. Time moves on. Kids grow-up and develop their own interests and lives.

A few of them contacted me over the years. Sisters Yesenia and Vanessa Rios called when their family's house was raided by police and their brother Oscar was arrested and jailed on guns charges. (They belonged to a friend.) I lectured him a bit, took Oscar to Macy's to buy him a new dress shirt and tie to help in his job interviewing, and told him to drop his criminal friend. Eder called and asked if I could write a resume for him. Cristina, Cesar, Nene and Vanessa got in touch and we did a crash course together on resumes and job interviewing one Saturday morning in a classroom at LA City College. (Lots of fun!)

Fast-forward 18 years from 1995 to 2013 and magic of Facebook – a website that's not really my cup of tea, but does bring people together – old friends who've lost touch over time. I happened to look-up a few of my former kids there, and some of them looked me up as well…

Justin! I'm so glad to hear from you! It's been so long! How are you? My mother saw your teaching program on the bus and told me she thought it was you, and I said she had to be wrong. But it is you! That's so great!”

So we planned a reunion, a get-together set for Sunday, September 29th at 1 p.m. Eight of our old gang enthusiastically promised to attend: Eder, Mayra, David, Alejandra, Donovan, Oscar, Yesenia and Vanessa. Others like Cristina, Chele, NeNe and Cesar were equivocal “maybe's”. Word was sent to a few others with no solid response. Jason lives in St. Louis now – too far away. We were not able to reach the three Mejia brothers, nor Anthony, Tony, Jose, Alex and a few others.

The ground rules for the occasion: no boyfriends, girlfriends, baby-daddies, baby-mommas, etc. But yes, do bring your kids. (At least five of my kids now have kids of their own.) And I was to bring a deck of Uno cards, plus the collection of photos I'd taken of the kids back when they were kids – smiling, happy, innocents who had no advantages at all in life, only roadblocks and handicaps not of their own making: poverty, broken homes, abusive parents, abysmal educations, language barriers, etc. – and who, like all kids upon reaching a certain age or situation, were sent out into the world to make their way for better or worse; to seek their fames and fortunes, their happy, unhappy or mildly contented endings.

It was really my concern for them that eventually led me into teaching and to amass (to date) five teaching credentials – too late to be (formally) teaching my kids; but there were others like them I could help. And at least my kids had one perk in life: memories of fun times spent with a motorcycle-riding white boy who taught them, played with them, cared about them, and who was (and is still) their friend.

Anyway, the day came – a bright, sunny Sunday when the rest of the world was home watching football on television. I found myself standing on the sidewalk outside the old South Manhattan Place tenement. It hadn't changed much, except that the lawn had grown in thick and lush now that 25 pairs of eagerly playful feet in worn sneakers weren't pounding it to dirt during our run-around games, nor mushing it down with our butts seated in a circle playing sit-down games of Concentration and Uno.

One o'clock came and went – just me standing there, alone and out of place. Not like the old days.

And then about 10 minutes later, a small white hybrid drove up and parked at the curb. A girl got out. Not a girl – a young woman. Mayra Villarreal. The last time I’d seen her, she was 10 years old, always pleasant to me and very protective of her younger brother David. Now....

She gave me big hug. Word a tasteful shade of pink lipstick and eye make-up. Gone were the grubby shorts and jeans and t-shirts. She had on a nice outfit and jacket – mildly upscale and refreshingly adult.

We sat together on the lawn where we'd sat 18 years earlier, and had fun browsing photos from yester-year. Most of the faces she remembered. Blasts from the past. A few, not so much. Some names and faces fade in misty time on such trips down memory lane. I broke-out my Uno deck and we played a round as we waited to see who else would or wouldn't show. I took an early lead as the cards were dealt, and was down to “Uno!” when Mayra came storming back and won the game. Gee, that's not how things went 18 years ago when I usually beat the whole group of them at will. Uh-oh! Time has marched on.

