Thursday, April 24, 2008

My life as a 15 year old Latino boy

Tomorrow I go back to work.

So on my two month vacation I finished Not Dead Yet (I'm going to talk more about that soon) and threw it out to the world. I started a script and abandoned it, I started a Pushing Daisies which I plan to finish in time for Disney, and I thought up a new idea.

There's just not enough time to do all the things I need to do. I never did write up the proposal for journalism class I planned to put together, mostly because I was distracted by episodes of Blind Date.

I do have a tendency to drop scripts when they get too tough. I had this idea about a character with superpowers and some major social anxiety. The problem is no matter what I did I could never get the plot to work. Every page felt like garbage because I didn't believe in it, and if you don't believe in it the script won't be very good. So I'm dropping it until I figure out how to solve my plot problems.

Then the other night I was thinking about what sets me apart from other writers and what kind of individual experience I bring to the screenwriting industry. Just one thing: I'm a middle class white teacher of poor Latino kids.

Whenever people find out what I do for a living they always say either "Ooooh like Freedom Writers!" or "Oh, like Dangerous Minds!"

Sometimes they'll say I'm just like Michelle Pfeifer! One guy, when I told him I teach in South Central, asked how I liked teaching Ebonics.

Yeah I don't really like talking to racists, asshole. Besides, my kids speak Spanglish. Get it straight.

Anyway, those movies are all well and good but not horribly realistic. Most movies about teachers in the ghetto are about some white teacher who comes into a classroom where the kids are out of control and turns them around through his or her wacky methods.

Yeah that happens about never.

I don't go to my kids' homes and try to convince their parents they should care more about their children. I don't spend half my salary on supplies. When I go home, I grade papers and I think about my lesson plans, but I don't stay awake at night dreaming of how I can change their lives.

That doesn't mean I don't care. God, I care. I gave one little felon my cell number and told him to call me when he gets backed into a corner and has nowhere to turn. I teach my ass off in that room. I counsel those kids all the time. But most of the time my class is pretty standard and the kids behave like normal teenagers, and I learned my first year of teaching that if you try to "save" every kid you will drive yourself crazy with the painful futility of it all.

But that doesn't make for a good movie.

So I realized the other night that I want to write a story that's a little more realistic. I want to show that most of the time these kids have so much going on at home that although teachers can help, they can't save a kid from a crappy home life. I want to show that most teachers are not saviors and they're not evil overlords. Most teachers are human beings who care but don't kill themselves over the job.

I'm also tired of seeing movies where every Latino kid goes home to a single parent home and deals with gangs and drugs and that's his life. Most of my kids aren't in gangs. Most of them don't do anything harder than pot. Most of them don't even know how to shoot a gun. Many of them have both parents at home.

Yes, my kids are more exposed to crime than most. Every one of them could easily travel down the path that leads to prison. But in the end they have to make the decision for themselves about where they plan to end up, and their teachers can give them advice but they are in charge of their own lives. I just don't see that enough in film.

So I'm going to write a story about a 15 year old Latino male in South Central Los Angeles who has to decide whether to lead a life of crime or take the hard road. And he has to do it on his own. And he has two loving parents who have jobs and nobody beats him and he goes to school and has normal, responsible teachers who don't always know about the personal issues that sometimes make kids behave like little asshats in the classroom.

The upside of this undertaking: I feel like I have a really clear idea of my mission and my plot. The downside: my protagonist is a 15 year old Latino male. I am none of those things. I can only hope my experience with my students will be enough to let me voice him accurately. I'm going to refer to the script as Jacking.

And I really hope I don't ditch this script halfway through.


  1. God. If you're not laying out a script, you're laying out the whole what-sets-me-apart shit that Jane Espenson always talks about. She always refers to prison or growing up on a farm. Yours is much better. And I always hear writers say you need entertaining stuff to blather about in meetings when you're being interviewed by an agent or for a staff position. So there you go.

  2. Anonymous5:20 PM

    Just curious if you've watched Season 4 of The Wire. They tackle a lot of similar issues about the lives of teens in Baltimore and the experience of teachers in the school system. What did you think of the story they told? It would be interesting to hear a teacher's take on the show, since The Wire has a reputation for gritty realism (plus, one of the executive producers was a teacher in Baltimore). Though the kids they profile seem to be a lot worse off than the ones you describe from your classes.

