On first day back at school, pupils adjusting to 'the war' expand vocabulary Events push aside regular classwork AFTER THE L.A. RIOTS

May 05, 1992|By Isabel Wilkerson | Isabel Wilkerson,New York Times News Service

LOS ANGELES -- Grammar and logarithms were put aside in schools across Los Angeles yesterday as the children of this careworn city returned to classes and struggled to make sense of the chaos that had engulfed them.

Principals gathered children for makeshift assemblies and teachers tried anything from essays to word association to coax out the hurt and anger, mining a torrent of emotion at the first mention of the beating of Rodney King by four white police officers and their acquittal last week.

Blacks and whites argued over which was worse: the beating or the riots that followed the verdict. Children of poverty seethed over a system they say ignores them, while children of privilege expressed sorrow that the safe world they knew had been shattered.

In the most devastated neighborhoods, classes were sparsely attended because many children were afraid to go outside, or parents were afraid to let them.

Some children were already calling the events of the last four days "the war."

In Bebe Notkin's third-grade class at Queen Ann Place Elementary School, an integrated school in the heart of ravaged Koreatown, the language of civil unrest became the day's vocabulary words.

Miss Notkin taped to the blackboard an oversize piece of paper. On it were 14 new words like "loot," "curfew," "arson," "justice," "national" and "guard."

She offered them the unorthodox definitions that come from real-life experience. To define one word, she said, "Wednesday night when people were angry when the four police were found not guilty they did wild things."

She added, "They were out of -- "

"Control!" the children shouted back.

Down at the nurse's office, Christopher Romero, a third-grader dressed in faded jeans and a Boston Celtics sweatshirt, lay stiffly on a tiny cot.

Asked how long he had been ill, he said, "When the fire came, the fire that came with the war."

Nerves are still on edge. Class was disrupted at Morningside High School and students feared the worst when an early-morning fire broke out in the house across the street in predominantly black and middle-class Inglewood. The fire was not linked to the riots, the Fire Department said, but it did not have to be to raise tensions.

Even at some schools far from the riot's epicenter, the riots were the top of the agenda. At Beverly Hills High School, where students drive BMWs to school and poverty is a social-studies term, students groped for answers no one seemed able to provide, and in Allen Klotz's ninth-grade history class, the Middle Ages were suddenly irrelevant.

He was deadly serious and grim-faced as he told his students: "As a class and as human beings, we need to talk. I personally don't think anything will be the same."

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