Los Angeles (Silver Lake, Atwater Village, Eagle Rock), Filipino-Americans, Catholic Grade Schools: An Overview 1990-1998

The title of this article represents the time that I was in Catholic School grade in Los Angeles.  That's 8 years of grade school.  My 4 years in Catholic high school were another story altogether and radically different than the time in grade school.

I don't know that if I have many "special" stories or a story, worthy of a movie, or a memoir, but I was inspired to write primarily because of a KCRW/Zocalo segment on Catholic School education in the 1930s. Also, I was once told by someone that there aren't enough stories about "us", "us' meaning Asian-Americans, so here are a few more.

The popular media I've seen on Catholic schools have always involved white kids somewhere east dealing with nuns who would break pencils on their students' hands.  I've listened to and read articles about how the Catholic school was really strict about everything.

Some of those stories have resonated with what I experienced, but I don't think what I experienced exactly has been represented quite yet.

I only have realized my experience well after my undergraduate years.  In college at UCLA, I realized that a lot of Filipino-American kids in LA (When I say "LA", I tend to mean areas from Central LA (Historic Filipinotown) to Echo Park to Los Feliz to Atwater Village to Eagle Rock and Glendale) tended to go to Catholic schools;  I say this without wanting to discount the number that went to public schools, but I can't speak to that experience except for one year in kindergarten and my college experience at the UCs and CSUs.

I mention "Filipino-American" so much in this piece because I think Filipino-Americans and our experiences have kinda "flown under the radar" in popular discourse. Back then from the 1990s to 1998, Filipinos made up a visible population in many Catholic schools across LA, at least from what I "felt" at surrounding schools and in my own.  On anecdotal observation of my old school and schools across LA, they still do. 

I don't mean to speak on behalf of all Filipino American experiences in Los Angeles, but I think I have more than enough to "say something", at the very least about my experience.  I would like for my articles to be one dot that represents one experience in Catholic schools and through the Filipino-American experience, but also is one step in making the Filipino-American racial and ethnic category visible, credible, and present in recent history; ready to engage and participate in public discourses about education and other civic affairs.   I mention it at the outset because it is contrary to the dominant narratives which don't usually include people of color in the now.  By using "Filipino-American", I don't mean to "tribalize" or necessarily say that my experience was radically different than other students', but I just want to say that being "Filipino-American" was one lens through which I viewed things, just like being Mexican, being "short", being a girl, or being tall can affect the way you may perceive things.

Only after having married a Catholic school teacher have I come back to re-call what have been probably my most formative learning experiences.

My project and premise is simple:  I find myself trying to reflect on "what it all meant" and how bits, pieces, and chunks of the experience might have impacted me for today.

There's the obvious great memories.  Graduation.  Field day at the base of the Griffith Observatory with In N Out Burger.  Field trips.  The last days of June which involved wrapping school textbooks in brown covered wraps.  Halloween.  Christmas shows.  Valentines Day with "school families." Talent shows.  School festivals.   The American flag popsicles on hot days.  Art class.  Birthdays in school which evolved into these dance parties as we got into "junior high" from 6th - 8th grade.

There was the mundane things outside of the classroom.  The assignment of play areas.  The dodgeball wars on the playground. P.E.  Kickball.  An almost all-asphalt playground that also served as a parking lot for church on Saturdays and Sundays.  Basketball rims put up around November to coincide with "basketball season."  The organic separation of boys and girls, except for occasional boys vs. girls games.   

There's the everyday rituals that I remember and suddenly miss.  School uniforms and wearing them correctly.  The morning assemblies which began with lining up, and doing a Pledge of Allegiance.  The birthday announcements.  Staring at the analog clock in the back of the class to make sure it was almost close to 3:00 PM dismissal time. Taking home parent envelopes. Getting dropped off in a car behind the cones.  Going to my parents' or friend's car after school.  Or going to daycare after-school.  Homework time during daycare, and then play time after homework.

The school was dominated by car-drivers, and I imagine, probably still is given the geographic spread we students covered.  My dad usually dropped us off because my mom always drove and went to work early at the hospital.  Incidentally, only one kid I knew lived close enough to walk to school;  everyone was shuttled in a car, and I was pretty much able to recognize different cars that everyone was shuttled in.  One carpool of an extended family of Fil-Ams was (kinda mean) called the clown car.  Biking was completely non-existent, though I do remember one incident during the Summer my sister entered Kindergarten;  a little white girl was riding a bike with her older adult-sized brother who was probably somewhere between 15 and 25.  She was bleeding from the nose and was crying.  Some other adults rushed and asked what happened.  He said that they had been hit by a car;  yikes.  Didn't have any effect on what I thought of biking.

There's the curious markings of what made those years clearly the 1990s.  The computer lab just before computers became normal in every home.  A TV with a VCR occasionally being dragged into our classroom.  The slow-moving printer that printed tear-able flaps on each side of the paper which we'd have to rip off, which some used to make these little crafts.  The occasional guestspeaker whether a DARE officer or a missionary.  The principal outlawing "baggy pants" and "jeans" for fear of any association with gang culture.

