They didn't have to be here. I'm sure they had better things to do. Certainly more profitable meetings on their agendas.
But they gave their morning to 100 students at Venice High School. A hundred students who most people don't give the time a day. Heck, most people don't notice these teenagers unless it's late at night, and they're crossing the street to avoid them.
Most of these VHS seniors gathered in the school library aren't sweating the rise in UC tuition because come fall only a handful will attend universities. Some will attend community college. Most will go straight to work or to the military. A few will drop out.
The guy standing at the front of the room, an amicable white guy in his early 60s, held a photo of a younger version of himself wearing a VHS baseball jersey.
"Recognize this handsome man?" he asked.
"Well, I'm Bud Jacobs and I used to be principal of this school."
But instead of retiring to draw on his LAUSD pension and kick back, Bud Jacobs became involved with a non-profit called Communities in Schools, and the Creative Artist Agency gave Jacobs a home.
So here he was, recovering from hip surgery and working the room like the comic warm-up act. He talked about CIS, whose goals include that each student graduate with a marketable skill; that each CIS member also must give back to the community. And giving back was what this morning was about.
So Jacobs introduced two guests. Both young enough, well-dressed enough, successful enough to instantly gain my students' respect. It probably helped that both speakers were African-American, since VHS is 86% non-white.
But Arleta Fowler and Caleb Franklin were here not to preach, nor to give pep talks, nor to offer summer internships. They were here to tell their stories.
Arleta Fowler told the audience of her journey from a public school in Portland, Oregon to Howard University to work at The Discovery Channel.
The Discovery Channel. That's when my students started taking notes. They never take notes in my class.
Arleta landed a job at a temp agency, asked to temp only at The Discovery Channel which lead after a year's time to her knowing everyone inside the company, which led to a full-time job.
Which led her to becoming a producer.
Heads nodded as Arleta talked. This was real world stuff. Not from a textbook and certainly not from a teacher. What did teachers know about landing real jobs?
Then, up stepped Caleb Franklin, a product of South-Central. Leimart Park. A kid who liked to do art. Who went his own way. Who ended up at a local private school on a scholarship. And not for basketball. In fact, he rode the bench for their basketball team for 3 ½ years. The greatest bench warmer in the school's history, he joked. But he never gave up. At anything.
And when in the second semester of his senior year, his basketball coach gave his spot and his uniform to a promising freshman, instead of sulking, Caleb auditioned for a school play. Landed the lead. Fell in love with acting. Got into Harvard. Harvard University, not Harvard-Westlake. Majored in what? Indian Studies. Learned Sanskrit. His parents thought he was blowing his chance to become something in the world.
He graduated and went to work in the business world, making lots of money and hating his job. He quit. Won a fellowship. He traveled to India and directed movies. He had never directed anything before.
Now he worked at CAA, at the most powerful and prestigious entertainment company in the world. In international entertainment.
I thought my students were going to lift Caleb Franklin and Arleta Fowler onto their shoulders and carry them out to their cars.
Caleb repeated what Arleta had told these kids.
Forget what others say. Find out what you want. Keep at it. Keep at it some more. They'll doubt you. Laugh at you. So what? Keep at it. Write your own story. Start now.
When the bell rang for nutrition break, many of my students remained in the library. They passed up food and stood patiently in line for a chance to talk to two CAA agents who shook their hands and gave advice and took these young men and women seriously.
Later that day as I walked to the faculty cafeteria I overheard three of my students discussing the morning's talks. Maybe it was my imagination but my students seemed more animated than usual. More mature. A little more serious and optimistic about their lives.
And I thought how little it takes to make a difference, a difference that could change a lot of lives.