The “soldiers" of Morse High’s JROTC — like its notorious football team — are competitors of the ferocious sort. “We drill every, every evening. And if they don’t go out and win...I mean, they have got to win."
If you don’t know the names — Meadowbrook Pirus, Barrio Encanto Locos, Paradise Hills BD Boys — you don’t know you’re in dead center o’ gang country. But if you do know, then you think, like...maybe I oughta be carryin’ a piece. And if you’ve heard stories (“...two Laotian boys murdered on the school’s lawn") you know you oughta be carryin’ a piece. Morse High School (my arrived-at destination) sits in a Southeast San Diego gorge just off a mesa's lip; its playing fields, hidden and distant, are located near bottom of a plunge to Paradise Creek. Surrounded by ugly chain-link fences two stories tall, the place looks caged. Add a little razor-wire and two towers, presto, you got a prison. Yet these fences here aren’t to keep gangsters in — they’re to keep gangs out. And they don’t work, totally.
Russell Vowinkel, Mildred Ivey-Phillips, Rudy Aleman, Augie Bregante. “Even my colleagues said: ‘Vowinkel, you’re gonna regret the day you went there. ’ ”
I note, passing through the final gate, a “NO LOITERING" sign — defiled and repugnant — incompletely erased of some cryptic scrawl. Spray-painted graffiti (gang “turf claims" as pointless as dog piss on hydrants) I had expected. What isn’t expected, however, is the appearance of an inner campus: beige-colored wings without halls; separate and central office area; adjacently configured gymnasium and cafeteria (latter with vendors to the open air); everything arranged with gardened flora to create an ersatz seclusion suggestive of a small park.
McVey Triplett: "When we went to Logan, fellas, uh, it was pretty bad. They weren’t really under control and stuff, and once you got ’em under control, a few of ’em talked a lot ‘n’ stuff."
But a park it’s not. The 8:30 bell is about to ring, and the calmness I feel in the center of the empty grounds begins to vibrate. A cacophony of voices over voices starts slightly and builds in pure Pavlovian increments. Doors to the outside are mostly open, and legs and arms stick out and retract. The gaudy ring is joined before its completion with a sound like faucets turned on — and bodies pour. Laughter and squeals shatter the previous tranquility, and I find myself in the midst of a throng of blacks and browns and traces of white — a soup of ethnicity.
Bill Vasquez, R.N.: “I’ve always invited the Lord to be with me, to keep me going. In the mornings, as I come to work, I’m praying for that guidance and that wisdom."
Unlike elementary schools, where aroma is a mix of floor wax and paste, bouquet here is closer to muskiness. Perfumes and body odors dissipate through clothing as various as pigments of skin; boys, especially, appear in loose-fitting, randomly thrown-together wardrobes of clashing colors in stylistic disarray; in contrast, girls materialize “richer" than economy of surrounding community would imply; hair, nails, makeup, dress — symbolizing a marked affectation of affluence. Communal denominator, for both sexes, are jacket leitmotifs of Raiders and Chicago Bulls.
Alfred "Mr. Mac" McPherson: "I like this school better than the two other schools I worked with — Point Loma and Patrick Henry."
Myself — apparelled in tasteful slacks, jacket, tie, and pretentious $300 shoes — I am to them, apparently, invisible.
“The reason for this little trip that we’re about to make is to show you that you’re not going to see what you would see in Newsweek or Time magazine on their covers."
“No bandanas, no hats indoors, no beepers anywhere. I mean, what they gonna do with a beeper? Walk outta here sayin’, ‘I gotta go make a call’? Those things have no use in school...”
Speaking is Rudy Aleman, one of three assistant principals at Samuel F.B. Morse High School (6905 Skyline Drive), who has decided to begin my visit with a short drive around the vicinity. It had been with a great deal of sweet talk (on my part) that I was granted “permission" (by higher-ups) to step foot on public property. (I had mentioned a highly publicized recent slaughter of two teenage boys in a Brooklyn, New York, inner-city school.)
DeWayne Schilling:“We’re a little island out here in Southeast. We’re not close to anything. And transportation stinks. We have people out here who live and die in this one little area."
“First of all," Aleman continues, “Morse doesn’t look anything like those kinds of schools; and the area doesn’t either — it looks like a park. People do take care of their homes. For the most part, it’s a nice area. And yet, in the eyes of government statistics, you would call it a low-income kind of situation." Almost directly across from Morse is a San Diego P.D. substation (conspicuously tagged). “We do have graffiti — and there’s an elementary school right next door to us; our kids do tutoring there with the little ones who are having trouble."
John Shacklett: “Last year, two of the four kids we had signed — Teddy Lawrence and Tommy Bennett — could’ve gone anywhere. Notre Dame...name it, anywhere. It was a zoo. You’d walk in here and see seven schools camped out waitin’ t’ talk to ’em."
I’d actually already seen all this — having scoped the ’hood a day before — and saw my expectations (broken-down brick buildings, trash in the streets, crack deals in daylight) were unfounded. Homes built mostly in the ’50s or ’60s (Leave It to Beaver style) look affectionately taken care of.
“We’re sitting on top of a mesa — if it wasn’t so cloudy today, you could see out quite a distance, and there’s actually some ocean views from this area. Now we’re going out to the eastern portion of our area, and it actually abuts a different school district — Grossmont, Sweetwater. They’re separate towns. We’re right on the edge of San Diego, in which — in the city — there’s about 12 high schools."
Aleman (small in size, brown complected, bearded, former musician in the military) is in his third year at Morse; prior to that he was a vice principal in a La Jolla middle school. His transfer to Morse had not — as I wrongly hunched — been forced.
