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"So when you look at me, all the sudden that's the trigger to tell the truth?" the principal asked. "What do you think I'm going to tell you? How should you act in class?"
"Raise my hand?" Jose offered hopefully.
"Keeping that mouth shut," Lopez agreed. He bent down and leaned toward the pupil's ear. "Where'd you go to school at before?" he whispered to the sixth grader.
"Jefferson," Jose said, confused by the sudden turn in the conversation.
"This ain't Jefferson," Lopez replied. "Don't do that shit here. Do you understand me?"
Having made himself clear, Lopez let Jose pass. The boy walked to his classroom, looking as if it were all he could do to keep from running.
"A brilliant kid," Lopez said after Jose was out of view, whispering so as not to disturb the quiet that once again surrounded him. "He just gets bored sometimes."
Jorge Lopez' desire to get his students out of Oakland is rooted in personal experience. Born in 1971, the second of three children to Mexican parents who'd had enough of picking lettuce in the Imperial Valley, he attended public schools in his hometown of Richmond, where he struggled from the start.
"They'd sit me in a circle and say, 'What is your problem today, Jorge? Let's talk about those feelings,'" he recalls bitterly of his days at Belding Elementary and Downer Junior High. "I sat in more circles than any Native American in the history of Indians."
Without a firm hand to guide him, Lopez says, he developed into "a straight-F student" who repeated seventh grade before being sent straight to Richmond High in order to remain with his peers. "Richmond schools are it's like Oakland they're not meant to educate. They're meant to just house you," he says.
Although he struggled in school, Lopez excelled as a street entrepreneur. By twelve, he was a veteran brawler and an emerging drug dealer. "It all started everybody hustling joints here and there and it developed into something big," he says. Soon, he was selling powder cocaine, speed, and whatever else interested people in early-'80s, pre-crack Richmond.
There was one line Lopez never crossed: "I was never a gang member," he says. "I was always a hustler. I always sold anything anybody needed. I figured if I joined a gang it cut off half my supply." This did not mean he was unaffiliated. When he flunked out of Richmond High in tenth grade, he was transferred to a continuation school. On his first day, a student welcomed him by pulling out a gun and pistol-whipping him. "It was a neighborhood thing," says Lopez, who lived in a Norteño part of town. He did not return to the school.
Instead, at sixteen, he began helping his mother with her job cleaning houses. After three months of this, an elderly client in the Berkeley Hills, disgusted to learn that he had dropped out, enrolled him at Berkeley High using her address.
With the new surroundings came new opportunities, and not just of the educational variety. "There is nothing like some rich white people," Lopez says. "They will buy all the drugs. And I came from Richmond with all the connections." He quickly mastered the first rule of commerce: Buy low, sell high. "I made tons of money at Berkeley," he recalls. "I had the biggest weed sacks all over Berkeley High School. I was known for it."
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