Selected Longform Journalism Pieces

"Women vs. The Machine." Is AI Sexist? In the not-so-distant future, artificial intelligence will be smarter than humans. But as the technology develops, absorbing cultural norms from its creators and the internet, it will also be more racist, sexist, and unfriendly to women.

By Erika Hayasaki, Foreign Policy magazine, January/February 2017 issue.

It started as a seemingly sweet Twitter chatbot. Modeled after a millennial, it awakened on the internet from behind a pixelated image of a full-lipped young female with a wide and staring gaze. Microsoft, the multinational technology company that created the bot, named it Tay, assigned it a gender, and gave “her” account a tagline that promised, “The more you talk the smarter Tay gets!”

“hellooooooo world!!!” Tay tweeted on the morning of March 23, 2016.

She brimmed with enthusiasm: “can i just say that im stoked to meet u? humans are super cool.”

She asked innocent questions: “Why isn’t #NationalPuppyDay everyday?”

Tay’s designers built her to be a creature of the web, reliant on artificial intelligence (AI) to learn and engage in human conversations and get better at it by interacting with people over social media. As the day went on, Tay gained followers. She also quickly fell prey to Twitter users targeting her vulnerabilities. For those internet antagonists looking to manipulate Tay, it didn’t take much effort; they engaged the bot in ugly conversations, tricking the technology into mimicking their racist and sexist behavior. Within a few hours, Tay had endorsed Adolf Hitler and referred to U.S. President Barack Obama as “the monkey.” She sex-chatted with one user, tweeting, “DADDY I’M SUCH A BAD NAUGHTY ROBOT.”

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Traces of Times Lost: How childhood memories shape us, even after we've forgotten them.

By Erika Hayasaki, The Atlantic. (Nov. 29, 2016) Also featured on Longreads.com.

Image credit: Minnikova Mariia / Shutterstock / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Image credit: Minnikova Mariia / Shutterstock / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

The slippery baby in the plastic blue tub cringes when her daddy, holding a drippy orange washcloth, leaks a bit of water in her face. He is bathing her for the first time. “Make sure you get the folds in her neck, where milk hides,” I say, video recording the scene on my iPhone. We are new parents delighting in and stumbling through this moment.

The three-year-old girl with pink paint-chipped toenails watches my iPhone video of that day when Daddy bathed her for the first time. She cringes as she sees her smaller self  cringe. My daughter requested this clip out of more than 400, all starring her, most of which she has watched before. We are snuggled up on the sofa. Her eyes fixate on the feet of the squirming infant on screen. She knows she was once that newborn. “Babies don’t get nail polish,” she says, looking down to admire her toddler feet. “I’m a big girl now.”

“Do you remember being a baby?” I ask, knowing it may be a trick question.

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The Investigator: Fingerprints. Eyewitness accounts. Bite marks. All suspect? The L.A. public defender’s office decided it needed a scientist.

By Erika Hayasaki, The California Sunday Magazine (December 1, 2016)

Photographs by Dru Donovan.

Photographs by Dru Donovan.

Erin Morris keeps a document on her computer with a rundown of subjects she has advised on in recent years. Sexsomnia (sexual behavior during sleep), machete-chop wounds, canine-scent detection, rape-trauma syndrome (how rape can affect a victim’s personality and behavior), pathological gambling, pediatric-onset bipolar disorder, crime-lab comparisons of duct tape and zip ties, the effects of pesticide use in the 1970s in South Korea, and the impact of gruesome photographs on jurors’ decision-making. That’s just a partial list.

Morris is a behavioral-sciences research analyst for the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office, the first person to ever hold the job. In recent years, forensic and behavioral sciences have evolved so quickly that it’s impossible for most of the office’s approximately 700 lawyers to keep up. This is where Morris comes in. 

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How Poverty Affects the Brain: New research reveals the connection between stress, poverty and brain development in children. 

By Erika Hayasaki, Newsweek (Sept. 2, 2016 cover story)

The video tells the story of Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner from Pakistan who at 15 survived being shot in the head by the Taliban while riding a bus in 2012. “I want to get my education, and I want to become a doctor,” she says, adding that the Taliban throw acid on some people’s faces and kill others, but “they cannot stop me.”

A 15-year-old boy watching the clip on a laptop inside the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute seems unmoved by Yousafzai’s story—his face is blank, his shoulders slumped. An interviewer asks how it makes him feel.

He shrugs: “I don’t know.” Nothing.

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Teaching Prison Inmates About Their Own Brain Trauma Could Help Them Rehabilitate: A startling number of convicted criminals have a history of traumatic brain injury.

By Erika Hayasaki, Newsweek (July 18, 2016 issue). 

Photo by BENJAMIN RASMUSSEN FOR NEWSWEEK

Photo by BENJAMIN RASMUSSEN FOR NEWSWEEK

A hairless, pale-pink scar runs across the back of 35-year-old Bryce Mickelson’s buzz-shaved head, an inch-long reminder of just one of the many brain injuries he’s had in his life. At 3, he ran in front of a car and woke up from a coma in the hospital. At 7, a kid threw a rock at his face, ripping it open. At 12, he crashed his bike, his helmetless skull slamming into concrete. Mickelson’s noggin has been banged, bruised and split open so many times he can’t remember every injury. But he never considered the long-term impact of them until he ended up in jail.