“I applied to get this position. It’s not markedly different from La Jolla — parents, teachers, students are very, very much the same — they all want good educations, they all want the best. I don’t care if it’s La Jolla, wherever, there’s gonna be a few kids who are not there for the right reasons. And you have to deal with those kids. Those schools on Newsweek/Time covers, I’ve been to those cities and seen what they look like in comparison to what you’re seeing here. And when they say ‘ghetto schools,’ well, it’s much different here. I wanted to come to Morse. This is the kind of work I like to do."
Morse High School was built in 1962 to accommodate 1800 students, Aleman (carrying a two-way radio) briefs as we amble toward north end of campus. “Thing you’re probably going to hear from the teachers, their main concern, is overcrowding. We stand to go from 2500 students to 2800 next year — and then 3000.”
Passing 100 Wing, we slip through a gate (several sections of the campus are subbarricaded by fencing) into an area of portable board classrooms resembling WWII barracks. “These are all bungalows back here. See, what we just passed was the original school. The bungalows have accumulated probably in the last 15 years. They’d bring in a section, then another, so on and so forth. There’s a total of about 28 bungalows, I think, and now we're going to have to put in some more to accommodate for next year. I’ve asked for six, but they’re giving me four. So — I’ll have to work with it."
Paint on the bungalows (as on most of the school) is cracked and peeling. “Maintenance, you can tell, is not good; the district doesn’t have the money for it. Every year the state cuts us."
“Yeah — Jarvis’s gang.”
I wonder if places like La Jolla have similar problems.
“La Jolla’s in our district. They don’t get any more funds than we do. If you went there, you’d see the same maintenance problems. Proposition 13 caused an awful lot of difficulties."
Bungalows and 100/200 wings provide classrooms for traditional curricula (English, social studies, mathematics, foreign language); in 300 Wing, Aleman explains, “Classrooms are more specialized — cooking, sewing, those kinds of things. Now this —" we stop beside a three-quarters-finished addition “— is a brand new science building that we haven’t even moved into. This lab was supposed to be open by now, but the contractor went broke. So, it’s held up. We have a leak in the roof and some other problems. I need this thing to be open next year, or I can’t put all the kids in. There just won’t be enough room. Right now the average class load is 36 students. And that’s a lot.”
Four hundred Wing: We enter what appears to be a drafting classroom — overflowing and clamorous. Black youngster in Raiders jacket turns and — in Huck Finn voice with touch o’ street — proclaims entry of assistant principal.
“He’s in here! He’s in here! He gonna bring you away, Shaggy. Come on out w’ch’ your bad self."
A disembodied voice responds from behind a partition. “They found me?"
“They found you, Shaggy."
Aleman, noticeably uncomfortable, parries the heckle.
“You can have him, Tom.”
“Well, we don’ wan’ ’im," Tom counters. “You got im.”
“Go home. Shaggy.”
Aleman’s attention is focused on another boy (black? Hispanic?) working out of a math book instead of drawing. Boy wears a purple scarf. Aleman approaches with discernible disguise of affability and whispers in boy’s ear. Boy — expelling breath of bitterness through teeth — plops pencil on book’s pages.
“Ain’t doin’ that,” he says.
Aleman pauses for a moment, then touches the boy’s shoulder with the antenna of his radio.
“...Come with me.”
Bill Vasquez, R.N. — who goes by “Mr. Bill" — sits with me inside a dinky “sick room” secluded in a nurse’s station stuffed at one end of the office.
“This school has completely outgrown this facility,” Mr. Bill sighs. “But this is all we have.” His soft voice carries a slight Hispanic accent, suggestive of a priest’s. Adding to the image, a crucifix is pinned to his collar.
“I’ve always invited the Lord to be with me, to keep me going. In the mornings, as I come to work, I’m praying for that guidance and that wisdom, so that I’ll be able to withstand the pressures of the day. The impact here from the nursing point of view is tremendous. I have learned that I cannot really plan, because you have to go by the moment.
“I start 6:30 in the morning and try to set out the day, so to speak. And when the 7:30 bell rings, typically, I’ll have already one, or maybe two, crisis interventions. And by 11:30 — three or four or even up to five crisis interventions, where we really have to put our energy into that one student for whatever is happening.
“For example, a girl comes to me and says, ‘Mr. Bill, I’m pregnant and I’m afraid to tell my parents, because they’re going to force me to get an abortion, and if I don’t get one, then they’re going to kick me out of the house.’ And we have to remember that crisis, to that child, is much different than perhaps we ourselves perceive it. To them, it is a crisis; to us it may not be.”
One crisis can sometimes breed a greater crisis: STDs, certainly AIDS — an alarming concern?
“We’ve had program after program this year; that was our top priority — get that information to the students. And it’s worked pretty good. The kids that come in here, one of the first questions I ask is about side sex. Of the young girls — the ones who come in and tell me they’re pregnant — come to find out, the majority say they themselves wanted to become pregnant. And basically, they tell me they’re not being loved at home, there’s a lot of rejection going on, they want a baby so that they can love that baby and that baby can love them back.”
On the daylight surface, the community served by Morse — or most of it — reflects little privation; yet that is not the case?
“From a ‘paycheck’ point of view, there’s a lot of families here that are on the minimum. Barely making it. They’re in that crack we call poverty. Most of the families have a single parent. In fact, my question when a child comes in: ‘Does your mother live with you, or does your father?’ What that tells me is that they are living at the edge of poverty. They’re barely making it. And I give them all the credit in the world, because — sending their kid to school, trying to put food on the table, trying to give them the best that they can — they need to work. And it’s very difficult, especially when there are more than two children. In many cases they have a lot of children.”
