(This is an interview I was required to undertake of an adolescent
for one of my teacher credential classes)
Rodrigo Fernandez was an eighth grader at Berendo Jr. High School, a student in my "Preparatory English" class. Preparatory English is designed for students who have been passed through Advanced ESL but still have not passed the required test to move into a regular English class. The counselors told me that this class had the teacher before me at times "almost in tears." And the teacher who took over the class after me similarly lamented the low skills and apathy of the students. It was almost the first class I had ever taught and I did not know what to think. It was a very difficult class, to say the least. At first glance, I thought I might especially have problems with Rodrigo, who goes by the nickname of "Ferndog." He dressed almost like a caricature of a gangmember: shaved head with bangs, long baggy pants, gangster slang, street smart swagger, etc. Ferndog, who is 15 years old, often arrived to my class wearing his P.E. uniform because the counselors had dubbed his clothes unacceptably baggy. However, it turned out that Ferndog and I got along well from the very beginning.
Ferndog was one of the students I was always happy to see. He completed almost all his assigned work and earned a "B" as a grade and an "Excellent" in both his work habits and cooperation. While his English was not terrific, with effort and diligence he could perhaps improve it to the level where he might have the option of university level study - something I could not say about everyone in the class. Ferndog was obviously popular among his pears and his essays in English had a sort of spunky energy that I liked. Ferndog was also in my homeroom class, and the class elected him our representative to the student senate. With Ferndog, I invariably ended up laughing. It was obvious that Ferndog was especially fond of his female classmates, who seemed alternately to love or hate him. I always saw him with different girls in the halls and even I could tell that he was often the center of gossip, intrigues, betrayals, etc. During parent conference night I lauded his efforts in my class to an older teenage girl that Ferndog identified as "his sister." Ferndog does not have a sister, but the proud look on his face when I told her that Ferndog was one of my best students counts as one of my best moments as a teacher. Ferndog and I often just talked about the streets or made small talk in our spare moments. I was later switched to a different school "track" and no longer had Ferndog in my class, but still he often shouted to me across the school yard and I would stop and we would talk for a few minutes.
And so it was with surprise that I received the news from his new English teacher that Ferndog had earned an "F" in her class, as well as an "Unsatisfactory" in his work habits and cooperation. There was also more than a little hostility on her part towards Ferndog. I asked her incredulously, "Are we talking about the same Rodrigo Fernandez?" In reflecting on the news, I was sure that Ferndog had been behaving in such a way as to deserve such abysmal grades. I searched out and talked to Ferndog who tried to play everything down, "I know! I know! Getting an 'F' is embarrassing!" I told him he was ineligible to partake in school activities and in danger of not graduating from the eighth grade in two months. He told me he was going to do better in his English class, and that he really did want to graduate with his classmates.
I went back and asked his English teacher, "How can Rodrigo do better in your class?" I told her Ferndog was going to try to clean up his act and that he wanted to start over with her again. She listened to me but still seemed wary. She told me that she had been talking with the counselors and that they were on the verge of getting him kicked out. Ferndog was already an "OT" (opportunity transfer) from another school. She also let on that there were certain things in his file that warranted special attention. This particular teacher had always seemed to me excellent, and I did not want to impose too much on her territory. I just let it stand as I had said, "How can Rodrigo do better in your class?" At the moment of this writing, Ferndog has improved in her class.
Ferndog readily agreed to let me interview him and we agreed to meet in front of the school after classes on Friday. Yet after the final bell sounded Friday, I could find no trace of Ferndog anywhere among the students milling around the flag pole in front of the school. I finally spied him about a block away walking with two gang members from the "Easy Riders" gang and I thought, "He is not getting away that easy!" I shouted to him from a distance and he turned around and waved to me. As I walked towards him he quickly said goodbye to his friends who continued walking down the street. I asked Ferndog, "Weren't we supposed to do that interview thing today?" Ferndog replied, "Of course, of course! Let's go do it!" "Are you sure, Ferndog?" I asked him, "we can do this some other day if it is more convenient." "No, today is cool," Ferndog countered, "there ain't no problem." We walked to my car and drove to a restaurant.
