LOS ANGELES TIMES
LOS ANGELES -- Micah Grant begins his day under a clock, its hands pointed at 6:41 a.m., his hands clasped in prayer.
The 17-year-old is joined by his mother.
"Send divine angels from heaven around him," his mother says. "Keep him in perfect peace and harmony. Keep his surroundings in peace and harmony.
"Lord remember his friends today, oh God," she continues, "remember Washington Prep today."
Micah is about to leave for school. He is a senior at Washington Preparatory High School, located in one of Los Angeles' poorest and most violent neighborhoods.
Today, as on all school days, Micah must strategize.
Will he get the education he is hungry for? And will he make it home?
He selects his clothes with precision: Royal blue sweatpants, a safe color in his Crips neighborhood, where baby blue implies gang ties. He wears a white T-shirt, a gang-neutral color, with a sports emblem on the back.
He doesn't dare wear red, the color of the Bloods, the Crips' longtime rival. "I wouldn't come home," he says. "I wouldn't make it."
His mother, Sharon Grant, a post office worker, and her husband, Hervin, a minister, are rearing three sons. They weave spirituality into every aspect of their children's lives. They find phrases from the Bible or from sermons or Jamaican proverbs to cover as many eventualities as possible. That, his mother says, is what keeps them safe.
She spritzes the back of Micah's neck with cologne and sends him off with a kiss on his cheek.
His way to school
Micah walks with raised shoulders, his college applications stowed inside a book bag. He needs to traverse eight blocks to the bus stop. He passes an empty Heineken beer carton, a sickly stray dog and two men picking through trash bins. The sky is the color of pale stones.
He walks alone in the morning but never at night.
After school one day in July, his friend, Delano Pitts, took a different route, down some alleys and less-traveled streets. Micah stuck to his familiar sidewalks. Someone randomly shot Delano twice, in the arm and the leg. The wounds were not fatal.
At the corner of Florence and Western avenues, Micah boards a public bus, paying the $1.25 fare. Students crowd toward the back. He sits in front, near a woman wearing a blazer and a man reading the newspaper. The bus stops at 108th Street and Western, three blocks from Washington Prep.
A longer route
A pack of students moves one way, to a side street. Micah moves the other way, taking a longer route to school.
"I don't take cuts," he says.
Delano is the first to greet Micah inside Washington Prep. They meet at a concrete bench in the courtyard, with a plaque that reads: "Not For Self, But For All." They wear matching bracelets bearing the words: "One Mission John 14:6." "Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." A surveillance camera points in their direction.
Delano is a basketball player. He shows one scar from the July bullet. It looks like a dark ribbon on his forearm. "They thought I was a gangbanger," he says.
Micah is a star track runner. Micah's friends say he is like a cheetah: He runs fast, talks fast, thinks fast.
The bell rings and Micah departs for his first-period art class, passing two more surveillance cameras. Outside his classroom, three uniformed security guards patrol a courtyard.
Two years ago, Washington Prep teachers filed a written complaint with their union saying the campus was "out of control." They said that students and outsiders regularly beat and robbed other students and that some students had sex and used drugs in hallways.
Then, in March 2003, a riot broke out. Officials said a crowd of about 300 to 500 students threw rocks and bottles as two campus police officers tried to restrain a pair of students fighting in the open-air quad. Several students were injured and 11 were arrested.
Micah remembers watching the melee break out at lunch. One brawl started in front of him. Another behind him. He ran to his fourth-period teacher's classroom, but she had locked the door. He pounded on it, but she didn't open. "She was scared," he said.
Another time, a fight on campus began near him. Police pepper-sprayed the students. The spray burned Micah's eyes. Now, when a fight starts, he rushes as far away as possible.
Doubled armed guards
The district appointed a new principal, Herbert Jones. It doubled the number of armed police officers on campus to two and doubled the number of unarmed officers to four. It assigned six school district police to patrol within a half-mile radius. It spent $37,000 completing the iron perimeter fence. It increased the number of surveillance cameras on campus to 30, Jones said.
Jones walks the perimeter before and after school, making sure his students are safe. In the halls, Jones tells students to straighten their baseball caps, and he sends them home if they wear gang-affiliated attire.
He said the potential for violence exists on any campus in America. Washington Prep is just more prepared than others, he said. "We're ready for Columbine every day of the week."
"Everybody says [why] all those police officers," Jones said. "Well, how do kids feel safe when they don't have them there?"
If he were superintendent, Micah says, he also would have added the officers. But that doesn't make the situation acceptable, he adds. "Look at these bars," Micah says, pointing to the gates surrounding the school.
College or incarceration
Washington Preparatory High School, preparation for college.
"Washington Preparatory High School, preparation for incarceration," that's what some students call it, Micah says, adding softly, "that's pretty deep."
In Micah's homeroom, an administrator lectures the class about filling out college applications as the teacher, Angelique Sims, observes from her desk. Micah holds a 3.5 grade-point average and scored 1020 on his SATs. He has already completed his application to the University of California. He listens, flipping an un-stamped envelope containing the application between his fingers. He wears glasses that nudge his ears out slightly.
