In Fall 2000, I was beginning my second year of teaching in South Los Angeles. I was pumped up. Even though I am a White girl who grew up in Iowa, I had made it through my first year as an English teacher in the hood.

I gave all my American Literature classes the same in-class assignment on that first day of my second year: What does the American dream mean to you? I didn’t know exactly how my students would answer, but I definitely didn’t expect what I read in their essays at home that night: I’m not American. I’m Mexican/Guatemalan/Salvadoran. America doesn’t care about me. America doesn’t help people like me.

I was intrigued by their responses. (Did I mention that I am a White girl who grew up in Iowa?) The next day in class, I asked students to share more. Were you born here? Most answered yes. Do you aspire to go to college? Most answered no.

Then Joe raised his hand. Slouched-down-low-in-the-back-repeating-11th-grade-English-for-the-third-time-Joe. Miss, when you go to the liquor store across the street on your break to get a soda, what language do they speak? Spanish. What is that mural on the wall over there by the store? The Virgin of Guadalupe. Look around you, Miss. You are in Mexico. This is our community.

That was my moment of liberation. I was liberated from having to always know the answers, liberated from speaking more than I listen, liberated from the futility of trying to dream other people’s dreams for them. I was liberated into a space of patience. And I was blessed, too—blessed to able to know young people like Jose, whom I interviewed a few years later. I share this interview because truly, kids like Jose have way more to teach people like me than I could ever teach them.

JOSE: Any community where you’re at, there’s always a war against gangs or crews. There’s Hustlers vs. Eastsiders. You got Hustlers vs. Ingersolls. In my block there’s a lot of Hustlers. There’s always somebody shooting at somebody. Last time they shot at me because they thought I was from Hustlers. I was just going to the store.

I’ve been through a lot. I’ve seen a lot of stuff. Once when I was young, I used to live on 25th. I was washing the car with my dad in front of my neighbors, and next thing you know all I hear is pop pop pop. And I got down on the ground. My dad’s homie got shot. Then once when my mom took me to a park at 25th and Woodland, there was a drive-by and I almost got hit because I was close. My mom was scared as hell. There was once when I was chilling with the homies when I was in the car. We were at Dan’s in the drive-through and they blasted my homie in the head and boom.

So we moved out from 25th and we went to 14th. That’s when it got deeper. Problems got even bigger. Kids were telling me, hey homie you want to join 19th Street, and I didn’t even know what’s that because I was straight. When I moved there, it was my first day of middle school. A couple of weeks had passed and I got into this little crew called SFG. Then after that a lot of stuff started getting hard for me. I couldn’t even walk nowhere without watching my back. I had to be taking care of myself. In school I would be doing good, but then I’d mess up. This one time I got kicked out of school because I socked one of my teachers. I tried to run away. Eventually they caught me, but they didn’t put no charges against me. They just kicked me out.

I went to this other school named Sojourner Truth. Back then I didn’t know about Mexicans vs. African-Americans. I didn’t know until that day when I got jumped by some African-Americans. After that I got kicked out of that school for threatening a kid. I got sent to this other school named Chavez. I started my 7th grade there. I threw down like five times and then I got kicked out. So I got sent to this school named McKinley. When I got there I threw down with some kid from 36th Street and some other kid that was Jewish. I was making fun of his culture. He got mad so he socked me in my jaw. I gave it back to him. Then they thought I had too much anger in me. They got me into this program called anger management to help me out to control my anger. I made it for the first session. By the next session I got kicked out because they got tired of seeing me in the dean’s office for always getting kicked out of class for talking back to my teachers. Then I got kicked out of that school and I went to Kennedy. It was too far for me. I stopped going because it was too far. I had to wake up early every day. There were a lot of gangs there, crews, too, especially tagging crews.

