When Harry Shabazian crossed the finish line of the inaugural
City of Los Angeles Marathon on March 9, 1986, he was exhausted,
elated and inspired. Like so many first-time marathoners,
Shabazian, a teacher at Boyle Heights High School in East Los
Angeles, felt the satisfaction of setting a difficult goal for
himself and attaining it, of having gone beyond what he thought
were the limits of his endurance. He felt special. ``The next
thought I had,'' Shabazian says, ``was that this was exactly the
kind of experience some of my students could use.''
This is an article from the March 6, 1995 issue
Shabazian is a friendly bear of a man, a loud, enthusiastic
37-year-old native of Bulgaria who appears to have found his
calling at Boyle Heights High. Surrounded by neighborhoods that
are strafed occasionally by the gunfire of East L.A. gangs, Boyle
Heights is one of the 44 continuation high schools in the Los
Angeles Unified School District. These institutions are reserved
for students with serious motivation and discipline problems:
hard- core truants, the terminally bored, those who do more than
dabble in drugs and alcohol, gang members and other troublemakers
who don't belong in regular classrooms. ``The kids who end up
here,'' says Boyle Heights principal Brian Drew, ``are the terrors
of their high schools.''
In 11 years of teaching social studies, health and phys ed to
continuation school students, Shabazian has learned not only
counseling and crisis management but also seat-of-the-pants law
enforcement. He has broken up fights, confiscated switchblades,
dragged drunk or drugged students to school to sober up and stared
down the occasional thug pointing a firearm in his direction. He
discovered long ago that bad-ass attitudes and obey-no-rules
behavior are usually signs not of an abundance of confidence but
of a lack of it. ``Most of these kids come from broken,
dysfunctional families in which the only things they've been
recognized for are their failures,'' he says.
Shabazian has found that one of the best ways to reach these
students is to challenge them -- physically as well as
intellectually. With that in mind, he challenged seven of his
Boyle Heights students to train with him for the second Los
Angeles marathon, in 1987. None could run much farther than a mile
at first, but over the course of four months, with Shabazian's
guidance and encouragement, the students turned themselves into
long-distance runners. Because the minimum age for the marathon at
that time was 18, Shabazian fudged the students' ages on their
race applications. The group spent the night before the race
camped on the floor of his classroom. Six of the seven students
finished that marathon.
In 1988 Shabazian's training group grew to 12, and the following
year two other L.A. continuation school teachers, Paul Trapani and
Eric Spears of Aliso High in the San Fernando Valley, heard about
the Boyle Heights runners and challenged some of their own
students to train for the marathon. In 1990 L.A. Board of
Education president Roberta Weintraub, recognizing a unique
educational tool when she saw one, suggested that the marathon
training be broadened into a citywide program and promoted in
regular high schools as well as continuation schools. At the first
organizational meeting, someone came up with the name Students Run
L.A., and it stuck.
With Shabazian, Trapani and Spears leading the way, the program
has grown beyond all expectations. Last year 1,026 students from
65 schools in Los Angeles and Orange counties entered the race;
996 of them finished it. This year more than 1,400 Southern
California students are preparing for the 10th Los Angeles
marathon on March 5.
For many of these students the marathon is simply a motivational
and athletic challenge, but for others it is much more. Among the
continuation school students, preparing for and finishing a
26-mile race often does nothing less than change their lives.
``It's given me the courage to do anything I want to do,'' says
22-year-old Alex Miramontes, one of 110 students whom Shabazian
helped whip into shape for the 1994 marathon. ``I have a whole new
perspective now. If I have work to do or if I have to face a
responsibility, instead of thinking of it as a problem, I think of
it as a challenge. I look forward to it instead of avoiding it.
You apply the same concept you learn in marathon training to
school, to your job, to the rest of your life. You just don't
Miramontes was an honor-society student in junior high, but by the
eighth grade he was spending more time with his friends in East
L.A.'s Clarence Street gang than he was in school. Miramontes is
extremely polite and has an engaging smile, but he earned the gang
nickname Killer in Disguise from his Clarence Street colleagues
and was kicked out of three high schools before he ended up at
Boyle Heights five years ago. There he started training with
Shabazian's marathon group, but his former ``career,'' as he calls
it, got in the way. He had several run-ins with the law, doing two
months in L.A.'s Central Juvenile Hall on a weapons charge,
landing in a jail in Valencia for three months for stealing a car
and getting deeply involved in drugs. More than once Shabazian
rescued Miramontes when he was drunk or strung out.
But it took nearly dying in a gang incident to convince Miramontes
that he had hit bottom. While on a drive-by shooting spree with
some friends two years ago, he got caught in return fire from a
rival gang and was shot in the face. ``When I woke up,'' he
recalls of his stay in the hospital, ``the first thing I saw was
my mom's face. She didn't have any more tears to cry. I knew I had
to change my life.''