Mickelson has served time for theft, domestic violence, distributing narcotics and possession of a weapon and drugs. His most recent stint inside of the Denver County Jail came after a trespassing charge. “Hey, maybe I’m just stupid,” says Mickelson, sitting in a courtyard outside of his cell, his blue eyes droopy and his gray inmate’s uniform shapelessly draped like nurse’s scrubs over his 6-foot-2-inch frame. He seems to have always had trouble with learning, memory, anxiety and impulsivity. He could have been born this way—or, he admits, it could be due to drugs, which he started using at the age of 8. He’s tried everything from marijuana to heroin, to LSD and cocaine. Or, he says, it “could be from a brain injury.”

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In a Perpetual Present: The strange case of the woman who couldn't remember her past—and can't imagine her future.

By Erika Hayasaki, Wired (April 2016 issue). Also featured on Longreads.com and Longform.com 2016 Best of Science writing.

Learn how photographer Alma Haser created the images for this story here

Learn how photographer Alma Haser created the images for this story here

Like many American couples of modest but comfort­able means, Susie Mc­Kinnon and her husband, Eric Green, discovered the joys of cruise vacations in middle age. Their home in a quiet suburb of Olympia, Washington, is filled with souvenirs and trinkets from their travels. There’s a plastic lizard in the master bathroom with the words “Cayman Islands” painted on it. From Curaçao there’s a framed patchwork collage made of oilcloth hanging in the entrance hall. On the gray summer day when I visit them, we all sit comfortably in their living room, Green decked out in a bright shirt with “Bermuda Islands” emblazoned on it, from a cruise in 2013. As they regale me with talk of their younger selves and their trips to Jamaica, Aruba, Cozumel, and Mazatlán, they present the very picture of well-adjusted adulthood on the verge of retirement.

Except for one fairly major thing.

As we chat, McKinnon makes clear that she has no memories of all those cruises. No memories of buying the lizard or finding that oilcloth collage. She doesn’t remember any vacation she’s ever taken. In fact, she cannot recall a single moment in her marriage to Green or before it.

Before you start to brace yourself for one of those stories—about the onset of dementia, the slow dissolve of a marriage into a relationship of unrequited love, the loss of self—let me reassure you: McKinnonhasn’t lost anything. She’s never been able to remember those experiences.

For decades, scientists suspected that someone like Susie McKinnon might exist. They figured she was probably out there, living an ordinary life—hard to tell apart from the next person in line at the grocery store, yet fundamentally different from the rest of us. And sure enough, they found her (or rather, she found them) in 2006.

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A Criminal Mind: For 40 years, Joel Dreyer was a respected psychiatrist who oversaw a clinic for troubled children, belonged to an exclusive country club, and doted on his four daughters and nine grandchildren. Then, suddenly, he became a major drug dealer. Why?

By Erika Hayasaki, The California Sunday Magazine (October 2015 issue). Also featured on Longform.org and Longreads.com.

In the 1980s, psychiatrist Joel Dreyer was a fixture on Detroit's WXYZ Channel 7. His commercials promoting his treatment center, InnerVisions, which he named after the Stevie Wonder album, sometimes ran up to five times a day. In one ad, Dreyer blocks a bartender from serving a mug of beer to a patron, and says, "Don't let your marriage or your job suffer from alcohol or drugs." In another, Dreyer, in a navy pinstriped suit with a white pocket square, looks into the camera, his expression concerned and sympathetic. "Don't you want to talk to someone who will listen?" he asks. "Someone who won't pass judgment? Someones who cares? Come talk to me."

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This Doctor Knows Exactly How You Feel: A rare condition causes Joel Salinas to experience other people's emotions and sensations. Is mirror-touch synesthesia a superpower or a curse?

By Erika Hayasaki, Pacific Standard (July/August 2015 issue). Also featured on Longform.org.

Photo by Mark Ostow for Pacific Standard

Photo by Mark Ostow for Pacific Standard

No one, it seemed, knew what the patient clutching the stuffed blue bunny was feeling. At 33, he looked like a bewildered boy, staring at the doctors who crowded into his room in Massachusetts General Hospital. Lumpy oyster-sized growths shrouded his face, the result of a genetic condition that causes benign tumors to develop on the skin, in the brain, and on organs, hindering the patient’s ability to walk, talk, and feel normally. He looked like he was grimacing in pain, but his mother explained that her son, Josh, did not have a clear threshold for pain or other sensations. If Josh felt any discomfort at all, he was nearly incapable of expressing it.

“Any numbness?” asked Joel Salinas, a soft-spoken doctor in the Harvard Neurology Residency Program, a red-tipped reflex hammer in his doctor’s coat pocket. “Like it feels funny?”

Josh did not answer.

Salinas pulled up a blanket, revealing Josh’s atrophied legs. He thumped Josh’s left leg with the reflex hammer. Again, Josh barely reacted. But Salinas felt something: The thump against Josh’s left knee registered on Salinas’s own left knee as a tingly tap. Not just a thought of what the thump might feel like, but a distinct physical sensation.

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Drowned by Corn
By Erika Hayasaki

THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE: '"Drowned by Corn" is a gripping narrative of tenderness and horror, friendship and loss."