So I got sent to Drake Academy. There I was good for a couple of weeks. The teachers found out how many times I’d been around. They tried to help me there. They knew my mom because she would always be there helping the school, trying to get more money for them. Then one of my homies brought a BB gun to class and started playing around and shooting people with it. The teacher saw it and said to give it up, but nobody wanted to give it up. She called the school police on them. They put it in my desk, but I didn’t even know because I just barely came from the restroom. The cops came and started looking for the gun. I got in trouble for it, and they made me get on this contract that I would have to keep my grades up to a 2-point average, at least a C-average. I didn’t do it. I went to class one day, and I was mad because they told me I was going to get kicked out because I had bad grades. So I went back to class angry, mad, crazy. This White teacher was asking me what’s wrong. And I told her nothing. She told me to wait for her after school. And I said, no, I have to go home. And she insisted for me to stay. And I said, can’t you fucking understand? I gotta go. Then she reported me to my counselor and I got sent back to McKinley.

From there they started to look for another school. They told me I had to go this school named Whitney. I was there for a couple of weeks until I got in trouble with this one gang called S13. I told my mom to take me out and she did. McKinley looked for another school and I got sent to Matthews. I was there for about three months. I stayed until I went to 8th grade. The first semester of 8th grade I got kicked out for bringing a knife to school. I brought it only because I didn’t want to be there because they had jumped me, me and the homie Speedy. Then after that I went back to McKinley again. I was there for like three weeks. I got kicked out and got sent to Hoover. I stayed there for the rest of 8th grade.

MS. RHODES: I remember you telling me all this during summer school. I thought you were crazy. I’d heard all of these stories before but not so many straight through from a 9th grader. Like, usually people telling me this were 16 or so. And they were telling me this over a long period of time as I was getting to know them over a year or more. And you were just sitting there telling me all those stories like you just did in 30 minutes. You were laughing. I think you also said something about a baseball bat at some point during all those middle schools, but you must have left that out today. Anyway, there was something kind of charming about how you told them but also kind of crazy. I think I even told you that, that I thought you sounded kind of crazy the way you were telling the stories. It seems kind of mean now when I think about it. Because all these things that happened to you, all these things that you did, there was something before that and before that and before that that led to you being in certain situations and handling them like you did. And that’s kind of what I wanted to talk about with you today. About how things get so messed up and how things could be different for you or for your neighborhood and for your community.

JOSE: You’re calling me crazy? Yeah, pretty much. I would say it kind of like that, except that sometimes I think there could be peace. For me, all this is natural, but now that I think about it, I know why you would think I was crazy for going to all these schools. I would just get kicked out for one little thing. A lot of fights, bad language, disrespecting the teachers, not cooperating with students. I still can’t believe that you remember about the bat. I went to McKinley and started breaking all the windows and all that shit.

MS. RHODES: Well, for me, it’s like I never know exactly where to draw the line with a kid like you. Because I want to have some understanding for all that you’ve been through and I want to stop that cycle for you if I can, that cycle of just responding to all the anger with violence and then just getting tossed out into another school were everybody knows it’s just going to be the same thing all over again. So I’m curious if it has helped you feel more settled to actually be in one school this whole year. Like are you calmer? Or when I am bugging you to stay after school and talk yourself down from being angry do you look at me and just think I am that same White teacher you cussed out at Drake Academy?

JOSE: No, I don’t think you are the same teacher that I cussed out at Drake Academy because you don’t just tell me what’s wrong with you. You try to help me out, try to calm me down.

MS. RHODES: But is it working? I mean because there’s been a lot of times this semester when I think a lot of us here have kind of wondered how much easier life might be if you were at some other school. So what I want to know is, are you better off for just having a home here for awhile?

JOSE: It’s worth staying here because now I’m learning my lesson. I don’t got to be just acting stupid by showing that I’m down for this and that. I’m trying to show the teachers that I’m not a thug, somebody’s that always in the streets. I want to show you that I can do my homework and study and pass all my classes. I don’t want to be in the streets banging on people, hitting up the walls.

MS. RHODES: Well, let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about hitting up that wall down the street, about the time when I called the cops on you and Marco. Because I was talking to your other friend Luis this past weekend at Sylmar and he was telling me how when he would get caught tagging the cops would really beat the crap out of him. And it made me feel messed up about calling the cops on you. I’m not saying I’m sorry I called the cops. I’m not saying I wouldn’t do it again. I’m just saying sometimes, like you were telling me the other day, I’m really White. Like I forget that things don’t work the way they’re supposed to work. The cops can be part of the problem.