During the drive, Ferndog told me that his girlfriend was waiting for him. She had run away from home two weeks ago and was living with Ferndog's brother, Carlos, who lived just across the street from his parents. Ferndog told me that she tried to call her parents once but "they don't care if she comes home or not." He told me she was a speed freak and that she really annoyed him when she was high on metamphetamines - which was most of the time. At any rate, Ferndog told me she was just one of his six girlfriends and he did not really care that much for her either. The problem was that he had just found out that she was pregnant. I cringed visibly at the news, and told him how once my father had warned me how sex could bring enormous pain as well as bliss and joy. "My Dad never talks to me like that," Ferndog quickly countered, "he only cusses and yells at me, or screams at me to help him fix his car." Ferndog assured me that this was the sixth girl he had gotten pregnant since he lost his virginity when he was seven years old. He told me he "could handle it."
Ferndog was born in 1979 at the County General Hospital in East Los Angeles. He is the child of Jorge and Rosa Fernandez, immigrants from Mexico who came to the United States because of the greater economic opportunity. Ferndog has a younger brother, Jesus, who is three years old. Carlos is the oldest child of the family at twenty years of age who, as previously stated, lives across the street from his parents. Carlos installs special "spoked" rims to "low-rider" style cars for a living and is engaged to be married to his girlfriend Carla. Ferndog's father is a roofer, while his mother is a housewife. Ferndog does not get along well with his father whom he claims only yells at him -especially "when my aunts or other people around, so that he can feel like he is the man and everything." Ferndog proclaims that his mother is "nicer" and that he has a better relationship with her. Ferndog says he spends little time at home. And when he is in his neighborhood he is just as likely to be staying at his brother's house as his father's.
Ferndog started his education at Trinity Elementary School, which is just around the street from his home in South-Central Los Angeles. He remembers this as a good time, but then he was transferred to Warner/Westwood Elementary School in West Los Angeles. When I asked him what he could have possibly done to get in so much trouble in an elementary school, he just smiled his typical Ferndog smile and said, "It was mostly the friends I was keeping." As a consequence, he had to then ride the bus all the way across the city to his new school. Ferndog describes these as "bad years," complaining that the school was full of "pure white dudes - I didn't like it. All they wanted to do was play baseball, and that's boring!" About the girls he said, "They were all white girls who would go tell the principal if you tried to talk to them." After graduating from elementary school, Ferndog spent one year back in Mexico. Upon returning he was directed to attend Berendo Junior High School where he is presently a student.
Berendo is some distance away from his own neighborhood and this is a fact that makes it attractive to Ferndog. A constant theme in Ferndog's life is the attempt to keep his life so spread out so that he has flexibility. He absolutely does not want to be transferred to Carver Junior High School near his home; he understands full well that in such an environment so replete with bad influences in the form of old friends he will most certainly never graduate from high school. The counselors also seemed to realize this, and consequently he was sent to a school outside of his neighborhood. Ferndog has gang ties all over the city, yet shies away from the gang in his own neighborhood. Ferndog knows that he can "hangout" wherever he wants, and then later come home to a place where he can relax. In this way, Ferndog can associate with gangs and yet not have people know where he lives. He can spend time with people from many different neighborhoods without the burden of having to defend them or the worry of feeling like a target in his own backyard. "I keep trying to go to places where nobody knows me," Ferndog said, apparently not seeing that he was engaging in the same dangerous activity of the past he was fleeing. Ferndog hopes that in moving to new environments where he knows few people he will be less inclined to get in trouble. It is precisely the same way with his girlfriends. It seems as if Ferndog keeps different girlfriends in different schools, trying to compartmentalize each one so that they will not conflict and get in each other's way. Ferndog tries to play many opposing forces off of each other, casually associating with all but committing to none. A constant theme with Ferndog is that in his life it is all about "money, having fun, and girls."