Establishing a medical record for every student at Morse High School — including health assessments, medication/family history documentation, vision/hearing screening — leaves Mr. Bill (and a single full-time aide) in a pool of paperwork. A “typical” day involves 70 people contacts; during flu season —125 each day. And then there was January....
“That was a week of crisis. We started that Monday with a suicide; one of our students, a tenth-grade boy, committed suicide right after New Year’s. So we were working with that crisis situation when, on that first Friday back, a 15-year-old boy collapsed on the P.E. field — an aneurysm or stroke — and lost his breathing capacity. I called the ambulance, did the CPR, but he died on the way to the hospital. It was just an overwhelming effect. We had students coming in sobbing and crying. And the teacher — that really grieved her to lose one of her own.
“And with all this going on, about a week later, they find these two boys on our campus. They weren’t students here, they came across town with a gang. The police figured, whoever shot ’em, it was a Southeast Asian gang. They executed them right here on the campus."
When I’d picked up my rental at the airport, I recount, and asked the Hertz man for directions — he wanted to know if I was a recruiter...
“— Oh, we do have a very good football program here."
...and when I explained my purpose, he told me nobody else ever asks for directions to Morse. “Everybody’s afraid of Morse," he said.
Mr. Bill looks away for a moment and closes his eyes. When he returns his eyes, I see in them a certain sadness.
“One of the things I try to do," he says, “is to keep a smile. And that is not the easiest thing to do. My student monitors, when they see me down a little bit, they’ll come up and say, ‘Mr. Bill — are you okay?’ So I get a lot of support from the monitors.
But it’s not always easy. When people hear the name ‘Morse High School,’ they immediately think of shooting, drug activity, violence — you name it. They don’t realize that this campus is a beautiful campus; it’s a sanctuary for these students. We don’t have scandals here, because the students respect this campus — it’s theirs. And it’s the only place they can go that is free for them. We don’t have problems on this campus, not the kind people think."
“They call me ‘Mrs. T,’ " says Thelma Brinker, breaking into a rich laugh. “We have ’nother Thelma in our office, but my husband always called me that, so it just stuck with me. I been here eight years."
Coppery-colored and in her 60s, hair tinged with red, Mrs. T smokes a cigarette in the workers’ lounge. “Tell me ’bout it..." she says, regarding lousy traffic in San Diego. “I hate it now. Way they go now. No courtesy anymore. Mmm-mm. No courtesy at all. ’Course, these days, you don’t really want too much courtesy, not when you stranded or somethin’. You never know who-what these days. That’s the bad part ’bout it."
Mrs. T is one of several ‘security personnel’ drifting about campus; toting two-way radios, armed with eyes and smiles, they do more than just keep order. “Security, you know, you do a little bit of everything. ’Course, you const’ly with the kids and stuff. I jus' add a lotta under-standin’, little touches, little love, show you care, what have you. All they want is a little attention."
Wrapped around her radio’s antenna is a tiny Fuzzy Bear. What’s with the teddy?
“That’s my lo-o-o-ve bear..." (long, hearty laugh) “...ah, yes...an’ this my switch..." (she flicks a rolled sheet of paper, her eyes squinted shut in hilarity) “...yeh, tha’s what I tap ’em with... ‘Get movin’....oh, yeh, it’s attention-know they gettin’ attention.” And the love bear? “Tha’s what I threaten ’em with — yeh, ‘We won’t love ya anymore.’ An’ they jus’ say, ‘Yes ya will — not even worried.’ Oh, they tease me a lot, ah tell you that."
One security officer — tall, older black man with brusque countenance — occupies a cubbyhole at the school’s entrance. Not the sorta guy, I speculate, takes any crap, huh?
“Oh, no. He’s our boss. An’ he is highly respected, I c’n assure you. Yeh, they wanna know, ‘When is he gonna retire?’ " Long laugh. “...Yeh, they want him t’ retire. I say, ‘Yeh, but you never know what you gettin’ when he goes. You don’t know what you gettin.’ An’ I don’ know what we gettin’."
That M stand for ‘Morse’ or ‘Mr. Mac’?
Word is you’re retiring next year?
Y’r how old?
Been at Morse...?
An’ ’fore that...?
“I did 22 years on the police department, New York."
(Damn! Complete sentence.) What brought you out here?
“I retired.” He smiles wryly.
Mr. Mac (Alfred McPherson) is head of Morse’s security and obviously is from a “just the facts” school of communication. When he finally elaborates, his words peal in buried baritone.
“I’m responsible for the safety of 2500 students — roughly, give or take a few here ‘n’ there — their basic overall safety. Safety of campus, safety of automobiles; things like minor fights, minor burglaries, I also handle.”
“Where if I can find out who’s doin’ it."
Must be frustrating.
“It is. Right now it’s one o’ my prime projects. Every once in a while we come up with a few kids and we have to arrest ’em. We have, uh...comparatively, a pretty good school. In fact, I like this school better than the two other schools I worked with — Point Loma and Patrick Henry."
Mr. Mac is gangly: his long forearms and fingers relax on the rests of his chair. His gaze is away. Attention elsewhere. Adjusting himself, leaning forward, placing elbows on desk, he asides.
“San Diego, right now, I think, is basically suffering from growing pains, in terms of what's happening here. I don’t think the population is as informed as they should be as to what is going on. They have an idea, but there are too many pockets in San Diego removed from what’s goin’ on in the so-called inner city. So it really doesn’t take on same amount of, uh...attention it should...had...had the whole city felt the changes happenin’ here. The problem is the student population. We’re gettin’ roughly 300 more people and 10 or 15 more teachers. And school security — I don’t know whether or not the budget will compensate. And this school, you know, is different..."