Sims glances at him. Micah is focused, she says. "He's serious about his education."
It is gratifying, she adds, especially since nearly every teacher at Washington Prep has taught a student who has been killed. Three of hers have been shot and killed. Those like Micah, she says, know "what they've got to do to survive."
"It all starts in your home," she says. "I know he has a strong spiritual foundation."
Twenty minutes later, on his way to government class, Micah passes a group of boys lingering near a door. "Hey," one of the boys nearby shouts. "We're some Crips over here." Micah pays no attention.
Once, when he was in middle school, he was shooting baskets alone in a court near his home. A group of gang members approached. "Hey, homey, where you from?" they asked, circling him like sharks.
The gang members beat him. They bruised his ribs. They pounded his eyes.
A police car rolled by. Micah said he shouted for help. Maybe the police didn't hear. Maybe they didn't care. Anyway, they did not stop.
It was then he decided: "I either give up, or I keep going."
He kept going.
During third period, the college counseling office pulls Micah out of physics class to go over his personal statement for his applications. When he arrives in the college office, he realizes he has to go back to class to retrieve his book bag.
He walks back. The halls are empty.
When he turns a corner, leading to a stairwell, four boys are sitting on the steps. They glare. Micah falls silent.
Not taking a chance
He continues up the stairs, softly saying, "Hey, guys."
One nods. Others glare.
Minutes later, after retrieving his book bag, he chooses a different set of stairs to descend. "Let's go this way," he says. "It's not like I am scared of them. I just don't want to take a chance."
At lunch, Micah stands solo in the lawn on the quad, away from crowds. His girlfriend joins him. Friends stop by. A school police officer with a gun strapped to his side watches.
"This is a nontrouble spot," Micah says. "Over there ... the wrong people hang there. Over there under the roof, that's another hot spot."
One of Micah's favorite teachers, William Miller, always stays in his room, even at lunch. Some students eat their lunch in his room. Miller tutors them, or they come for refuge.
"If there's ever trouble anywhere, I tell them, don't walk," Miller said, "but run to my room because I will be there."
All day, Micah looks forward to Miller's advanced placement English class, for which he is reading Machiavelli, a character who showed, he says, "you have to do what you have to do to survive."
Miller acts out scenes from "Macbeth," to his students' delight. He strains his face as he reads from the book. He ends the act by dramatically throwing a chair. Micah laughs and says jokingly: "I told you he's crazy."
A teacher at Washington Prep since 1982, Miller said students like Micah overcome "incredible odds" to learn. Teachers here "feel there are a lot of kids who are trying to make something of their lives and they get shuffled to the background."
Washington Prep is one of the L.A. Unified School District's lowest-performing campuses. This year, the state named it a "program improvement school," meaning it could face state takeover if test scores don't improve.
Students complain about overcrowded classrooms and insufficient books, Micah said, but they are making excuses. As his mother says, "if there is a classroom, if there are books, if there are teachers, you should be able to learn."
Micah said he would sit on the floor to learn, if he had to.
"What is it going to be like when we are at that point where there is nothing good coming out of this community?" Micah said. "I want to be that one exception. If nothing else, to show somebody you can do it."
There are many Micahs in this community, said Jones, the principal, who also grew up in this neighborhood and graduated from Washington Prep. Jones, 47, remembers walking to the store for milk when he was young, being careful "to get back with the milk, the money and my life."
As has been Micah's experience, every decision Jones made has counted. Now, Jones concedes, the margin for error is much smaller.
Physical training is the last class of the day for Micah, followed by team practice. This is when Micah lets go of stress.
Colleges are wooing him for his academic and athletic skills. He is ranked 11th in the state in the 100-meter dash. Princeton, Notre Dame, Columbia and others have sent letters. Micah wants to stay closer to home because his father has battled cancer for a few years. He heads to a tiny weight room. It is already crowded, smelling like sweaty T-shirts.
Sprints on the track
Usually he sprints on the school's track, a ring of tobacco-colored dirt littered with the occasional potato chip bag. Running here too often, Micah's coach says, gives athletes shin splints.
After weight training, Micah jogs up and down the school bleachers.
He would remain for hours if he could. But it is 4:45 p.m., and the sky is turning the color of stones again. He knows waiting for the bus and trekking home will take too long. It would be dark before he got home.
He calls his mother and asks her to pick him up. He waits with friends in the back parking lot of the school. They talk about bodybuilding and a friend in the military.
Jones strolls around the corner, walkie-talkie in hand. It is nearly two hours after school let out, but he is still patrolling the perimeter. "I've got to make sure my students make it home," he says, appearing weary.
Micah's mother arrives 20 minutes later, her youngest son already in her Toyota Echo, gospel playing softly on the car stereo. Micah and two of his buddies load into the car. She takes them home too.
Once home, Micah spreads college financial aid forms on the kitchen table and begins filling them out, eating a bowl of spaghetti at the same time.
He sits under the same clock where he began this day, near a poster on the dining room wall that reads: "This is God. I will be handling all your problems today."
It is 5:47 p.m. and dark outside. Micah has made it home.