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.

A couple of weeks later, the guy came by the park yet again. It was a Friday. Ormsby had been suspended from his alternative school, so he was idly hanging around the park that day.

"He rolled by with a couple of guys and we started kicking the car, telling them to get out," Ormsby says. "They took off, and a couple of my friends went to get their guns. They weren't back in time, and the car came back. I was between a van and a car. I ducked and they let off one round of a 12-gauge. It shot a big old hole in the van.

"I looked back and I saw that one of my gang friends was behind me, jumping over a fence. I saw the shotgun leaning out of the car, and it was going over me. It wasn't aimed at me, because they didn't see me. But the shooter was the same guy that I beat up. I stood up, and put myself between the barrel and the guy jumping over the fence."

Laura Beingessner

The pellets blistered his head. A couple of them lodged in his eyes. The blast was so intense that it whipped his head back.

"I felt instant numbness," he says. "I turned around to my friends and said, 'I got shot.' They said, 'No you didn't. You don't look like you did.'" Then blood started flowing out of his eyes.

He was sent to Scottsdale Memorial Hospital. He stayed there two weeks. He waited for his gang friends, the people he considered his true family, to come and see him, to find out how he was doing. None of them ever showed up.

Finally, months later, they came for a visit. They voiced the familiar refrain that revenge was in order. The loss of his eyesight must be avenged. But Ormsby already felt betrayed by their lack of concern after he'd put himself in the line of fire.

"I just got out of the gang after that," he says. "My head started clicking. It took that to open my eyes, to actually see. Now, I could walk down the street, and if there's a guy sitting on a curb crying, I'd sit there and cry with him. I have that much heart for a person now.

"I'm glad I'm blind. If somebody was to offer to give my sight back, I wouldn't take it. Because if I had my sight back, I'd probably go through rage. So many people dumped me on the head and walked away. If I saw them again, I'd probably go on a rampage."

Ormsby went back to alternative school, and the same kid who'd always loved to intimidate his classmates found that education wasn't such a bad thing after all. He amazed himself by getting an A in biology at Mesa High, which he attended for a year and a half, before his need for specialized attention sent him to the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind.

But despite his disability, he's determined to finish his high school education at Mesa High. So he'll spend the spring semester there. He relishes the idea of returning to campus and being a warm, friendly, positive force. He says he loves nothing better than making his classmates laugh.

Manny Chavez is gratified by Ormsby's progress, but he knows that the battle is never won with such a difficult case. "I've told him he can make a living as a speaker, because he has a lot to say, but he's still a little bit wild. He's not in the gang anymore, but he still hangs out with a lot of those guys. But it's because he doesn't have any real family. They're the closest he has to a family."

Ormsby is a bit schizophrenic where his old gang is concerned. On the one hand, he asserts that gang life is a dangerous dead end. But he takes some pride in the fact that he's a neighborhood legend because he sacrificed his eyesight for the barrio.

He hasn't completely avoided trouble in recent years, either. In 1996, he fathered a son named Angel with his then-girlfriend. Within a few months, he had fallen behind on his child-support payments and she took him to court. He was ordered to meet his financial responsibilities to his son.

Despite such lapses, Ormsby beams when he talks about Angel. He describes how Angel walks him around the neighborhood, how his son has become his pair of eyes. And he seems determined to steer Angel away from the destructive life that he's known. More and more, he says, his focus is on the next generation of would-be gangbangers.

"The kids that are in gangs now, you might not be able to change them, but maybe you can thin them out," he says. "You can talk to them and make them good, so that they know what they want for their kids. You can't change this generation, but you can change the next." -- Gilbert Garcia

Too Cool for School

There's an assignment in the Isaac School District in west Phoenix where sixth graders are given a sheet of paper with a large empty circle on it. Draw in the circle, the teacher says, and turn it into something better.
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