(Muscular black in jeans ’n’ Charger T-shirt enters —badge clipped on his belt — with stocky white guy.)
“— What’s up. How ya doin’?"
“This one o’ my friends workin’ with me...” black says. “I come t’ get Fred; if I c’n get Fred, I’ll take ’im with me ’n’ bring ’im back."
“You know he got stabbed over the weekend?”
“Got stabbed in the leg or somethin’.”
“Is he here t’day?"
“I really don’t know."
“I don’t know —" Mr. Mac radios someone “— check and see if Fred is here."
Radio: “Want me to call him in if he is?"
“Bring ’im out to my office, yeah.”
“Be about five minutes."
“We take ’im with us,” black says, “when he show up out here.”
“Okay. See ya...."
Mr. Mac — you were saying this school is different...
“Well, you know, we have a cross-culture here that’s just about as ethnic as it can get. We have Laotians, Guamanians, Samoans, Filipinos, blacks, whites. Hispanics, even some foreign students. And it reminds me of what this country should be all about. A melting pot. The school is completely and totally integrated. And the kids as a whole get along pretty well.
“We do have a gang situation — I won’t deny that. But I don’t think it’s explosive. There are students who attend here that, outside the school, belong to five or six different gangs; but they generally don’t bring gang activities on campus. What happens on the weekend — I have no control over, basically.
“Lotta kids I deal with identify as belonging to this gang or that gang. And all of these gangs have identifying ways about them. You know, some of ’em wear certain colors, some of ’em wear their clothes a certain way, wear their hair a certain way, and it’s kinda int’resting — but it’s changing so fast it’s hard to keep up. We try. We work very, very close with the police department and probation department.
When they have a kid that has been arrested and on probation, they let me know who they are. I kinda keep an eye on ’em, see which way they goin’."
The melting pot...
Wha’ th’ hell was that?
“I got a low undercarriage...and that’s a big pothole. So much for my car wash."
Stuffed in the back seat of Roger Anderson’s Trans Am, we’re slam-bam-thank-y’mamming our way down a San Ysidro back street. Anderson teaches advanced U.S. history at Morse, but his “historical" fixation is the border. His words are studied and fast.
“Sixty-two hundred people enter the United States illegally a day. Of that, I would say, at least one-third enter between Tijuana and San Diego. They’re not from Tijuana, they’re from all over the world. This afternoon. I’m going to show you the closest thing to combat you’ve seen since Vietnam.”
“We’ll see. Most people I take down here, the first words out of their mouths, if they can even say something, is something like, 'Je-e-e-sus Christ!’ It’s just unbelievable — broad daylight. Bring your camera?"
“Good. It’ll knock your socks off. We’re two minutes from the Third World. And we’re losing it. Bad. Real bad. The busiest days for them, when they really hit ’em bad, when they bonsai ’em, is right now, ’bout 3:15 to 3:30. It’s all professionally done from the other side — it’s all smugglers. You are not going to believe it. Every day of the year — it’s just a little more or little less every day.
“People have got to wake up or this thing is going to destroy our country. Absolutely. The country needs to know. And the liberal American press is not telling the public what’s happening down here. The agents are really pissed....”
“Sergeant...highly motivated, highly dedicated, highly mili’rated...second squadron, company report — all men present!”
Students in Major Pete Brunhaver’s JROTC classroom sit arranged by “squads” (in six long columns of desks) with “squad leaders" in back (counting heads). In turn, each leader stands to attention and reports. Consistent with the overall demographics of Morse High School, Filipino is the predominant ethnicity among 50 to 60 “cadets” present.
When roll is taken, a rangy Hispanic girl steps to a flanking chalkboard (pointer in hand) and briefs the “company” on the week’s remaining schedule. Then Brunhaver speaks:
“Good morning, cadets!”
His greeting — voiced in tonality acquired over years of real command — is met by a chorus of whoops.
“You guys are great, you keep me awake.” More whoops. “We got one day and one week till the inspection team gets here. So a lot of our time is going to be making sure everyone is prepared. Remember: You cannot be ill on the 31st — you are not authorized to be sick on the 31st."
Black girl blurts she has “therapy” on the 31st.
“Let me tell you again,” Brunhaver responds, “this inspection is treated as a final exam. If you are absent on the 31st, you cannot make it up — the team will not be back. To pass, all you have to do is be here in body. Unless you are in the hospital, under doctor’s care — not visiting
Later, I meet with Brunhaver in a roomy office area (its walls and shelves fraught with awards) and ask about his background. Drafted into the Army near the end of the Korean War (“missed that one, thank God”), Brunhaver made quick rank before his discharge. After four years of college, he decided to return to the Army, entered Officer Candidate School, and inevitably did two tours as an infantry officer in Vietnam.
“My first tour I was on Highway 13 —Thunder Road’ — near Cambodia, where I advised a Vietnamese battalion. Second tour was up at Da Nang: I had a support battalion for a brigade, all the ‘hash ’n‘ trash’ — maintenance, finance and administration, truck company — all that kinda junk. And as an infantry officer, I didn’t know anything about any of it. But I had specialists who did. See, I’d served with the brigade commander before, and his idea was: ‘I don’t want a supply officer, I want an infantry officer — somebody to go in there and kick butt.’ That was my job.”
Retired as a major, Brunhaver has since put in “15 years in the [Junior] ROTC business." How does he like it?