Miramontes eventually graduated from Roosevelt High, whose
principal had agreed to give him another chance, and got a job in
a nearby hospital lab. He is now taking classes at East Los
Angeles College and hopes eventually to attend a four-year school.
Training for the marathon helped him complete the process of
remaking his life.
Scores of other continuation school students tell stories similar
to Miramontes's. As they work themselves into shape, Shabazian
explains, they develop self-discipline by learning to set goals --
minutes, miles, a pair of new running shoes -- and reaching them.
``They discover that they can accomplish something, and they start
thinking of themselves in positive terms for the first time. Then
they start talking about college,'' Shabazian says. ``And they're
thinking about it in the right way. It's not, If only I could go.
. . . It's, When I go. . . .''
The students, overseen by so-called teacher-leaders, run on their
own time, after school and on weekends. As the marathon nears,
they compete in progressively longer weekend road races. The
teacher-leaders are encouraged to train with their students and
run the marathon with them. ``If the kids are willing to give up
their free time, we have to be willing to do the same,'' says
Shabazian. The goals of teaching haven't changed, he likes to say,
but the methods of achieving those goals have had to.
An hour spent roaming the corridors of a continuation school
offers ample proof of that. In Shabazian's classroom the
educational give-and-take is raucous and sometimes breathtakingly
profane. His students call him Harry, and they razz him as
mercilessly as he razzes them -- which helps explain the success
of his idea. For Shabazian, nothing big is worth doing without the
proper fanfare, so before his first fateful marathon he brashly
guaranteed to his students that he would finish the race, despite
the fact that he had given himself only three weeks to train for
it. ``It wasn't one of my smarter moves,'' he says. ``My kids were
saying, `You won't hang' and other much less polite things. They
just loved getting in my face about it.''
Of the nearly 400 students from four East L.A. schools who have
trained with Shabazian, all but one have finished the race. The
graduation rate of his Boyle Heights runners is better than 75%
and more than three times the school's average. And Shabazian is
known to all the other schools' marathon participants as well. He
is the Pied Piper of Students Run L.A., and each marathon morning
he crowds all the runners into the gym of Manual Arts High School,
a half-mile from the starting area, for a final pep talk.
``When you go home today after this marathon,'' he barked to the
sea of yellow Students Run L.A. caps that filled the bleachers
before the start of last year's race, ``you're going to make your
parents proud of you, you're going to make your friends envious,
and you're going to prove something to the people who didn't think
you could do it. And all of them are going to respect you. You've
come too far not to finish and bring home that medal.'' In
response there were whistles, whoops and chants of ``Har-ry!
``I'm just gonna keep going, like the Energizer Bunny,'' said
Miramontes as he shuffled toward the starting area, nervously
shaking his arms and legs to keep them loose. ``Last night I
pictured myself going up a hill, getting real tired, but I just
told myself, Get those negative thoughts out of your mind. If I
can go one-on-one on the street, I can run a marathon.''
Some 19,033 runners started the race; one out of every 19 of them
wore a yellow cap. There were 14,966 finishers; one out of every
15 was a Students Run L.A. participant. The first SRLA finisher
was Joel Menendez of Jefferson High School, who crossed the line
in three hours, nine minutes -- 57 minutes behind the winner, Paul
Pilkington. ``There were yellow caps everywhere,'' Menendez said.
``We're getting to be like an army.''
Miramontes finished in 5-1/2 hours, exhausted but happy. Twenty
miles into the race, he felt his legs starting to give out, so
near the 21-mile mark on Crenshaw Boulevard he stopped at a
McDonald's. He bought some fries and ate them as he ran. ``I
needed carbos,'' he said. ``My body was telling me I couldn't do
any more, but my heart wouldn't let me quit. I kept thinking of
all the people who know I'm doing this, my friends, the people I
work with, and I kept hearing them say, `What happened?' -- if I
hadn't finished. I want them to see this'' -- he held up his
finisher's medal -- ``and not have to say a thing.''
Shabazian finished his ninth marathon in 5:40, 35 minutes slower
than his first finish, a mark he has yet to beat. On other fronts,
though, he has far exceeded his initial goal. A few years ago some
of the pioneer student marathoners organized car washes to raise
entry-fee money, but Students Run L.A. now has six-figure
financial support from such disparate benefactors as the
California Wellness Foundation, the Amateur Athletic Foundation,
Shell Oil and Coca-Cola, and from Laidlaw Buses, which this year
will send 22 of its vehicles to schools all over greater Los
Angeles to transport the teenage army to the race. New Balance
sells the students heavily discounted running shoes, and marathon
organizers waive the $35 entry fee for SRLA participants.
Meanwhile, other cities have approached Students Run L.A. asking
for information and advice on starting similar programs.
For his part, Shabazian hopes to be ordering more yellow caps each
year. ``I like to think of us as the biggest gang in L.A.,'' he
says. ``A good gang, as in, `How's the gang?' All of us are having
a gang experience we'll remember the rest of our lives.''
Jim Harmon has written on a variety of subjects for Sports