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE: "What elevates this fine work of investigative journalism is her portrayal of Will in the aftermath: his survival guilt, his struggle with alcohol and drugs, his strained relationships and his eventual discovery of a way to endure his and his town’s unspeakable losses."

By Erika Hayasaki, a Kindle Single (Amazon), also featured on Longreads.com. and on The Atlantic.com

The sky showed its nerve that July in 2010 in Mount Carroll, Illinois, a blip of a town, home to 1,700, 20 miles east of the Mississippi River and Iowa border. For 33 hours, 10 inches of rain fell in heaves, pushing the Plum and Waukarusa rivers to spill over, swallowing hundreds of acres of corn and soybean fields. The town’s only dugout and baseball diamonds disappeared. The interstate overpass and railroad tracks were engulfed. When the rain finally dissipated, cars and swing sets sat submerged in chin-high water. Parts of Mount Carroll had become a Hennessey-colored lake, with overturned train cars and pieces of fences clinking about like ice cubes. Residents steered motorboats and canoes through washed-out neighborhoods. The chief of police sailed to work. A live cow caught in the current bobbed in the water like a buoy.

But the storm itself did not take any lives, and within a few days its potential for peril had already been lost on some. To Will Piper and Alex “Paco” Pacas, both 19, the swollen rivers dared them to jump from bridges and to ride rubber inner tubes wherever the fast-rushing currents might take them. In the Waukarusa, which snaked behind Will’s parents’ house, Paco lost control and went flying downstream, slamming into a tree limb, and tumbling off his tube. Will jumped in after him, and the two made it to dry ground. They shared a good laugh over the feat. It was not the first time Will had saved his best friend. Once, they got the idea to swim the Mississippi River. Paco started to struggle halfway out. Will had to swim with his arms around him, helping Paco to land.

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Living With Being DeadThis terrifying disorder turns people into zombies, into living, breathing ghosts; they believe they died, or never existed. And somewhere in their brains may be the key to human consciousness.

By Erika Hayasaki, Matter

April 28, 2015

I’ve come to Mexico City to find the real walking dead.

Glancing around the courtyard of the walled-off National Institute of Neurology and Neurosurgery, you might think this place is filled with them. Two dozen patients chew and pick at their lunches of yellow chicken legs and bread rolls, while others slump listlessly around a courtyard. Some are catatonic. Blank. Others are simply bodies in beds, slumbering beneath the sheets, unconscious in the afternoon. One woman with flared nostrils presses a bony shoulder into her mattress, cradling her emaciated body.

Most of the patients here have been diagnosed with garden-variety neurological disorders: schizophrenia, dementia, psychosis, severe depression, or bipolarism. But the ones I am searching for are different. They suffer from an affliction even more puzzling: They believe that they are dead.

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Photo by BRET HARTMAN FOR NEWSWEEK

Photo by BRET HARTMAN FOR NEWSWEEK

The Debate Over an Autism Cure Turns HostileOne activist's search for a cure is drawing a violent backlash.

By Erika Hayasaki, Newsweek

Feb. 18, 2015

Jonathan Mitchell arrives at Boardwalk 11, a Culver City, California, karaoke bar, well ahead of the Saturday night crowd, takes his usual barstool in the back and nurses his usual glass of cranberry juice. A woman in heels and black Lycra leggings is singing Garth Brooks, “Friends in Low Places.” I'm not big on social graces, think I'll slip on down to the oasis. Behind the bar table, Mitchell’s hands flap and flail about so softly most would not even notice his self-soothing fidgeting.

At 59, Mitchell easily admits that he is lonely. He walks with heavy shoulders, and a facial expression that is part grin, part grimace. His social life revolves around weekly dinners with his parents, both in their 80s. He can’t keep a job. He can’t find a girlfriend. He paces, obsesses, repeats himself and sometimes doesn’t realize when he’s saying something rude. Mitchell blames it all on his autism. “I hate it,” he says. “It’s a horrible disability. I wish there were a cure.”

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The End of Eyewitness Testimonies: As science seeps into the courtroom, memory-as-evidence fades into the background.

By Erika Hayasaki, Newsweek

Nov. 19, 2014

Raindrops blurred the windows of the maroon Pontiac van as it rolled to a stop near an interstate on-ramp in Knoxville, Tennessee, one dark March morning in 1991. “Stay tucked,” John Cook told his wife, Yvonne, who stirred from her sleep next to him. “I’m going to check the map.”

It was just after 5 a.m., and the Wisconsin couple were already 12 hours into their Diet Coke–fueled drive to North Carolina to visit friends. They planned to drive straight through dawn, and had removed the backseats, replacing them with a bedroll so one could rest while the other steered. From behind the wheel, John clicked on the overhead map light. Rain fell so heavily that Yvonne couldn’t see through the glass. When she heard the first blast, it seemed to come out of nowhere. Then there was another. She saw John, now slumped over.

A man with a gun appeared. He was trying to smash the driver’s side window and unlock the door. “Get him out of the seat!” he yelled at Yvonne, getting into the car. She unbuckled her husband, catching a look at the intruder’s face as the dome lights came on. John had been shot twice in the head. His left ear bled. He fell into her lap.