“Oh, I love it. I don’t know what else I would want to do. Fortunately, my last year and a half of active duty, part of my job was to go out and inspect [JROTC] schools. And after seeing what these instructors were doing with these kids, I put my name in the hat and got certified by the Department of the Army. I started with Army/Navy Academy in Carlsbad, ran their program for eight years; moved to Nevada and was ROTC instructor at Lake Tahoe. Then, after four years, I got married and came back down here.
“And I tell you — these kids here are so motivated, absolutely, so motivated. This is absolutely the best bunch of kids that I have ever, ever had. And I had some super kids up at Lake Tahoe. We have 260 cadets as of right now — which, I think, is the largest in the Western United States. We have both female/male drill teams, female/male color guards, a drum corps, a rifle team — we’re just called upon all the time to put on color guard performances for everybody in the city; plus every [Morse] home football game and about half the basketball games.”
Gazing at the myriad trophies, plaques, and certificates glittering up the room, I register the “soldiers" of Morse High’s JROTC — like its notorious football team — are competitors of the ferocious sort. “We drill every, every evening. And if they don’t go out and win...I mean, they have got to win. And they do. They do. We just win everything in the city. Everything in the city.”
From the northern bungalows to the furthest playing field down (literally) south, Morse’s grounds cover 57 acres. And, unlike the stereotype of an “inner-city school" (one big brick building), this plant is laid out: not counting the bungalows, there are nine separate buildings; in these buildings, about ten classrooms each, five on a side. All have their own doors to the outside, and, in most cases, interlock or interchange with adjoining classrooms. The plethora of passages makes the absence of metal detectors on campus (unlike the 25 percent of U.S. schools that employ them) an immaterial concern.
Thinking about this, I look up and watch a screeching passenger jet disappear in descent (maybe a minute away from touchdown) and recognize how ant-like, to those passengers, problems below must seem. And how perceptions (like mine, just days before) may be mistaken.
“What’s your name?"
He mutters something like ‘Bow-ing’...
“Like ‘Boeing Aircraft’?"
Get the feeling he’s never heard of Boeing.
“So — I’m s’posed t’ order breakfast, huh?"
“Then...guess it’ll be, uh, sausage ’n’ eggs — which number’s that?"
Booker — skin a color of dark oak — points close to the menu.
“Number 3," he says. “Uh...like anything to drink?"
Booker returns to kitchen. Sitting across the table is DeWayne Schilling — an unusual kind of teacher.
“The gentlemen hate to wait tables,” he says. “They don’t want to come to the dining room. Lord — they might have to talk to someone. And at this age, that’s ‘uncool.’ God forbid we should be uncool."
Schilling knows all about “uncool”: a self-admitted high school dropout roaming the streets of Chula Vista before enlisting in the Air Force at age 17, Schilling now marks his 20th year as pilot of Morse’s own “nationally recognized" restaurant.
your sick sister or brother — you cannot pass second semester. That’s just that simple.”
“We’ve gotten a lot of coverage, at times. L.A. Times came out a couple years ago and spent three days with us — did a great job. AP picked it up, and pretty soon we started getting clippings sent to us from Louisiana, New York, Oregon — all these papers." Schilling flips through a thick folder of yellowed newsprint. “Here’s one from Newsweek.... ”
For 50-year-old Schilling, it’s been a long road from “thug and gang member (doing] some pretty stupid things” to becoming a certified teacher.
“I got out of the Air Force after eight years in food service; actually, we both got out..." Schilling married shortly after enlistment “...with three kids and $600. We worked and both went to night school for ten years to get our credentials and degrees. And then one of my old professors called and said, ‘City schools are looking for an instructor to start a new program.’ I said, ‘Well, let’s talk.’"
Booker returns from the kitchen and sets down an ample plate of two sausage patties, one egg, hash browns, and toast — “Like some hot sauce? Ketchup?"
“They wanted me to provide entry-level skills in food service. And, of course, I’d learned it all the hard way, right? I got all this knowledge to impart to all these young minds, right? These kids are just gonna be hanging on my every word, right? Boy — did they eat me alive for two years. Yeah, I was just fresh meat for them. So I go to the principal at the time — Frank Thornton, great guy — and say, ‘Frank, I’m outta here. I don’t need this. Nobody’s payin’ attention to me.’
“ ‘0h, you p-o-o-o-r baby,’ he says. ‘Let me ask you a question: Is the class set up like you want it? Like you’d do it in industry?’
“ ‘No, I’m runnin’ it like a school.’
“ ‘Well, how would you run it in industry?’
“ ‘Not this way.’
“ ‘Do me a favor,’ he said. ‘Go back and set it up and run it like you want to run it. How you feel is going to be best.’
“And that’s how we got started running the Hungry Tiger like a business. This is my house, this is my business. The kids punch in, everybody does every job — and I expect them to."
Or they get fired?
“I never throw anybody out. I tell ’em, ‘You stay. You can’t get out. You mess up in here — you’re gonna ride it out. You don’t just walk off a job because somebody makes you mad. Create problems on a job, you may have to stay on that job. Learn to deal with your problems. You don’t get outta here. Just gonna be a long year with me, that's all.’
“Most of my kids are not ‘A’ students. Most of ’em are not even ‘C’ students. Most of ’em are having school problems. We have special education students. We have a young man back at the stove right now — very special ed. That’s okay, he can do something. The key is that they’re going to give me 100 percent of whatever they got.” Stuffed, I push my plate aside. Booker picks it up. Schilling leads me into the kitchen area where 15 or so boys and girls are busy at various jobs. “Everybody must do everything: cashier, hostess, waiter/waitress, dishwasher, phone orders, baking, dinner cooks, salads, fry cooks, general cleanup —whatever needs to be done."