  3. I was lucky enough to have HBO during The Wire's fourth season. That was amazing. Yeah, those kids are a little worse off than mine but the issues were dead on. I completely related. That show is so goddamn good.

  4. I was once a 15 year old Latino boy and I never felt 'authentic' growing up because I had both parents at home, I didn't have any kids by the time I graduated and wasn't in a gang. Hell I'm an enigma just because I moved away from home and got a degree. Write this story... you probably know this world better than you think.

  5. Jacking sounds like a good idea. I'm doing something similar with a kid from Brooklyn. It's on the back burner right now but it's got tons of story.

    And if I may offer a suggestion, (no I don't think I know anything) maybe Ese(sp?) would be a better title.

    When I think Jacking as a term I think of black men. Just my opinion. Free of charge.

  6. I teach English in Montebello. It's kind of the 'Beverly Hills' of ELA. Been doing it for 7 years. I feel like I am making a difference with my wacky methods. Case in point: the kids learn through fear; it's like karate. If they have to act out the words on the vocabulary list- and they know their partner is depending on them for a grade, yeah, okay, they might crap their tights, but that's the nature of the biz. Don't get me started...and I hate the whole 'oh, like 'Freedom Riders'!' comments almost as much as the constant Westsider condescension.
    My kids are great. Parents line up every summer to get their kids in on permit, when they should be going to another school with a lower grad rate. These new arrivals are kind of shocked that we don't put up with gangsta bullshit, the back stairs are NOT some pot-smoking free Amsterdam, girls are NOT impressed with a felony sheet. Do those kids work harder? Not usually; I think they have a higher failure rate then our 'locals'. Two things you might consider: having the kid come in from another school and dealing with his chances: does he go straight? Does he go gangster? Great book about an artistic African-American kid from L.A. He moves to a small town in Oregon with his family. He invents a cinematically overblown past of crime and sex, thus inspiring the locals to emulate his fantasy. I'm looking for the title...'and the shadows' something...
    What if the kid is gifted? He's had to live with that stigma since third grade, what if he takes the chance to just be normal (that's what I did- escaped from Honors program, told everybody I had cheated on my IQ test). Good luck in the Nicholl.

  7. Anonymous6:39 PM

    Sounds boring to me, but I'm sure it'll make for a useful exercise. I like the way you keep working on new scripts, that can only be good. I wish I had your stick-to-it-iveness.

  8. Well, just to clarify on the boring part, I don't write anything that doesn't involve guns and at least one fistfight. And it opens with a mugging and ends with a murder.

  9. "I do have a tendency to drop scripts when they get too tough...So I'm dropping it until I figure out how to solve my plot problems."

    I have a tendancy to do this too-- a little too often, I think. But putting work aside does work. I've solved quite a few story problems by just letting them sit for a while.

    I'm Latina and grew up in a "barrio" situation in LA. Everyone around me was in a gang, getting pregnant, had family members going to prison. A few kids I grew up with never made it out of their teens.

    I never got into all that. I held myself apart. I loved to read & lived inside my head. People thought i was a v v strange kid.

    Good luck with the script. :-)

  10. Anonymous11:08 PM

    This is the first pitch you've blogged about that I can actually picture. These others are like, wtf? So, progress on the story front.

    It sounds very Sundance. Write the first five pages and send it into the lab with a bio etc. Deadline is beginning of May.

    If they want to read the whole script, they'll tell you mid-June and then you'll have a deadline.

  11. Hah. Me, Sundance. That's kind of funny since I like things with explosions. That may be why you don't like my other stories, you're probably into movies that are sensitive and shit.

    It sounds like a great idea and I'd love to do it, but I just don't see how I could get a good script finished in time. I could try.

  12. Anonymous7:43 AM

    Trying is the first step toward failure. -- Homer Simspon


  13. Anonymous3:50 PM

    You're not a 15-year-old Latino?

    What a hoot!

    Neither Flaubert nor Tolstoy were women, but that didn't keep them from writing novels about women.

    The *feelings* that impel today's 15-year-old Latinos are the feelings all 15-year-olds have. Sure, the nature of the problems might be different, the times and the vocabulary might have changed, the emphasis might be different from this era or that era, but the nature of the problem hasn't changed one whit.

    Besides, you're a writer. You know how to write from inside other people.

    (don't you? yeah, sure you do)


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