A Young Work in Progress Shattered on a Road in Iraq
The New York Times, May 10, 2006
by Samuel Freedman
As the seniors of South Gate High marched across the stage on commencement night in June 2003, a column of gravity and obedience in alphabetical order, Geovani Padilla took off his mortarboard and crimson stole. Then he wrapped the strip of fabric around his forehead in samurai style. After receiving his diploma, he dropped to his knees, thrust his fists in the air and bathed in a moment of cheering recognition.
With more than 5,000 students on its rolls and nearly 50 in many classes, South Gate High was a hard place to stand out as an individual. Geovani hovered in the middle ranges, neither the academic star bound for Stanford or Berkeley nor the incipient gangster on a trajectory toward prison. Nothing had mattered more to him than answering to his own muse.
In the audience that evening sat the few people who truly understood Geovani -- his friends Paul Canales and Nairoby Alvarez; his teachers Santiago Rodriguez and Michael Kinne. They had always savored the way Geovani wore a black leather trench coat to school even in the blowtorch Santa Ana winds, and how he turned a dog's leash into a looping watch chain worthy of a zoot-suited sharpie.
They knew of his passion for the books of Albert Camus, Herman Hesse and Ken Kesey, a passion belied by his indifference to grades and homework. Now, nearly three years later, the formal version of Geovani's graduation portrait, mortarboard atop head and stole draped over shoulders, hangs in the central office of South Gate High. He came by this distinction in the grimmest way, killed last month by a roadside bomb while serving as a Navy hospitalman in Iraq. He was 20 years old and, the last his friends had heard, reading ''The Divine Comedy.''
IT is a terrible and obvious truth of war that the young fight and die -- the average age of the American fatalities in Iraq is 26 1/2 -- and so these losses echo in a particular way through the high schools the victims so recently left. In grief and commemoration, their survivors often reach for a certain vocabulary, phrases like ''honor roll,'' ''dean's list'' and ''role model,'' as if the demise of a B-minus student should somehow harrow everyone less. Geovani Padilla, though, lived and died as a reminder that being in high school means yearning and searching, trying to assemble a self. Geovani was a work in progress, one that can never be completed. All the sundered strands of possibility are what his friends and mentors from South Gate mourn. On its surface, Geovani's life had followed a familiar itinerary in the Latino neighborhoods of Southern California. He was born in Guadalajara and crossed the border with his family illegally. The Padillas moved first into the Mexican enclave of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, and a decade later to a peach stucco bungalow in the factory town of South Gate, paid for with his father's wages for repairing cars.
Early on, though, Geovani had known the influence of uncles and aunts who were painters, sculptors, musicians. Sometimes he spent four or five hours after his elementary-school day in the local library, exploring the shelves.
By the time he was in junior high and his questions had outstripped his parents' modest educations, they bought him a set of encyclopedias on layaway. Maybe because he was the new kid at South Gate High, still missing his friends back in Boyle Heights, he started keeping a journal in the spring of his sophomore year.
''I need to express my thoughts in a safe way,'' he wrote. ''This will be my sanctuary and my personal keeper of secrets.'' With the poignant self-importance of a precocious teen, he took on the nom be plume of Mephisto, fallen angel. He put drawings, poems and memories into the pages. He recounted the struggles his parents had paying their bills. He confessed the unrequited crush he had on Nairoby. With a young man's sense of immortality, or perhaps a prescient fatalism, he expressed a fearlessness of death. He shared little of this with his teachers, for whom he was a vexation, an obviously gifted pupil coasting to B's and C's.
Then, in his junior year, Geovani met Michael Kinne and Santiago Rodriguez, two young teachers consigned to a trailer classroom that dealt with South Gate High's overflow. The son of immigrant farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley, a picker himself until age 14, Mr. Rodriguez recognized in Geovani a similar desire ''to transcend all economic and cultural barriers.'' The child of a single mother in a military town on the edge of the Mojave Desert, Mr. Kinne traced his own emancipation to studies at the University of California in Santa Cruz, that capital of iconoclasm.
WHATEVER these teachers assigned in their literature courses, Geovani devoured -- ''Song of Solomon,'' ''Fahrenheit 451,'' ''Oedipus Rex,'' ''The Catcher in The Rye.'' The morning after Mr. Kinne had distributed copies of ' 'The Stranger'' by Camus, Geovani came to class having read it and saying: ' 'That was good. Do you have anything else like it?'' So Mr. Kinne gave him Jean-Paul Sartre's essay ''Existentialism Is a Humanism.''
At lunchtime and after school, Geovani went to see the teachers in their trailer, offering up his own analogies between classical works and popular culture.
Plato's allegory of the cave reminded him of the Jim Carrey film ''The Truman Show''; he contrasted the dystopia of ''Lord of the Flies'' to the sunny version of shipwreck in ''Gilligan's Island.'' And Jake Gyllenhaal's role as a troubled teenager in ''Donnie Darko,'' he wanted Mr. Kinne and Mr. Rodriguez to realize, was very, very existential.
So, a month after graduation, both teachers were shocked to hear that their protege had enlisted in the Navy. When Mr. Kinne asked why, Geovani talked about using military service to speed up his path to American citizenship and get scholarship money for college. In the meantime, the Navy would let him see the world. He wrote in his journal about wanting to touch the stones of ancient Rome.
In Geovani's last letter to his friend Nairoby , he described the sight of a gaggle of Iraqi girls walking to school amid the ''rubble of shot down buildings, trash that has been spilled, dirty and stray dogs, wrecked and burned cars, blood stains, bullet holes.'' He also had sent her a typewritten ' 'Declaration of Intent,'' in which he admitted, ''I have the darkest feeling I won't be coming back.''