A major thrust of Hungry Tiger is to expose Schilling’s 90 students to other areas of San Diego. That is partially achieved at certain “work experience sites" throughout the city, where students receive nonpaying “practice” beside regular employees. “They face real job problems, and that is most beneficial. Takes ’em off a school setting and puts the kids in the work area. We have a lot of support from the airport. Once a week, kids rotate around jobs for a whole day.
“We’re a little island out here in Southeast. We’re not close to anything. And transportation stinks. We have people out here who live and die in this one little area. We have kids who don’t even know where the airport is. Oh, they’ve heard the name and see the planes — but they’ve never experienced it. Or the Balboa Park museums. On the bus, they just look out windows: ‘Where we at now? What is this? Wow! I didn’t know this was here.’ Just fascinates me every year. Like five-year-old kids in Disneyland."
“We have the rap that this is a gang school," states Russell Vowinkel, principal (second year at Morse High School). “Even my colleagues said: ‘Vowinkel, you’re gonna regret the day you went there ’ ”
Flawlessly dressed in three-piece suit and kaleidoscopic tie, hair impeccably trimmed, glasses conservatively fashionable—Vowinkel belies no hint of executive jealousy.
“I don’t regret it at all. First, we have just a beautiful ethnic blend [36 percent Filipino, 30 percent black, 18 percent Hispanic, 12 percent white, 4 percent other]. We have three Merit Scholarship Finalists — that alone speaks well for our school — with more and more of our children being accepted to major, major schools. When I first got here, one of my key phrases was: ‘Morse High School was a well-kept secret.’ As we talk, graduates of Morse are studying in the Naval Academy, Harvard, Stanford; and that’s significant considering we’re a community where people are fighting for economic survival.
“We have our share of problems. I’m not going to tell you that everything is rosy — that’s not true at all. This is an invigorating environment, a challenging environment, and a very demanding one. There’s a lot of needs to be met. There are children who are under-performing; children who enjoy a disproportionate rate of drop-out; children who have second-language problems; we’re facing an explosion in growth — a major crisis. And, consequently, we have a large thing to turn over with other schools: their cheerleaders worry about coming here to cheer; their teams worry about coming here to play. When we go to north-side schools, we have to behave that much better. And we do. Our kids work at that. We’ve never been refused a hotel for a dance. The sweetheart ball, the ASB ball, homecoming dance, the kids just...well, we get asked back."
A former officer in the Navy, Vowinkel started out teaching in 1969 as an elementary instructor in San Diego. Systematically working his way through a series of “administration oriented" transfers (promotions), he landed at Morse in August of 1990. In describing his job, Vowinkel agrees it parallels a corporate chairman’s. “I delegate, assign, become involved in day-to-day operations; I’m charged with making things move forward, not allowing them to stall or become mired in blood...."
Speaking of which: in regard to Morse’s “bloody" reputation, how does Vowinkel deal with the media?
“We deal with them factually. I don’t try to cover anything up — but I don’t want misinformation going out either. If something happens, then I tell the students and staff, right away, ‘If you don’t know anything about it, then don’t say anything about it.’
“This last thing — I’m sure you heard about that — I had for all the world my work cut out for me that day, to tell the city of San Diego that those were not Morse High School students. That was an unfortunate choice of location by the perpetrators. My sense of the thing is that it was deliberately done to mislead the police, so they’d focus on our area.
“There were reporters here even before I got to work. Reporters in the parking lot talking to students before I had a chance, you know, to say anything. When they filmed where the two lads had died, they panned to a street sign with, of course, graffiti on it. Well, what does the average American in San Diego think? ‘Oh, my God, it’s a gang neighborhood — so Morse must be a gang school.’ ”
In John Schacklett’s outer office there is a wall of players pictured in uniforms of UCLA, Stanford, Ohio State, Washington (blah, blah). About 25 pictures.
(“...that’s not all of ’em...")
Each player is a Samuel F. Morse graduate.
(“... got ’em all over...”)
Five more “signed" this spring, (“...never had less than two; one year had seven...”)
Shacklett — head coach of Morse’s Tigers for 21 years — is fuzzy on a few things. “The league championship? Oh, shoot, I don’t really remember. I’m gonna say about eight times, and that’s conservative. I really can’t remember. I know we’ve been in the county finals five times, won it three. Two years ago we were rated number four in the nation by USA Today. We’ve had a pretty good run of things."
Pretty good? One thing is pretty certain: spurious “gang” image aside, Morse is a football school
Ask a Hertz man....
“Yeah, we get recruiters,” Shacklett laughs. “Last year, two of the four kids we had signed — Teddy Lawrence and Tommy Bennett — could’ve gone anywhere. Notre Dame...name it, anywhere. It was a zoo. You’d walk in here and see seven schools camped out waitin’ t’ talk to ’em. They have to go through me, of course, but that can be a problem: ’88 we had a Parade All-American, Tye Morrison, and the Monday before signing deadline I had 75 phone calls.”
Shacklett combines coaching duties with being the school’s athletic director. That would seem enough, but he’s also coordinator for Morse’s (and its feeder school’s) magnet program. Shacklett explains:
“We have an integration program here for the city schools; we’re under a court order to integrate — there were 22 schools originally identified as ‘minority-isolated’ [80 percent of students not white]. So, the city schools decided to enter a VIP [Volunteer Integration Program], which we call a ‘magnet.’ The idea was to develop specialized courses unique to a particular educational theme and attract students to Morse High School.