JOSE: I was pissed off. The officer that arrested me started trying to punk me, tried to talk to me like what the hell is your problem tagging up the wall? You can’t get a good education? Why are you even in school? I have more things better to do than just be over here arresting some kids for tagging. If I wanted to I could take you somewhere and fuck you up. Next time I catch you, I’m going to fuck you up. That was the White cop talking to me. I was pissed off and angry at you for calling the cops. I was just thinking at home when I was all mad when my mom wouldn’t let me go out that if Ms. Rhodes was here I would go off on her talking shit. I was thinking about it and it came to me that it was my fault. That I shouldn’t be blaming other people for what I did. And I just took the blame for myself. After that, you came with my two homies, Smiley and Danger. It went through my head that omigod, I can’t believe you came to visit. I can’t believe you came here to apologize, that you said you didn’t really want to call the cops but you had to.

MS. RHODES: Yeah, I guess I did feel I had to call the cops. Because I wanted you guys to never do that again. Partly because it’s wrong. But also because I don’t want you to be locked up or beaten up or just someone who tags all night and never comes to school in the day. But how come you didn’t tell me that the cop talked to you like that, that he threatened you like that? Because I would have gone over to the Western Division and complained about that.

JOSE: Who’s going to believe me over a cop?

MS. RHODES: Well, I would believe you. I would believe you if you told me a cop talked to you like that. Maybe I wouldn’t have then, but I think I get it a little more now. And that’s what I was thinking about the other day when we were cleaning up the F2B that’s all over the street in front of our school. It made me think of that day with the cops. And the other day you kept saying how I was the stupidest White person ever for making us clean up the tagging in the streets and I thought, well, yeah, sometimes I don’t see it from your point of view. I try, but sometimes I just can’t.

JOSE: Yeah, sometimes I think you are a stupid White lady because what’s the point of cleaning up tagging? They’ll come back and tag it up again. You might say we’re making a stand but really we’re not stopping them from tagging.

MS. RHODES: Who’s them? You’re F2B! You are them!

JOSE: Yeah, but I can’t be telling anyone else you can’t tag no more. They’ll just go somewhere else and tag.

MS. RHODES: But you did have some thoughts the other day on how things could be different.

JOSE: It’s because my people always blame each other for things that we do. Sometimes we blame African-Americans. Instead of fighting each other we should just meet together and try to help out our people that really need it, protect those people that can’t be protected. Like if the cops do a beat down, that’s when we have to come in and regulate them and tell them what’s up by talking with them. We could talk to the councilman. Mexicans could find a way to get their license. What I could do is try to help the community, clean up the streets, the alleys, help people out.

MS. RHODES: Isn’t that what we were doing the other day? Cleaning up the streets?

JOSE: But that other day was just five of us. The community is big. We need more impact. We need to show other communities how to do this, too. We could have a community block party and tell them we’re here to have fun and help our community out. Then we might have a chance of standing up for what’s right. We could call the news people and tell them look, we’re trying to help South Central be a better place. Instead of banging on people and tagging on the walls, we can make that into art like at our school. We can counsel other kids. A whole school can just come together and talk to kids like me and find out how they can help them. Kids like me, we got good things to say about the community and how to help it out, but sometimes teachers just think we’re failures and they don’t believe in us.

And if you’re like me, you can’t just be thinking about yourself. You have to be thinking about your little brothers and sisters. You have to be thinking about how you’re a role model. You’ve got to think about how your parents bust their asses so you can have clothes, shoes, a home. They want a better life for you. They came here for the American Dream. They want something that is better for you. And I want something better for myself. For me, I’m still young. I could fix my grades. I just want to get to my studies and help other people in my community. I want to become somebody in life. Not just someone who is known in the streets. I mean, I would like to be a person that’s known on the streets but not for doing bad things. I want to be known for doing good things.