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Exigencies of Life

By Frank Gruber

Another young man, Jalonnie Carter, 19, is dead, in Santa Monica's on-going, simmering, gang war. With all the shots and near killings this summer, it was inevitable that someone would soon die.

Okay, so our local saga of meaningless death can't hold a candle to all those people around the world killing each other for principle, but, after all -- this is Santa Monica, wealthy and progressive. Shouldn't we have solved this one by now?

What makes a young man "drive by," or "lie in wait" to shoot down another young man in the street?

Strange species, Homo sapiens.

Maybe not so strange. When I was in Africa last spring looking at wild beasts I was amazed to learn how prevalent violence is among the males of even those species that are herbivores.

Can we dismiss gang violence as atavistic, and throw up our hands?

There are many places in the world where young men don't kill each other for turf. Why can't Santa Monica be one of those places?

I agree that it's important to solve the ficus tree problem, but let's have a sense of proportion: young men killing each other is our biggest civic problem.

Freud wrote that "civilization (was) created under the pressure of the exigencies of life at the cost of the satisfaction of the instincts."

When I had a toddler, what impressed me most of all was just how hard it was to get this civilization thing across to him. No, no, and more no, for about five years steady.

Now he and his friends are thirteen. It seems that no matter how civilized your six year old is, you start over at puberty.

How could the young men who are killing each other now in Santa Monica and Venice and Culver City have been thirteen only six years ago?

Didn't we know enough then not to let this happen again?

* * *

In our community the people most in charge of channeling excess adolescent hormones into civilized behavior are the teachers and administrators of the school district.

Two years ago John Deasy arrived and promised that the district would increase the academic performance of our disadvantaged students. At least according to the latest standardized tests, the district is making significant progress. (District Test Scores Show Dramatic Gains," Sept. 2, 2003)

The ultimate test will be if today's gains at the elementary level can be sustained tomorrow throughout middle school and into high school, but the big point is that concerted effort and targeted interventions will lead to results.

Meanwhile, the scores show that as the scores of the historically lower achievers increase, so do the scores of the historically high achievers. For instance, as the percentage of black and Latino students who were proficient in English proficiency increased to 48.6 and 48.2 percent from 29.6 percent and 26.4 percent respectively, the percentage for white students increased to 83 percent from 70 percent.

Speaking as the parent of a middle school student who has all the educational advantages from two parents with advanced degrees to his own desk and computer, it's important to say what should be obvious but which is sometimes forgotten, namely, that the best way to give high achievers the means and the challenges to achieve even more is to raise the overall level of achievement.

* * *

Other adults in our community who have a lot of contact with raging hormones are the volunteers who coach youth sports. Saturday was the start of Santa Monica's American Youth Soccer Association (AYSO) season.

I never played organized sports when I was a kid, but I've become a believer as a dad. You've heard all the horror stories about obnoxious parents and coaches, but you know what -- you can find more boorish behavior in a random sample of freeway drivers than the same number of people at AYSO or little league.

But let's face it -- even adults who aren't violent are screwed up. The youth sports experience is partly about burning off excessive youthful energy and partly about giving kids experience dealing with adults and all their inconsistent and irrational behavior.

I coached soccer for six or seven years and I shudder to recall how many times I told defensive players in one breath to spread out and play back and give ground, and in the next to be aggressive, and go for the ball.

Sometimes I'd tell the offensive players to make long passes. Sometimes I'd tell them to make short passes.

Oh, and by the way, I yelled at them a few times. Really blew my top. It's amazing how difficult it is to persuade a dozen 13-year-olds to stand in a straight line.

Gave me a lot of empathy for middle school teachers.

The good thing about sports is ultimately the kids learn that they have to go out and make their own judgments about when to give ground, or go to the ball, or when to kick it long and when to kick it short, and that there are consequences if they make the wrong decision.

My problem with youth sports is that the programs stop too soon. Somehow we think that when kids reach age sixteen, unless they are on the high school team, they don't need sports anymore. Participation in sports leagues drops off precipitously after age fourteen -- just when kids most need an environment to compete harmlessly and a place to burn off that excessive energy.

Or they will, literally, start killing each other.

Could Santa Monica and other local cities organize "town leagues" of local young people between, say, 17 and 25, to compete for their cities or neighborhoods in soccer, basketball, and baseball?

* * *

Here's another idea. Could the City, in its development policies, give the same weight to the importance of jobs for young people and economic opportunity for the many poor families in Santa Monica as it does to traffic?

* * *

A word about those trees on Yale Street, which, as on many streets in Santa Monica, ruin the sidewalks, but provide a wonderful canopy.

The neighbors who don't want to start over with new trees have a good point, but they should perhaps think a little farther in the future. The trees are now about 50 years old, and they won't live forever.

Perhaps the neighbors and our urban forester should be thinking of a strategy that will replace perhaps half the trees now, so that in 20 or 30 years there will be a new generation of mature trees on the street.

Upcoming events

Monday, Sept. 8, 7:00 p.m., Ken Edwards Center, 1547 Fourth Street, City staff will meet with residents and other interested parties to discuss the street trees on Yale Street.

Wednesday, Sept. 10, 7:00 p.m., City Council Chambers: Joint Meeting of the Planning Commission and Architectural Review Board to hear from planning staff and consultants on ideas for new downtown development standards and design guidelines.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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