“Our main theme is engineering: students seeking specialized or accelerated courses in math, science, computers, these kinds of things — that’s what we offer. We probably have more computers on campus than any other school in the city. And we also have an aeronautical theme: students actually build experimental aircraft, get a private pilot's license, and get on-the-job training at the Naval Air depot repairing aircraft. So, we’ve tried to develop programs to meet students’ needs or challenges."
Morse’s original magnet attracted five students in two classes; since Shacklett took over, the program has grown to 400 students. “To be candid, I’m trying to move to an all-school magnet. The program was designed, really, to handle those 400 kids; but for integration purposes and other reasons, those kids are fully integrated into the school. And so is the money. Every department has received something — mostly computers — from the magnet."
Uncanny in his resemblance to Roger Ebert, Shacklett’s triple-job description takes some juggling. “I have an aide and a secretary who help me tremendously. And, sometimes something suffers. During the season, honestly, it’s an awful lot of time with the football team."
As we get up, Shacklett points to a University of Washington (“Huskies...Bad To the Bone") poster. One menacing face pictured belongs to Morse alumnus Lincoln Kennedy (a.k.a. “Oval Office").
“See, we even have an All-American."
I tell Shacklett I “dislike” the Huskies — I graduated from Washington State.
“Oh, really? We have a player there too.”
“Sometimes it’s a curse more’n a blessing, you know — the kids all wanna be professional football players, ’cause Morse, in particular, is a great football school. Alls they wanna do is run to the football field. And that’s not gonna get it."
Wayne Reed is a career technician in the Placement Center located in 100 Wing. His job is to help kids sift through the endless proliferation of information regarding colleges, trade schools, and possible occupations and make “educated decisions" in regard to their futures. A man of effervescent enthusiasm, he is flipping pages of a “favorite" book ranking 250 possible occupations best to worst.
“See, one o’ the neat things here: it tells ya ‘migrant farmworker’ is the worst job...fisherman, construction worker, roofer, seaman....and you get here t’ ‘NFL football player’ — see, that’s one o’ the worst jobs, right? Once you tell ’em it’s one o’ the worst jobs, they go: ‘Whaddya mean it’s one o’ the worst jobs?’ And you show ’em, see: the environment they play in is awful.
“Think about it — y’r in the mud ‘n’ snow ‘n’ the sleet ‘n’ the hail ‘n’ all that equipment, right, an’ y’r lookin’ up at someone 250 pounds gonna run over you with cleats. The income is very, very high; the outlook is terrible. Say the wrong thing to the newspaper, do your ankle — anything. And stress is high, right?
“Think about it: all the time you onstage, right? An’ y’ gotta win. The physical demands are extremely high. You gotta be doin’ weights. So, it’s rated 246 out of 250. See, now you got somebody int’rested in this book. It’s just a real good book."
“I’m new here," says a white girl in Jim Giardina’s U.S. history (advanced placement) seminar “...and have only been enrolled for six weeks. Before I got here I heard horror stories, like, ‘You’re gonna get mugged on your first day,’ you know. ‘You’re gonna get beat up ’cause you’re new, and they’re not going to like you ’cause you’re not one of them,’ and all these things. And when I got here, you know, it was the day that the two dead bodies were found..." (class laughs) “...and I wanted to cry, ‘Get me outta here!’ But then, you know, I happened to be standing next to the two guards that were making a report about it, and I got to know what the real facts were. When I got home, all my old friends were calling me, worried, ‘Oh, my God! Are you all right?’ They had heard all these things.”
Your old school?
“University City.,” say several in unison. “A rich school...”
“...near La Jolla...”
“We live out of the area,” says another girl, “and my father has no problem with me coming here to school, as far as our safety is concerned; but he won’t let me come here on the city bus, and he won’t let me be in this area in the afternoon or evening. It’s ‘No — it’s not safe outside the school.’ ”
“Depends on where you go,” a Hispanic girl explains. “I live in the area and walk to school every morning. Sometimes home in the afternoons. It’s not that bad. At night, there are certain places you just don’t go."
“We have, like, a lot of Bloods around our house and things like that. And they literally pass by my house all decked out in their red ‘n’ black and everything and say ‘Hello’ to my mom and ‘How’re you doing today, ma’am?’ and offer to help with the lawn mower and things like that. Most of the time they’re really courteous with my family. But my parents moved here 25 years ago, when they were the only white family."
“Yeah, I was born here too, and I know most of the gang members. I was in first-grade class with them. I can look at some guy and remember when he peed his pants..." (laughter) “...so they leave me alone. Our house has never been robbed or anything.”
How’d the bad reputation start?
“All my brothers and sisters have gone here. My oldest sister is in her mid-30s now. Apparently it was really bad — like I said, when my parents first moved here. Morse was, like, 95 percent black. Whites were just, you know, stay back. When my brother was here — 10 or 12 years ago — my mom was saying they had a really good principal, and it started straightening out. That’s what I under —"
“— People overlook our academics," a Filipino boy throws in. “Our speech team’s always one of the best in the county. Our ROTC. Our academic decathlon did very, well. People just overlook all of that."
McVey Triplett, an African-American of 47 years, impresses me as dignified and gentlemanly; dressed in “uniform" (black slacks and tie, gray button-down sweater, ‘GQ’ — Gentleman of Quality — embroidered above Mr. Triplett’), he speaks softly, in a manner of assurance.
“One member of this GQ Club, when I first met him, was in the tenth grade. He wanted to be a little gang member. I talked to him, ‘See, you get your grades up —* he was below a 2.5 at the time ‘— and I’ll put you in GQ’ And he did. He now carries above a 3.0 average, is president of GQ, has already applied for different colleges, for various scholarships."
