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Frosty was an institutional kid after he turned 12. On the inside, he depended on the protection of other Hispanic kids, mostly members of street gangs. He took the blame when it was necessary to protect his homies. He tattooed himself to proclaim his alliances. He defied bigger kids and staff members alike, desperate to win the respect he craved and the reputation he needed as protection from victimization. He was constantly in trouble with staff, as his effort to build a reputation overlapped with his impulsiveness, frustration and emotional scars.

Shortly before his transfer to adult court, however, Frosty confessed his illiteracy and asked for help. Colleen Becker, a high school teacher interning at Adobe while she worked on her degree in social work, tutored him an hour a day. In two months, he advanced from a first- to nearly a fourth-grade reading level.

"If you start out small, you're way behind," says Becker. "So he got a mouth on him. The attitude is, 'If I'm going to get beat up, anyway, then I'm going to throw the first punch.'"
But Frosty's heart wasn't really in being tough.
Until that last fight, he was never charged with a violent offense.

And he never really bought into the racial fights and hatreds that dominate at places like Adobe. Frosty's heart was in his art--intricate drawings of roses, cars, women and gangsters in bandannas with teardrops etched into their cheeks. He drew constantly, mostly custom orders for other kids. He even drew pictures of members of rival gangs, complete with their gang symbols. Sometimes members of his gang gave him hell for it. But he kept at it, unable to refuse anyone who wanted a picture. He cranked out one after another on scraps of cardboard or on the backs of manila envelopes rescued from the trash can.

After Becker found out about Frosty's drawings, she bought him a cheap black pen with permanent ink. It became his favorite possession. He raved about it for days. Frosty had been drawing for years, but he'd never before owned a pen that wouldn't smudge. Becker also encouraged him to prepare drawings for submission to lowrider magazines, which in his dreary world seemed like a dazzling peak of ambition. She also convinced the owner of a print shop to teach Frosty how to use an airbrush once he was released.

Frosty and Becker became friends. She spent an hour or two with him every day. "He'd always had behavior problems in classes," she says. "But it turns out it was because he couldn't do the work. No one ever said, 'Oh, you can't read.' When I worked with him, he was a good student. Very self-motivated. He never talked back. Never swore. He finally believed that someone actually wanted to help him."

@body:But it was too late.
By the time Frosty began to change, he had exhausted the limited tolerance of the system.

The fight on a bleak Guadalupe street corner was the final straw.
Fittingly enough, the fight was with the 27-year-old Guadalupe man who first got Frosty and a lot of other local kids into paint-sniffing, according to Frosty's mother. Paint-sniffing is a particularly vicious form of drug addiction, since it inflicts brain damage, poisons the system and can trigger violent and unpredictable behavioral changes. It is, however, cheap. Frosty and the man had been getting high together for years. Frosty had gone a little nuts during one session several years earlier. Police were called to pick him up from in front of the other man's house, where he was running up and down the street, banging his head against mailboxes, Mercy says.

"I called the police on that man three different times. I told them what he was doing to kids," Mercy says.

Shortly before the fateful fight, Frosty had lent the older man his bike. The older man sold it, Mercy says.

They were both high on booze and paint fumes that night. An argument about the bike escalated. Frosty grabbed a brick and threw it at the man, who was nearly twice his size. Frosty inflicted a wound that required several stitches.

Then he ran.
The police report described the blow as "unprovoked." Frosty himself later told officers he couldn't remember what happened. Mercy pieced the story together from witnesses. She asked those witnesses to give their accounts to police, but none wanted to get involved. Juvenile court sent him back to Adobe. He faced the prospect of being transferred to the adult system for the first time.

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Peter Aleshire