Ferndog generally likes Berendo Jr. High, although he thinks there are too many Guatemalans and El Salvadorans. He would prefer more "Mexicans - with more gangster chicks." As in many other places, Ferndog has many friends at Berendo. In particular, Ferndog's best friends Rico, and Happy also attend Berendo. Ferndog says he likes Berendo Jr., but he quickly added that he is referring to the social and not academic aspect of the school. In asking him what he liked best about school, he clarifies, "I like school because of the girls - there are always more girls." He thinks classes are "boring"; his favorite class is P.E., and his least favorite science. Ferndog has as a goal graduation from high school, "Maybe I'll go to Roosevelt High School in East L.A. I don't know many people there. Maybe I'll play football." Ferndog claims he liked my English class, "I liked your class because we could talk more. It wasn't like, 'Read this chapter and then do the answers.'" However, when he first heard of my history in law enforcement, Ferndog claims he thought to himself, "'Fuck this guy!' I hated you for a long time after that." In asking him what made him change his mind, Ferndog replied, "Well, after awhile when you get to know someone, you know, you change your mind." Ferndog had once written in an essay to me describing his hatred of police officers, and I tried to explain to him why I left the profession, "It is amazing, Ferndog, how much people hate you (the negativity), and because you are doing your job and wearing the uniform." Ferndog shook his said in assent, commenting, "Sometimes I feel sorry for the cops because everyone treats them bad."
The most important thing for Ferndog is his social life. Ferndog has various levels of involvement in the byzantine gang culture in the areas around downtown Los Angeles. The parties are the most important events, and parties either take one of two forms: gangster celebrations, and "raves" in dance halls. Ferndog prefers raves because there are more girls and the emphasis is on the dancing. But sometimes gangster parties are less complicated because "you can meet a gangster girl and have sex with her two minutes later. Other girls, you have to wait like a year or something!" Yet he is also wary of gangster parties, because they can turn violent: "sometimes the 'homies get really stoned and then they want to pull a drive-`by or something." Ferndog has always seemed to me to lack the malevolence I have seen in others from the gang sub-culture.
Ferndog was "jumped in" as a member of the "Mexican Family" ("FMA") gang when he was twelve years old. The Mexican Family is a Mid-Wilshire Los Angeles street gang some miles away from where Ferndog lives, but he was introduced to them by his cousin who associated with them. However, approximately six months ago Ferndog's best friend in the gang, "Drifter," was murdered in a drive-by shooting near L.A. High School. Ferndog discovered that it was the "Mid-Cities" gang that killed his friend and demanded that there be a retaliatory attack. And even though Drifter was the "most down," the Mexican Family took no action, "They wouldn't do nothing!" After this episode Ferndog stopped associating with the gang - an easy thing to do, considering that he did not live in their neighborhood. Ferndog simply stopped going to that area. Ferndog currently associates with the MKN (Mexican Klan), 36th Street, Easy Riders, 18th Street, Drifters, BMS (Barrio Mojados), SSK, and Florencia street gangs. So far a few have asked him to join, but he has declined the offer every time. Ferndog has friends in many gangs and prefers to hangout with them without the responsibility of membership. When I asked him if he could continue hanging out with these gangs without them forcing him either to join or stop coming around, he acknowledged the problem. When I asked him if he would ever join a gang again, he shrugged his shoulders and evaded the question.
Another tragedy that Ferndog suffered recently was the death of another friend, "Snoopy." Snoopy died of an overdose of cocaine right in front of Ferndog. After he injected the drugs and fell unconscious, Ferndog ran away and when he returned an hour later was informed "that he was dead - gone." Ferndog claims not to grieve the death of his friend, "This was the easiest way. Because of the way he was, he wasn't gonna live very long anyway." Ferndog claims to not like drugs personally, remarking that they make him feel jumpy and out of control. He prefers to just drink a couple of beers and relax.