Triplett’s small office in the Placement Center is neatly posted with schedules, notices — and photographs: young black men in tuxedos at varied events constitute the common theme.
“Seventeen years ago, when I was at the junior high school, they had all these different clubs. But the African-American boys didn’t have anything. They didn’t have anything. So they came to me and said. ‘Mr. Triplett, why don’t you start a club, so we can have a club too.’ And that’s what I did. That was the roots of the GQ Club.
“We’re a boys’ leadership club for 10th, 11th- and 12th-graders; they have to have a certain GPA as well as a good citizenship grade to get into the organization. And this...” putting spread fingers to sweater “...is the outfit that they wear every Wednesday or when they go into the community doing special projects, going to conferences, and different things. They wear their uniforms, because I felt that, if they look good, they gonna act good. And that’s one of my special things, you know.
“Lately, we have about 30 members in the club. It started out to be just African-American males; but now, since the integration things in the schools, we have other ethnicities in it. And it’s going real well. I’ve got pictures up of a lot of the things that they do, events they’ve been to. I take ’em to plays, downtown to the Lyceum Theater, and to different concerts, you know — put ’em out in the public a whole lot. We’ve hosted the United Negro College Fund on television for the last three years. They do so much in the community that the community knows them.”
Members of GQ meet each Wednesday during lunch to discuss business. As noon bell rings, Triplett and I begin a short walk through a stream of students to Room 110. He tells me that all his GQs (“except for five or so in 15 years") get college scholarships. (According to Morse’s scholarship counselor, Mary Sue Depass, 1991 ’s class of 500 graduates garnered $286,000 in scholarships, excluding athletics.) “I make sure they get scholarships,” he says. “I fight for those scholarships for the young men, you know, to send ’em off to college, because a lot of ’em don’t have the money to go. You know how expensive colleges are these days."
Inside modest and muggy Room 110, several GQs are seated, others trickling in. They all wear the same apparel as Mr. Triplett. I pick up on conversation.
“...said, you know, tuition is free, plus you get paid, like. $545 a month, and if I graduate — get t’ go in as an officer. I’m goin’ in the Marines. Hey, Marines are cool, man."
“Well, you need to get started," Triplett breaks in. “You need to get a recommendation from your congressman. You can do that when you’re in Washington this June." Triplett turns to me in explanation. “This young man, see, is a Congressional Scholar..." (William Riddick, Jr.) “...and will be going to Washington, D.C., and spending a week up there. He’ll be representing the state of California."
The meeting begins without Triplett’s direction. Glenn Steele (6’2” linebacker/tight-end, signed with Arizona State), GQ’s vice president, stands at the board and discusses nominations for classified/certified employees of the month.
“He’s a real good teacher, you guys. I don’t know what all he teaches, but I have him for my geometry class; he’s real easy to get along with, not like Mr._, you know, real mean and strict and stuff...”
“...He’s ‘mean ‘n’ strict’ for a purpose," one boy defends.
“...he puts in time extra when you need help, and he’s just real easy t’ get along with....”
A tall boy with temple-shaved short hair takes the front, following voting, and reports on GQ’s recent visit to Logan Elementary. (Triplett had earlier explained: “One of our special projects is working with the elementary schools, talkin’ to the kids about drop-out prevention, drugs/alcohol, trying to be good role models.")
“Whoooa...when we went to Logan, fellas, uh, it was pretty bad. They weren’t really under control and stuff, and once you got ’em under control, a few of ’em talked a lot ‘n’ stuff. There was a few there that listened and really wanted to know what life was all about. The ones that were listening, they asked us questions: ‘What is high school like..." (radio of an assistant principal crackles) “...and, of me and Wendell, they asked about sports and grades and stuff; when Ken said he carries a 4.0 now, they were all, like, ‘Wooooo...’ y’ know, ‘What can we do t’ do this?’ Couple kids asked him what his goal in life was but, that’s basically all we did over there.
“It’s — it’s really bad over there. Mr. Snow — the security guard over there — he was tellin’ us that it’s so bad that last week the border patrol was chasin’ people through the element’ry school, tryin’t’ catch ’em. Drug dealers be right across the street at the park ‘n’ stuff. Right over there, right behind Memorial Junior High School. Real bad."
“My son is only four years old; he’ll be five in June. My husband is also a teacher, and everybody always asks, ‘How do you coordinate all this?’ I say, ‘I don’t know, you just — do it.’ My husband always says, ‘How d’you keep ail this stuff in line, know where you always s’posed t’ be, do all these favors — but you can’t balance your checkbook? You never know how much money you got, and we never have any money, ’cause you never been t’ the bank.’ And I say, I look at him, ‘Hey, there — I’m a workin’ person.’ ”
Mrs. Mildred Ivey-Phillips, assistant principal, reminds me of Bill Cosby’s TV “wife" — attractive, cheerful, strong. Escorting me across campus, her radio in hand, she suddenly captures an unlucky boy’s Walkman.
“Uh-oh...you c’n pick this up after school.”
“Man! I wasn’t wearin, It...”
“You know the rules.”
I mention a boy in purple bandana.
“No bandanas," Phillips says, “no hats indoors, no beepers anywhere. I mean, what they gonna do with a beeper? Walk outta here sayin’, ‘I gotta go make a call’? Those things have no use in school...” Giving my final thanks for her assigned facilitation, I watch her slip into the office—immediately followed by sheepish boy and muttering Mr. Mac.
“....’nough t’ make me retire,” he says.