Making sense of the chaos in Calif.

May 05, 1992|By New York Times News Service

LOS ANGELES -- Grammar and logarithms were put aside in schools across Los Angeles 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 verdict in the Rodney G. King beating trial.

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, yesterday's 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.

It seemed as if innocence had died with the riots' last embers.

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 sweat shirt, lay stiffly on a tiny cot.

"I don't feel so good, he said. "I got a fever."

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

Elizabeth Dulli, the school's nurse, spent the day tending such complaints. "I think the kids are trying to adjust," she said. "All of this has been hard on all of us."

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 bedroom of a house across the street from the school 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.

In the last few fiery days, the riots have become one the generation-defining events like the death of John F. Kennedy or of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Even at age 9, Javier Larrache, a third grader at Bennett-Q. Elementary School in Inglewood, seemed to know this.

"I have a wound in my head I will always remember," he wrote in a poem for class. "That wound is fatal to my heart. Because B BTC man named Rodney King was beaten on March, 1, 1991, he took a beating along with all of us.

"This wound gets bigger as I grow," his poem goes on. "The wound that everyone has taken aches my heart and everyone's heart. This wound we will never forget, thanks to a white jury who now is laughing somewhere safe."

Javier said he was having trouble sleeping, and that life hasn't been the same. "I can't go back to the park and play basketball because my mom said someone might burn down the park," Javier said. "Thanks to these people, I can't go outside and play. I'm referring to the jury and the looters."

Even at some schools far from the riot's epicenter, the riots were the top of the agenda. At Beverly Hills High School, one student said, ". . . My mother had to go to five stores to get bread. This is America, where everyone is supposed to be free and happy. It's not supposed to be like this."

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