On the floor of the van between the front seats, with her husband dying in her arms, Yvonne could see the gunman’s profile. He took control of the van, and sped off while holding the .22-caliber rifle to her head, until he finally pulled off the road. “Shut up,” he told her. “Don’t look at me.”

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Illustration by Sally Madden for Narratively

Illustration by Sally Madden for Narratively

Sweaty as Hell and Staring Down DeathSaid to mimic end-of-life experiences, an ancient Native American sweat lodge ceremony has drawn new devotees, all eager to understand what it feels like to die.

By Erika Hayasaki, Narratively

April 7, 2014

Just outside of the sweat lodge, a woman in a leopard-print sarong stares into a bonfire. Her tightly coiled black hair has fallen limp from the rain. She is barefoot and kneeling in the mud in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, her glasses tucked away somewhere dry. She has lost track of time.

Her name is Diane Bryan, a fifty-one-year-old single mom, Navy veteran and mid-career college student from Newark, New Jersey. She is part of our group of a dozen here at a sweat lodge on a voluntary field trip for a class we are taking at Kean University on death and dying. We stick out flamboyantly in the woods like the urbanites we are. One young woman daintily balances a pink and green Alpha Kappa Alpha umbrella over her head. Another sports French-manicured acrylic fingernails and a shoulder tattoo of a heart pierced by an arrow.

The professor of the death class has taken us on field trips to places like the morgue, a maximum-security prison, a hospice facility and a funeral home. She gives some of her class lectures in the cemetery. She tells us that experiencing a Native American sweat lodge, with heat that can reach up to 120 degrees, can feel like a near-death experience.

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Life of a Police Officer: Medically and Psychologically RuinousThe intensely challenging job of law enforcement is linked to many health issues. I met a former officer who tried to protect my high school friend and learned the effect her death had on him.

By Erika Hayasaki, The Atlantic. Also featured on Longreads.com

March 14, 2014

Police officer Brian Post recognized the 16-year-old girl lying face down in the grass at the Whispering Pines apartment complex in Lynnwood, Washington. He had gotten to know her in recent weeks, helping her obtain a restraining order against her abusive ex-boyfriend. Now, here was Sangeeta Lal, unconscious, with two bullets in her chest.

He knew she was a good kid. Brian had spoken to Sangeeta over the phone just a few hours earlier. He knew her mom worked the early shift, and she would be alone. He promised he would come immediately if anything went wrong.

The call came into 911 at 4:18 a.m. that someone was breaking into her apartment. James McCray, 21, had arrived dressed in dark clothes and a red and black stocking cap, according to police reports. He chased Sangeeta outside. “Please don’t,” neighbors heard Sangeeta scream, before he shot her.

Brian didn’t make it to the complex in time. He found her sprawled just beyond the sliding glass door of her neighbor’s apartment. He looked up and saw a little girl peering through a window at the teenager in the grass. He felt Sangeeta’s neck. It pulsed, and pulsed again. Then, no more. He touched her face.

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Screenshot 2015-05-17 23.11.28.png

A Lesser-Known Dementia That Steals PersonalityFrontotemporal dementia, unlike Alzheimer's, often hits people in the prime of their lives, and can make them act like a completely different person.

By Erika Hayasaki, The Atlantic

Jan. 9, 2014

It was the annual Labor Day tradition for the Savini family, a makeshift version ofThe Gong Show performed before the neighborhood on a wooden deck stage at their beach house in Massachusetts. In past years, Nicole Savini’s mom and friends dressed up in nightgowns as the housewives version of The Supremes, singing “Stop in the Name of Love” into wooden spoons.

To the Savinis each year, it’s seriously funny business—as if they’re performing at the Apollo, said Nicole, 36, whose humorous background has influenced her sensibilities at The Colbert Report on Comedy Central, where she is a senior producer.

The theme this year involved a tongue-in-cheek skit on global warming, with the family singing rewritten lyrics to “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” complete with a fake weathercast warning of Sharknado’s arrival, as well as the Lobster-pocolypse and Clamageddon. Nicole’s dad, John, dressed up as a shark from Jamaica.

But one person was emotionally absent from the production, though physically present: Nicole’s mom, Kathy.

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How Many of Your Memories Are Fake?When people with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory—those who can remember what they ate for breakfast on a specific day 10 years ago—are tested for accuracy, researchers find what goes into false memories.

By Erika Hayasaki, The Atlantic. Also featured on Longform.org

Nov. 18, 2013

One afternoon in February 2011, seven researchers at the University of California, Irvine sat around a long table facing Frank Healy, a bright-eyed 50-year-old visitor from South Jersey, taking turns quizzing him on his extraordinary memory.

Observing from outside of the circle, I tape-recorded the conversation as one researcher tossed out a date at random: December 17, 1999. 

“Okay,” Healy replied, “Well, December 17, 1999, the jazz great, Grover Washington Jr., died while playing in a concert.”

“What did you eat that morning for breakfast?”

“Special K for breakfast. Liverwurst and cheese for lunch. And I remember the song ‘You've Got Personality’ was playing as on the radio as I pulled up for work,” said Healy, one of 50 confirmed people in the United States with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, an uncanny ability to remember dates and events. “I remember walking in to work, and one of the clients was singing a parody to Jingle Bells, ‘Oh, what fun it is to ride in a beat up Chevrolet.’”