Ferndog once wrote in a composition to me that he wanted to become a "dopeman, with all the money and the bitches." I asked if he still felt that way, or if he ever thought about getting a legitimate part-time job. He laughed, "Maybe I can get M. [Ferndog's girlfriend] to get a job and give me money. We talked about it, and maybe she can get a job selling clothes - like in a mall or something." Ferndog told me that he doesn't need much money because he always eats either at his parent's or his brother's house. When he needs money he steals car stereos: "It's fun! We go over to Wilshire Blvd. and just smash the window and grab the stereo. I can get $150 for each stereo." If he is desperate for cash he will "jack" one of the newly arrived immigrants because they carry lots of cash, rarely report crimes to the police, and "give it up easy." Ferndog told me this matter of fact and with a straight face, as if he were discussing his favorite food or the bus route he uses to get home. "My God!" I remember thinking at the time aghast, "Nobody ever taught this boy the difference between right and wrong!" We discussed guns awhile and Ferndog's favorite weapon is the .25 because of its concealabilty. I then told Ferndog how happy I was never to have had to kill anyone in my short time as a Reserve Deputy Sheriff. I looked carefully for some kind of empathy in his eyes and saw none.
In asking Ferndog about any future plans he might have, he assumed a semi-puzzled look and claimed to have few. Family? "Someday I would like to have a family," he replied. I asked him about college and he replied flatly, "No. I'd have to join the Army or something to pay for college." I told him about government loans for college, etc. and sought to appeal to him on his own terms, "Think about it Ferndog, there are like 17,000 young women at UCLA! And you can bet some of them are absolutely gorgeous!" He remained noncommittal. Ferndog once wrote in another composition that he eventually wanted to work for the United States Border Patrol so that he could accept bribes to let immigrants into the country. "I still want to do that!" he added eagerly. I mentioned that they do background investigations and previous arrests can disqualify you from employment. I also told him that if he gets caught accepting bribes, he himself can go to jail. Ferndog said nothing in return, apparently thinking. In asking him one last time, "What else is important to you, Ferndog?" I was once more greeted by the famous Ferndog smile and the usual litany: "Life is girls, money, and parties."
As we left the restaurant, Ferndog was worrying what the girlfriend living with his brother would say upon his arriving home so late, "I know her! She is going to embarrass me!" I drove Ferndog home to his gritty South-Central neighborhood in the darkness, my heart sinking. I knew Ferndog was into some bad stuff, but I had not suspected the magnitude of the insanity in his life. I thought of Ferndog growing up out there in bozo-land and I wondered if even he knew how at risk he was. Taken in context, it seemed laughably farfetched that I would hope for Ferndog to somehow become an engaged student interested in his studies and excited about college and a career. I denigrated myself for thinking that somehow I could make a difference with Ferndog. As if in the chaos and insanity of Ferndog's life any special attention could matter in the few minutes of the one hour I spent with him every day. Such thinking, I realized, was pure vanity on my part.
Driving home to my apartment, I felt as if maybe I should have commented more on some of the dangerous activities in which Ferndog is involved. Maybe an avuncular warning or gentle scolding might have done some good. However, I think just patiently listening to Ferndog and making only indirect comments was the best option. I don't think coming across as an authority figure would garner results with Ferndog. And even in such a terrible environment, Ferndog is at least partially fighting to stay out of trouble. At any rate, I think he ultimately knows how I feel. I have always treated Ferndog like an adult, as if we were talking respectfully man-to-man. Apart from anything else I would like to think that Ferndog and I are friends. Yet I wonder if I had just known better how to talk to him... "Look around you, Ferndog! Is this what you really want?" I wanted to ask him.
Ferndog is a sensible enough kid. Maybe some of the seeds that I have tried to plant in Ferndog's mind will come to fruition in a perhaps more propitious future - hopefully before he makes a decision and/or does something which changes forever his own life and perhaps that of someone else.