Tales Out of School

It's tough to be a teen. But what happens when your friends and family are all in gangs? Five students talk about growing up in the Valley's roughest neighborhoods.

Stapley Park is a security blanket for Ormsby, a sense of home for someone who's never had a permanent home, a sense of community for someone who's had to learn to do without a family.

Ormsby was flashing gang signs before he could spell his own name. His older brother was a gangbanger. So, he says, were his dad and all his uncles. So were his cousins. So was his grandfather. Ormsby himself was a gang member by the time he hit third grade. "I really didn't have any choice," he says.

His father is half-Irish and his mother is Mexican American. You can see evidence of both in his striking features. With his dark hair slicked back, he looks a bit like a younger, Latino Jeff Bridges.

The Escuela Azteca campus  --  two portable classrooms.
Paolo Vescia
The Escuela Azteca campus -- two portable classrooms.
Escuela Azteca students on an outdoor trip.
courtesy of Gary Goss
Escuela Azteca students on an outdoor trip.

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Ormsby was born in Phoenix. His parents separated when he was 4, and he moved to Mesa with his mother. He says his father was a talented craftsman who could fix anything. But his family, he says, was gripped by drug abuse and neglect.

Both of Ormsby's parents are still alive, but he refers to them in the past tense because they stopped being a part of his reality many years ago. He rarely hears from them these days, and when he does, they sound like strangers to him.

As a kid, Ormsby moved from one home to another. He recalls that between kindergarten and second grade, he attended 22 different schools. He and his two brothers and two sisters were caught in a hellish tug of war between their mother and father.

"My dad would pick us up at school and take us all the way out to Apache Junction," he says. "Then we'd live with him. And my mom would do the same thing. They were still going through a custody battle. They'd steal us back and forth."

Ormsby says that when he was a child, his mother beat his older brother, Adrian, with a curtain rod, and the state took him away to a children's home. He says that, eventually, Child Protective Services took him away as well, but he would continually run away and find his sisters. They'd wander the streets with nowhere to stay. To get by, he'd steal food from grocery stores.

When he returned home to live with his mom, they clashed, he says. Between the ages of 7 and 10, a pattern developed: She'd kick him out of the house and he'd live on the streets for a short spell. Then he'd come back home and the ugliness would begin again.

By then, Ormsby's most solid family unit was his gang. He'd spend nights smoking weed with the other gangbangers and drinking constantly. For easy money, he'd steal cars, and sell off the parts.

Ormsby spent most of his early school years at Lowell Elementary in Mesa. "From fourth grade up to about seventh or eighth grades, I was a violent kid," he says. "I kind of dominated the school. I was like, 'Get out of my way or I'm going to thump you on the ground.'"

At Mesa Junior High, he was suspended for sending a kid to the hospital. He claims the kid kept grabbing his hat, until Ormsby lost his temper. He says he "beat the kid down in the gym." He says when the school's principal started scolding him about the incident, he got angry, jumped up on a chair and socked the principal.

For Ormsby, the educational process became little more than a series of suspensions and expulsions. After being expelled from Mesa Junior High, he was sent to an alternative school, where he was suspended for punching the vice principal.

During this period, Ormsby frequently fought with Adrian, now 22, over their rival gang memberships.

"At times my brother and I would be cool with each other," he says. "At other times, we'd fight and want to kill each other. But I was going through rage at the time. I had a lot of hate since I was little, because I had my childhood taken away from me. Between the ages of 13 and 15, I had a black, cold, steel heart. I didn't care about nobody, I was always beating up people."

Despite his differences with Adrian, sibling loyalty transcended gang affiliation for Lambert in April 1994, when two members of another gang attacked his brother with orange pickers and sliced his head open.

"I wouldn't care if it was one-on-one, but this was two guys who did it," Ormsby says. "I caught one guy right around the corner from this park. I put my fist through the window of his car and hit him. I broke his nose and dragged him out and started beating him up. I said, 'Where's your friend?'"

The friend came by Stapley Park later that day with a gun, looking for Ormsby, but he was gone. Two weeks later, the same guy came by the park again and threw a beer bottle at Ormsby. It bounced off his head without causing any damage. Ormsby grabbed the guy. Ormsby's friends egged him on, telling him he had to get revenge. Ormsby threw the guy over a fence and slammed his head against a wire that was sticking out. It left the guy with a scar around his right eye.

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