Well, I must report with disappointment that after 30 minutes, none of the others who had promised to be there, actually came. Mayra pulled-out her cell phone and posted a note on our Facebook thread:

“Justin and I have been the only ones to show up. We will be at Pizza Hut.”

That was where I used to take the kids – walking distance around the corner to the intersection of Western & Venice. Sometimes a dozen or more of the hungry little buggers at once. I was always amazed (and honored) that their parents trusted me that much with them. But hell, I was paying for the pizza!

I paid for Mayra that day too, although I didn't need to. Money isn't plentiful, I suppose, but she works as a youth counselor in down-and-out East LA. Loves it! “I was gonna go into probation,” she said, “but this is so much more rewarding. You actually help people. I know I’m making a difference in people’s lives!”

She was so excited about her own life. And she should be. She got her masters in Counseling/Social Work. (Not from a top university or anything, but still!) And I was impressed.

“Damn! A masters degree? Gee, that beats my BA and AA and credentials and certifications all to hell!”

We sat at Pizza Hut for nearly two hours in the exact same booth against the south-facing windows where I remember sitting with Chele and NeNe (the Olivares brothers, ages 8 and 6 then) for a quiet lunch one afternoon 18 years prior. It was NeNe who, years later at age 17, made one of the most validating statements any person (second only to my own two younger brothers) has ever said to me in my life...

“You were so good to us. You never hurt us. You gave us so much.”

He also informed me that – unbeknownst to me – all the games we played on the lawn there at the tenement stopped when I left and went home at the end of a long play day all those years ago. I’d always thought that after I departed mid-game, the kids continued on and kept things going. No.

“Whenever you left,” he said, “everything stopped. You were the one who held it all together. You ran things, kept us organized. When you left at the end of the day, we all just went home.”

As Mayra and I sat there looking through the old photos some more, talking about her life and my life, and the kindness and harshness of the intervening years on us and our old friends, I mentioned to her NeNe's words, and she added another revelation...

“After you were gone, none of us really hung-out anymore. I mean, we were around; saw each other on the block. But we didn't do things together. We didn't play. We only did that when you came. It was you.”

WOW!!! I had no idea.

Mayra has a boyfriend now – Jonny. “Very respectful” is how she describes him. Although her traditional Hispanic parents and relatives pressure her to have kids (married or not), Mayra wants to wait and do it right: career, marriage, finances first. She's more an American girl in that respect. Level-headed and smart.

Her older brother Peter (I knew him but he wasn’t in our group) hasn’t faired well over the years. Terribly, in fact. But younger brother David (he was one of mine) is happy and productive. He loves cutting hair and recently opened his own barbershop, which was why he couldn't join us that day. The guy who was supposed to cover for him didn’t show up, so David had to work and keep the shop open until 4 p.m.


And so our time together passed. The drinks on the tabletop were drained, the last slice of pizza (pepperoni and ham) eaten, and everything was said that needed to be said...for now. Mayra and I rose, packed-up our things and left the restaurant. Standing out on the parking lot sidewalk, we faced each other.

“Gee,” I told her, “You're not 10 years old anymore. You're all grown-up. You're an adult now.”

Mayra hugged me. And hugged me again. And then hugged me a third time.

“Thank you, Justin, for being there for us. You gave us so much. You spent so much time. I mean, who does that? You're the only person I know who did that! We love you. Thank you!”

I looked at her face. She was crying and wiped away a few tears that rolled down onto her cheek. “Don't worry,” I said. “I'll always be here. I'm glad you've done so well in your life, Mayra. Keep going.”

And she did. She drove off in her car. I drove off in mine. It was 3:35 p.m., a few hours of daylight left before the sun would set on the day of our reunion 18 years in the making. We'd missed the company of the others – our old friends who are living their own lives now and, for whatever reasons, weren't able to join us that day...and didn't comment on our Facebook message thread as to what those reasons were.

I'll let that silence remain for now. And we'll see what the next 18 years bring.

# # #