Of course there wouldn't be the Catholic "school" without the classrooms, my classmates, and teachers and their personalities.  Each year, we fluctuated between 32-35 students, which means that there was enough a crowd in the class, but still kind of intimate.  We had one desk and all books contained within it starting in 2nd grade.  We stayed in one classroom.  We occasionally switched seating positions.

I also remember every single teacher and their quirks.
  • 1st grade was a super-tall white lady who brought who equally super big son and daughter to school one time.  
  • 2nd grade was a Filipino lady almost my parents' age (and definitely taller than my 4'8 mother) who said that she was older than most of our parents;  she was the first time I was acknowledged as doing well in class.  
  • 3rd grade was technically a nun with a nun with an Irish accent, but did not really dress the part and was acknowledged as one of the nicest teachers;  for some reason I did the worst under her.  
  • 4th grade was a taller, thin white lady with curly hair and what someone described as loose lips;  she was cool, she apparently might've dated a vaguely Asian guy that was also helping at our school, and where I felt I found an "academic groove."  
  • 5th grade was the same Filipino lady who incidentally was chosen as my sister's godmother;  I struggled again.  
  • 6th grade was an older white lady with short hair and a passion for diagramming sentences.  I probably forgot, but I felt like I learned a lot from her.  
  • 7th grade was slightly split between a white guy who left in the middle of the year and was replaced by a fresh college graduate, the son of the long-time school secretary.  
  • 8th grade was a younger, hip cool white lady who specialized in teaching Math and saw me off to the selective Catholic high school of my choice.
I don't know if I could name every classmate, but we spent enough time to where I can recognize faces, though if you ask me to name a kid from a different grade, that might be a little challenging.

Nowadays, as people in our 20s and 30s, I could probably recognize probably a fraction of those who went to the school from 1990-1998.  Probably more likely if you were at the school for at least 4-5 years.  Pretty much if you were a girl in 6th grade or older by the time I was 11, I was probably crushing on you.  It is really really weird saying this as a 30-year old man, but as a growing 10-11-12-13-14 year old, I was a fan of pretty much all the girls.  To me at that age, they weren't little school girls, they were growing, taller-than-me fully formed women.  It didn't make a difference if I was able to be with them or Tyra Banks. Who was hot or not became a topic of conversation amongst the boys starting at 10 years old.  I already had my first two crushes by then.  A Filipina and a Korean girl.  They reminded me of the hit song by Ace of Base, "The Sign." 

Around me, some of the boys were even more knowledgeable about females, their anatomy in a way more advanced than I was. One of the boys proudly admitted that "Showgirls" was his favorite movie, which shocked the teacher, but not really me, because I had no idea what that was.  Another talked about how he wanted to do something pretty lude to a computer teacher, which made me wonder what he was talking about.  That was 5th grade.  I don't think I was an angel, I simply didn't know what the heck these kids were talking about, at the time.

I also remember how friends and closeness shifted as the years went by.  Throughout my time at the school, anyone who liked basketball was someone I grew close to --- that also happened to be a lot of the Filipino-American kids.  My dad was unique early on in schooling in that we were relatively close to a few of the black families in my grade.  As the years came, some parents also gravitated towards my parents and vice versa, mostly the Filipino immigrant parents, which happened later.  I already was brought there because my g-sis, 2 years older than me, had been enrolled and also came to crushing on her friends, this group of attractive Filipina girls who each seemed out of my league.  I did outside activities with other kids which centered first around karate, then Filipino folk dancing, then basketball, and then theater drama. 

I do remember that we created outcasts.  There was never any overt reason why we created outcasts, but it probably had to do with a combination, "cooties" or some kind of irrational fear of "contamination", which is something of an embedded statement about class, and weakness.  A few of my friends were instigators against these outcasts:  they would laugh them off, trip them up, I guess it looked a lot like bullying.  With my friends as aggressors, I never looked at it as that, but upon reflection it probably was.  

I was never big enough to bully anyone, but I do remember occasionally partaking in the teasing of certain kids for questionable non-reasons.  Some of it was "just because."  Some of it was because I really thought some people were gross or disgusting;  actually having a running conversation with some people, one tall Mexican girl in particular, seemed really disgusting to me, and I feel awful upon reflection.  But they probably didn't take me that seriously cause I was like 4'8 and known for farting all the time at least throughout 7th grade.  Irony is that I'm married to a pretty tall Mexican girl now, so...(God's way of getting back at me?)

When I think back critically about how my views have changed, there are things that make me wonder about how much has changed within student culture.  The rumors of having a lesbian principal.  Usage of the word "gay" to describe things that were "stupid."  Parents complaining about fundraising for air conditioning which never came in my 8 years.  Wanting and having the few Filipino teachers that were at the school.  Having almost a majority Filipino-American school and then transitioning into a majority white American high school where Filipinos existed but were not the dominant group.

Now as a 30-year old with a wife teaching at a Catholic school, a lot of my memories have been triggered, and myself making a foray into education, and I wonder about the current-day functionings:  is enrollment falling as it is across the board in Catholic schools?  How do they integrate technology into the classroom?  What immaturities are the kids running with now?  Do they finally have air conditioning?  Is the school still something of a pipeline to my ever-popular high school?

Unpacking more later.

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