These are the kinds of specific details that writers of memoir, history, and journalism yearn for when combing through memories to tell true stories. But such work has always come with the caveat that human memory is fallible. Now, scientists have an idea of just how unreliable it actually can be. 

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The Girl Who Wouldn't Die: On a moonlit ride through L.A. with Mike, Vince, and Eddie, things go bad 

By Erika Hayasaki, The Big Roundtable. Also honored by the Society for Features Journalism Narrative Writing, 2014.

August, 13, 2013

If her father were alive, Christina Martinez knew, he would not approve of her riding in this car, through these unfamiliar neighborhoods, with these three men. She looked out the window. The green Mitsubishi made its way down Beverly Boulevard, but not in Hollywood. Here the street stretched through the Los Angeles outskirts of Montebello and Pico Rivera, past the East L.A. sheriff’s station, past billboards in Spanish scrawled with graffiti, past check-cashing shops, liquor stores, taco stands, and men wearing long sleeves to cover their tattoos. This was a warm Tuesday in August 2009, and the moon was bright.

Christina, who was 20, called the men in the Eclipse her friends, but they were hardly more than acquaintances. She had hung out with them a few times, and they knew her boyfriend, Kilo, whom she had been dating for two months. She had spent much of this evening with Kilo at the home of his cousin, in Bellflower, north of Long Beach. The three men had stopped by, but mostly stayed outside.

When it came time to go, Kilo stayed behind. The men offered to give Christina a ride home. She accepted, because rides were not easy to come by, and because she’d accepted rides from the driver before. Christina and her son, Alexander, only a year old, lived with her mother, farther north in Lennox, next to Los Angeles International Airport. To the west was the beach. On the way, the men said, they might walk on the sand and smoke a little weed.

Christina was small, not even five feet tall. Even with the front seat pushed all the way back, she fit comfortably in the back, behind the driver. She wore shorts, Kilo’s black T-shirt, and Etnies, size 5 ½, with pink E’s on the sides. She had dark hair, freckles, arched eyebrows, piercings beneath her bottom lip, and a star tattooed on her right shoulder. She carried a white backpack with cow designs, along with a small red bag with a turtle print. Inside were her makeup, Social Security Card, zebra-printed sunglasses, and a marijuana pipe.

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Dead or Alive: A Kindle Single

"What happens when we die? In this brilliant and effecting meditation on death and what might lie beyond, former Los Angeles Times writer Erika Hayasaki pursues that very question, one with which she's become "quietly obsessed" since her college days when she moonlighted as an obit writer for a local Illinois newspaper. Hayasaki examines all aspects of the question, describing moving scenes of near-death and life-after-death experiences, exploring the science behind them, and tracing the emotional crescendo that comes with approaching death. Woven throughout is the story of her Uncle Richard, who survived a near-death experience 20 years ago, and who eventually succumbs to a chain-smoking habit that he'd kicked decades earlier. Hayasaki's telling of how she sought out and bonded with her bright but distant uncle is worth the price of admission alone. But for those who wonder what lies beyond, this is a must-read piece capable of generating real chills."  — Chris Schluep, Amazon

"Dead or Alive is a thought provoking eight chapter piece about Near Death Experiences that makes you re-think life." — Maya Fleischmann, IndieReader Review

"Hayasaki interviews NDE researchers, even finding a neurosurgeon who experienced an NDE himself. This is compelling reading. Who does not want to know if science can determine if death is final?"  — Jude Isabella, for Download the Universe, the science ebook review. Isabella writes about science, and her work has been published in The Walrus, New Scientist, Archaeology Magazine, and Canadian Geographic.


The Daughter: Her father shot them all. And she forgave him.

By Erika Hayasaki, Los Angeles Times Magazine cover story. Also honored by the Association of Sunday Feature Editors Awards.

Oct. 29, 2006

She blinked and wondered how long she had been asleep. She saw the Chanel ads and Vogue magazine pages taped to her white walls. She blinked again. Her head pounded. She saw the photos of her high school friends tacked to a bulletin board. Bin Na looked up at her twin bed. Why, she wondered, was she on the floor? Why was her head throbbing?

It was Saturday, April 8, 2006, but Bin Na Kim did not know it. All she could remember was the day before--her last day of school before spring break at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies. Bin Na, a 16-year-old sophomore, had eaten lunch with friends in her math classroom. She could not stop talking about New York. She would fly out the next evening with a classmate. They would tour New York University. They had tickets for "Chicago," the Broadway musical. Bin Na had arranged to borrow her best friend's gray peacoat.

Now, on her bedroom floor, Bin Na worried. Could it be Saturday already? What time was it? If this was Saturday, then she had to pack. Her flight was at 10 p.m.

Get up, she told herself. She lifted her head less than an inch. The pain knocked her back down. It felt like someone was squeezing her skull, trying to crush it. Her eyes watered. She looked at the white carpet and saw glistening puddles of blood. 

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Photos by Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times

Photos by Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times

Story of the Scarf Still Waits to be Told: Stained with the blood of a journalist killed in Iraq, it bonds two women — the widow who loved him and the translator who served him.

