The book opens with the death of John Doe # 27 – a victim of a drive-by shooting. No identification was found on the boy and detectives assumed that he was just a gangbanger that was at the wrong place at the wrong time. However, upon discovering a neatly folded piece of paper in his pocket, they were surprised. It was an exam on the French Revolution, where the boy got an A. They later discovered that the boy was a 15-year old student who was enrolled on a junior high school program for gifted students. He was on his way home from spending an afternoon at the Boys Club when he got murdered. The author of the book was a writer for the Los Angeles Times and he was used to writing about the children who lived in South Central, the ones who were similar to those that were in the van that attacked the boy. However, this time, he wanted to write about the other kids living in the area, the ones similar to the murdered boy.
The boy was supposed to graduate in 1997, the same year when the kids he interviewed were to do the same.
Notes: Miles Corwin’s awareness about the trials that children from the South Central are facing sparked because of the death of John Doe #27 and gave him a new insight in the lives of these children.
Olivia was a battered child, with school serving as her only refuge from the frequent beatings from her mother. No matter how hard she was beat, she made it a point to read her assignments right after. She excelled in school because the praise and compliments she received made up for the hurt that she experienced at home.
However, when she was in 7th grade, the beatings started to occur daily and not even school could save her. She never understood why her mother despised her so much. She convinced herself that her only escape would be suicide. However, one afternoon after she got home from school, she decided to run away instead. She found a downtown shelter that would take her in. She spent 10 days at the shelter before a social worker arranged a meeting between her and her mother. Olivia’s mother called her a liar and tried to lunge at her when she recalled the beatings that she experienced. Olivia became a ward of the county when her mother said that she didn’t want her daughter. During the next few years, she shuffled between group homes and foster homes. Olivia’s father is half Black, half Cuban, while her mother is Mexican—however, she identifies herself as Black, owing to the fact that she grew up around black girls, black foster mothers, and predominantly black schools. She always felt like an outsider, always wanting greater things compared to the girls that she grew up with.
When she was about to start high school, she learned about Crenshaw High School’s program for gifted students. She took the bus to the school and was told that her IQ and her exam results were beyond the minimum requirements. Her skills put her in the top five percentile of the nation. The gifted magnet program of the school became Olivia’s refuge. Her teachers and her classmates served as the family that she never had. When she reached the tenth grade, she became motivated to make money while she was studying so that she could buy herself some clothes. She discovered that she was natural entrepreneur. She sold candy bars at school and made as much as $200 per week. However, when the principal heard about this, her business had to be shut down. She turned to selling fire safety equipment, door-to-door. She got tired of living in a group home and decided to fend for herself. The summer before junior year, she had a full-time job at a hotdog stand. She didn’t know how she could juggle a full-time job and school at the same time.
She decided to drop by Crenshaw and talk to the head of the gifted magnet program, Scott Braxton. He was a father figure in the eyes of Olivia. He always went out of his way to help the students. Braxton managed to bend the rules and let her attend classes in the morning and work in the afternoons and evenings. However, when she was laid off, she had to return to another group home. She obtained a fake ID and applied as a salesclerk at a women’s clothing store. Even if she was no longer a straight-A student, she was still eligible for college. Midway through her junior year, she got kicked out of her foster home. She had no choice but to stay with her classmate’s family. The Herrons were nice enough to apply for a foster certification so they could let Olivia stay at their home. Halfway through her junior year, she bought a 1977 Volkswagen bug. The Herron family forbade her from driving the car, as she didn’t have a license and insurance for it. Olivia ended up running away from them. Her senior year was very critical. If she kept up and had amazing grades, she could be eligible for a college scholarship. Her teacher, Toni Little, was another adult that Olivia could trust. Everyone wondered if Olivia would be there when senior year started, and if she would be present once Mr. Little did roll call.
Notes: Olivia’s story is one of the most prominent ones in the book. She was one of the students that Corwin spent the most time with.