I opened the door to see my best friend from childhood, Randall, chewing on a pen top, facing me in his baggy jeans. We hadn’t seen each other for nearly a decade. As kids our lives seemed like mirror images and we were inseparable skateboarding, biking, and playing basketball on our block of South Central Los Angeles. But something changed in middle school. In eighth grade, while I was worrying about which private high school would give me a scholarship, he was getting arrested for the first time.
How was it that my ace homie growing up–the one who I would run the streets with for hours–ended up on the fast track to prison while I sped toward opportunities?
I began to notice the difference when I came home from my private school’s College Day in seventh grade. I was passing around pamphlets and raving about the programs I felt were coolest, when Randall gave me the most confused of looks and said, “College isn’t for us.”
As a 13-year-old he had already accepted the idea that higher education simply wasn’t for low-income blacks and Latinos of South Central Los Angeles. That struck me as weird. At my school the goal of receiving a college education was the norm. Though I lived in the same low-income community, I went to private schools where my classmates were affluent children of color who would go on to college.
Yet the kids I ran with on the block growing up, Miguel, Malik, Shaquencia, Jonathan, just to name a few, took a route similar to Randall: teen pregnancies, arrests, dropping out of school. And in a way he was right. Looking back, it seems like other than me, college just wasn’t for us.
“I just thought you were some type of special case,” Randall said about my college-bound attitude. “Your daddy was around and caring [about your educational needs]… if any of us had to go it would be you.”
Growing up our lives seemed similar, but there was actually an important difference between the ways we were raised. Throughout my life I always had guidance from teachers or my family members. And even growing up in South Central Los Angeles, when the year I was in seventh grade there were 515 murders citywide, I always felt I was in a safe space. Randall, however, grew up having to fend for himself. Even though he lived with parents who cared and loved him, neither they nor his teachers were sufficiently involved in his educational development.
Though my parents did not attend college, I always believed that I could achieve anything. As an only child, encouragement was something I took for granted. By the age of 2 my father had already taught me to read, and by age 4 we were working on multiplication. In middle school, when my grades began to plummet from honor-roll worthy to below a 3.0 my parents sat me down for a serious conversation about my future. Understanding that I often had behavioral problems in class, they always made it a point to create relationships with the teachers and administrators at the school, so that if I ever got out of hand my teachers could call either of them personally.
Recently, Randall stopped by my house and I asked him about his own experiences as a child. Both of Randall’s parents were loving people who did what they believed was right to raise their child; they simply were not involved in school. They usually did not attend back to school nights, nor were they even aware they were going on most of the time.
“The most consistent predictors of children’s academic achievement and social adjustment are parental expectations,” says a report by the Michigan State Department of Education. The fault, however, cannot be totally placed on Randall’s parents for not being actively involved in his education.
At Inglewood Christian, I only had three teachers for my 11 courses, and each teacher held high expectations for his or her students. At Randall’s schools, however, college was only for a few. He attended inner city public schools: Warren Lane Elementary, Audubon Middle School, and Crenshaw High — which usually post standardized test scores at the lowest end of the spectrum, a 1 or 2 on the state’s ranking system out of 10. To hear Randall tell it, at school his teachers barely acknowledged his presence. “At the age you were sitting in class receiving letters from and calls to your school from high schools offering you academic and sports scholarships…I was at that same age hardly noticeable by the teachers,” he said. “It just made me start to hate school.”
Randall was just as vulnerable in school as he was in the streets. Fights broke out multiple times a day and would usually continue until bones were broken. “[I would] go to school ‘cause I’m not supposed to be out in the streets, but I end up doing the same exact [thing] in the school,” he said.
The threat of the streets was not news to me. The majority of my guy friends had been approached by gangs by the time they were 12 years old. Randall said he had no choice but to join a crew, so that he would feel safe at school.
“I don’t even feel it would have taken much,” Randall told me, when I asked him what could be changed to derail the school-to-prison trail. “Some type of protection so I wasn’t forced to join a gang.”
Instead, Randall has been in and out of jail three times, and only completed three years of high school before dropping out to get his GED. And while I did pick up those glossy brochures and went on to study film at University of California San Diego, becoming the first in my family to receive a degree, he went on to prison.
“I’ve always been just as smart as you, but…outside the understanding of what’s normally accepted as ‘smart’ or ‘intelligent,’” he said.
After Randall went home, I couldn’t stop thinking about all of the South LA children who must have fallen through the cracks because of the lack of safety and attention to them in our schools and at home. But what is even more disheartening is how Randall seemed to have accepted this neglect by society. “It’s just the way of the world,” he told me “some are made to live and some are made to die.”
This story was produced by Reporter Corps, a program of USC Annenberg’s Civic Engagement and Journalism Initiative that trains young adults to report on their own communities, and The Hechinger Report.