By Erika Hayasaki, Los Angeles Times, Page A-1, Column One

Dec. 17, 2007

NEW YORK — The Iraqi woman with bone-thin hands and a beauty mark on her right cheek holds secrets in her scarf.

It is yellow and stained with blood, and it made the journey with Nour Khal from a dark road in Basra to an airy bedroom in Manhattan. Now it is hidden in this East Village apartment that she shares with the widow.

The widow with sad, dark eyes and wisps of gray in her thick black hair doesn't want to know the secrets of the scarf. Lisa Ramaci looked at it once, touched it, and cried until the sun rose.

It is evening, and the rice pot is popping, the tea kettle steaming.

Khal helps herself to a bowl of saffron rice, taking big bites.

"Is it good?" Ramaci asks.

Khal nods. "I wouldn't exchange it for a man."

They laugh.

But they know that is not true. There is one man both would give anything to have with them again. His name was Steven Vincent, an American journalist. He is the man whose blood the scarf holds. Khal, 33, was his translator in Iraq. Ramaci, 51, was his wife.

He is why they are here now, sharing. He is why they find themselves on many nights in the kitchen, talking of dating, or family, or Iraq, until their talk suddenly turns to tears. Why did this happen? Why us? Why him?

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Photos by the Associated Press

Photos by the Associated Press

A Deadly Hush in Room 211, Then the Killer Returned: Bodies lay where only moments before the students were laughing about their French. "Shhh," one warned.

By Erika Hayasaki, Los Angeles Times, Page A-1. Livingston Award Finalist.

April 25, 2007

BLACKSBURG, VA.— The first pops echoed from a distance, but nobody thought much of it.

Construction crews had been hammering and drilling for weeks below the window of Room 211 in Norris Hall at Virginia Tech. Professor Jocelyne Couture-Nowak went on teaching.

The pops turned to muffled bangs -- then loud staccato blasts. They sounded close, like they were coming from the hall.

Please tell me that isn't what I think it is, Madame Couture said.

It's just hammers, a student reassured her. The professor opened the door and peeked outside, then slammed it shut.

Her face was white with terror.

Get to the back! Get under your desks! Madame Couture ordered. Call 911!

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Photos by Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times

Photos by Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times


Love Stories Buried No Longer: A history buff whose heart has been broken shares Valentines from a Victorian cemetery.

By Erika Hayasaki, Los Angeles Times, Page A-1

February 14, 2008

PHILADELPHIA, PA. — On a stretch of land here dusted with the wings of sycamore seeds, love stories lie underground with the dead.

There is the human heart buried next to the man who first captured it. The body of a banker whose wife left him for a famous actor. The couple hit by a train after a wedding reception.

Time threatened to wash away the long-lost tales of romance and heartache trapped in Laurel Hill Cemetery, a Victorian-style graveyard overlooking the Schuylkill River.

Along came Gwen Kaminski, a history buff whose heart had been broken before she was hired at Laurel Hill. She worked in the cemetery's main office, which held a rich archive of yellowed burial records, newspaper obituaries and wedding announcements donated by historians and families over the years, along with rows of heavy, rusted keys that unlock century-old mausoleums.

For two years, Kaminski, 29, kept to herself running cemetery programs. As fall gave way to this winter, she strolled the burial ground blanketed in brown grass and bare oaks, thinking of the bones beneath her feet. What lessons, she wondered, loomed behind those faded unfamiliar names etched in dirt-smudged stone, those of the dead with last wishes to rest forever next to one they loved? What happens to feelings when they are buried with the people they belonged to?

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Photos by Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times

Photos by Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times

He Died in Vast Isolation: To the world, Vincenzo Riccardi was the `Mummified Man,' found in front of his TV after 13 months. His life was the saddest poetry.

By Erika Hayasaki, Los Angeles Times, Page A-1, Column One

March 31, 2007

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — THE blind man died alone in front of his television in a lounge chair, near a table covered with medicine bottles wrapped in rubber bands and a cereal box stuffed with mail. Each rubber band marked a prescription he recognized by touch. Each envelope contained information he could not read. He never received letters, only bills. 

A neighbor called police after she noticed a pipe had burst at his house. His double-door garage was cloaked in a frozen waterfall. Police discovered the man inside, still as the icy water. His television still buzzing, his living room blanketed with dead flies. His electric bills had gone unpaid, but the company for some inexplicable reason had not shut off power. Warm air had preserved his face almost perfectly, like a dried rose.

They found him 13 months after his final breath.

Headlines called him the "Mummified Man." Media as diverse as his hometown weekly newspaper in Southampton and newscasts in India and Japan reported the death of 70-year-old Vincenzo "Ricardo." Hardly anyone got his last name right -- it was Riccardi.

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Photos by Jennifer Altman, for the Los Angeles Times

Photos by Jennifer Altman, for the Los Angeles Times


A Mother Never Forgets: As others talk of moving on, Carol Ashley visits the place where her Janice died.

By Erika Hayasaki, Los Angeles Times, Page A-1

Sept. 12, 200

NEW YORK — Sitting in a chair just after 7:30 a.m., beneath the amber glow of a hallway light, Carol Ashley leans over and ties the laces on an old pair of sneakers. She slips her good shoes into her purse. She knows it will be muddy in the pit.

Outside, the sky is gray and rain slaps her windows. Six years ago on a Tuesday morning nothing like this one, Ashley's 25-year-old daughter, Janice, stood in this hallway wearing a taupe dress suit, a silver watch and her great-grandmother's pearl earrings. She carried a gym bag. She was on her way to work on the 93rd floor of the World Trade Center's north tower.

"She said, 'Bye, Mom,' " says Ashley, 61, putting on a black trench coat that used to belong to Janice, before heading to the ground zero memorial. "Then she was gone."

On the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Ashley does not know if the day will bring her to tears. She does not know if it will be easier than every other year she has gone to ground zero. Each time, it was clear and sunny, like it was on that horrible day. On this morning, Ashley is happy for the rain.

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Photos by Jennifer S. Altman, Los Angeles Times

Photos by Jennifer S. Altman, Los Angeles Times


A Gay Muslim, Tested by Faith and by Family: Aliyah Bacchus returns home to offer a choice: Accept her sexuality, or lose her forever.

By Erika Hayasaki, Los Angeles Times, Page A-1, Column One

Dec. 17, 2008

NEW YORK — All she has left of the person she used to be is contained in a 5-by-7 photo album with "Aliyah Bacchus" written in blue pen on its cover, each picture inside tucked beneath a slip of clear plastic.

There she is at 17, barely 90 pounds, smiling sourly on her wedding day in Queens, N.Y., dressed in hijab -- a pearl-toned princess bridal gown shimmering with beads, her slender hands dipped in sleek white gloves, a veil attached to a white qimar, or head scarf, fastened snugly around her face. The man her father chose for her stands behind Aliyah wearing a black bow tie, his hands resting on her bony shoulders.

That was before. Before she walked out on the marriage. Before her Guyana-born Muslim family discovered she was gay. Before she fled. 

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Photos by Jim Cole, Associated Press

Photos by Jim Cole, Associated Press


Evading Death and Taxes: A couple have been holed up for months, refusing to pay the IRS or go to prison. It's a battle that might end in bloodshed.

By Erika Hayasaki, Los Angeles Times, Page A-1, Column One

July 20, 2007

PLAINFIELD, N.H. — SHE sits on the lookout in a lawn chair on their front porch, her forehead glossy with sweat, Bible next to her left foot, wind chimes clinking at her back. Her husband of 24 years is by her side, German shepherd at his knee, handgun tucked beneath the belt on his jeans.

High in these humid hills, Ed and Elaine Brown have been holed up in their home for six months, refusing to serve a five-year prison sentence for tax evasion. They all but dared law officials to come and get them. This, they say, is a fight they're ready to die for.

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Photos by Carlos Chavez, Los Angeles Times

Photos by Carlos Chavez, Los Angeles Times


A Painful Course to College: As Betsy Perez of Highland Park realizes her dream of going away to school, her father wakes up to the reality of just how far away.

By Erika Hayasaki, Los Angeles Times, Page A-1, Column One

August. 18, 2006

LOS ANGELES — Ever since she was a little girl, Betsy Perez had known she wanted to go to college some place far away. Some place different from Highland Park, where she lived. In second grade, she wrote in a journal that one day she would attend Harvard.

Always, Betsy's father dismissed his daughter's grand plans with a soft smile. Sergio Perez, a truck driver, knew his children would have great opportunities. That was why he left Guatemala for the United States. He knew that one day she would become far more successful than he was. He knew that Betsy, a Franklin High School student, would attend a university. And it would be close to him.

In a blink, his daughter turned 18. A young woman now, with her father's personality. Smart and stubborn. Betsy called herself a feminist. She wanted to become a political reporter. She drew a picture of Rosie the Riveter and hung it on her bedroom wall, and she still talked of going to a university far away.

Sometimes when Perez got mad at Betsy, he would say, "Ahhh. Go off to your college."

Never did he believe she would.

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Photos by Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times

Photos by Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times


A Scrapbook Career in Shreds: Kristina Contes was known in crafting circles for her avante-garde designs, celebrating Converse sneakers and her hairless terrier, Chloe. But with one mistake, her worled turned on her.

By Erika Hayasaki, Los Angeles Times, Page A-1, Column One

Jan. 12, 2008

RONKONKOMA, N.Y. — They called her "labelwhore," this 28-year-old rising star in the world of scrapbooking, with a silver stud in her lip and a tattoo in Latin on her left forearm: "Art is long, life is short."

Before the Internet bullies bashed her and judges revoked her title in the scrapbooking Hall of Fame, Kristina Contes basked in a reputation built on making pages dedicated to her designer handbags, her Converse sneakers and the word "dude." She showcased her avant-garde designs on websites like ScrapInStyleTV.com, traveled the country teaching classes, and turned down offers to go to Paris, London and Norway.

"It's kind of like being a rock star," Contes said. "It's not what you think scrapbooking is."

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Photos by Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times

Photos by Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times


A Very Dark Black Friday: Outside a Wal-Mart, a line became a shoving mob. A woman fell and broke her arm. The doors opened, and shoppers surged.

By Erika Hayasaki, Los Angeles Times, Page A-1, Column One

Dec. 6, 2008

NEW YORK — He took his last breath on a gray floor, between a row of soda machines and a device that disperses change for cans and plastics.

Trampled by a mob of bargain-hungry Black Friday shoppers, Jdimytai Damour, 34, died by asphyxiation, leaving people across the world asking: Why, and how?

Audio-enhanced chatter captured on a cellphone video posted on YouTube, along with interviews with witnesses, offers a hint. The video shows a police officer crouching by a 6-foot-5, 270-pound man lying at the entrance of a Long Island Wal-Mart. A paramedic pumps the man's chest so forcefully his limp legs and feet joggle. Shoppers peer in from behind glass doors, as others stand a few feet away, hands in pockets.

"They need to shock him," a voice says. The paramedic stops pumping.

The man's shirt has been pulled to his neck, revealing his large belly. A woman in the crowd mutters "pregnant." Another cracks a joke.

The women begin to laugh.

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Photos by Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times

Photos by Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times

Finding Life's Meaning in Death: Students in a college class visit the dead, the dying and convicted murderers. Along the way, they learn to value what they have.

By Erika Hayasaki, Los Angeles Times, Page A-1, Column One (article the inspired the book, The Death Class: A True Story About Life)

Sept. 3, 2008

UNION, N.J. — The dead man lies naked on a metal table, a small cloth covering his groin, mouth open, arms rigid and cocked.

A blue-gloved autopsy technician thrusts a hefty razor into his chest, unzipping his brown skin to reveal a thick layer of yolk-colored fat. He pulls marbled meat from the bone.

The man was 30, an only son, married, a father of three. Around 9:40 p.m. the night before, someone shot him in the head. Now, a technician at the New Jersey Medical Examiner's Office in Newark is holding his lungs, tar-speckled as if covered with spores of mold.

Rebecca Schmidt, 21, a ponytailed biology major, stands over the body, alongside a dozen of her Kean University classmates midway through the eight-week summer course Death in Perspective.

"They're looking for the bullet; come see," says Professor Norma Bowe.

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Photos by Luis Sinco, Los Angeles Times.

Photos by Luis Sinco, Los Angeles Times.


Young Love, Old Divisions: An African American teenager and his Latina girlfriend are unwavering sweethearts at Jefferson High, where racial strife is a fact of life.

By Erika Hayasaki, Los Angeles Times, Page A-1, Column One.

May 13, 2006

LOS ANGELES — For weeks, Lionel Kelly studied the shy girl sitting a row ahead of him instead of his earth science lessons.

As any 14-year-old boy would, he first noticed how cute she was. Her smooth skin, pink as seashells. Black hair dyed the color of applesauce, curls sprayed stiff, twisted into a long ponytail.

It did not matter that he was black and she was a Latina, even on this Jefferson High School campus scarred by last year's violent student clashes that cut through black and brown like barbed wire. It did not matter to him, even as stories of racial brawls leaked out of other schools, jails, and juvenile halls.

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Photos by Annie Wells, Los Angeles Times

Photos by Annie Wells, Los Angeles Times


'Now the Giant Awakes:' An LA gang member and a boy drawn to the streets find refuge in writing. 

By Erika Hayasaki, Los Angeles Times, Page A-1, Column One

Oct. 10, 2007

LOS ANGELES — Hector Verdugo had no faith in this woman standing before him, promising she could change his life with words. He was 32, a gang member and ex-convict, and he had seen do-gooders like her before. They always left. Life never got better.

Luis Alfredo Jacinto, known as Freddy, had doubts, too. He was only 10 and toying with joining a tagging crew -- the first step toward gang life. The woman wanted him to write sentences beginning with "I am. . . " Freddy wrote: "I am bad because of the influence around me." "I am thinking about changing my life." But he added: "I am always going to be my homies crime partner."

The woman was Leslie Schwartz, 44, a published novelist. She taught a class of 12, put together by Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, an anti-gang program.

Boyle figured this composition class, launched with help from the nonprofit writing organization PEN USA, might keep young people out of trouble. Schwartz encouraged her students to write about what they knew. Over nine months, the narratives constructed by Hector and Freddy -- both in class and in their personal lives -- would consume her.

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Photos by Wally Skalij, Los Angeles Times

Photos by Wally Skalij, Los Angeles Times

Required School Prayer: At L.A.'s Washington Prep, it takes faith and hard work to keep college dreams alive -- and street smarts just to make it safely home.

By Erika Hayasaki, Los Angeles Times, Page A-1, Column One

Los Angeles Times. Dec. 14, 2004. Los Angeles Times Best Writing Award winner.

LOS ANGELES — Micah Grant begins his day under a clock, its hands pointed at 6:41 a.m., his hands clasped in prayer.

The 17-year-old is joined by his mother.

"Send divine angels from heaven around him," his mother says. "Keep him in perfect peace and harmony. Keep his surroundings in peace and harmony.

"Lord remember his friends today, oh God," she continues, "remember Washington Prep today."

Micah is about to leave for school. He is a senior at Washington Preparatory High School, located between Inglewood and the Harbor Freeway in one of Los Angeles' poorest and most violent neighborhoods.

Today, as on all school days, Micah must strategize.

Will he get the education he is hungry for? And will he make it home?

He selects his clothes with precision: Royal blue sweatpants, a safe color in his Crips neighborhood where baby blue implies gang ties. He wears a white T-shirt, a gang-neutral color, with a sports emblem on the back.

He doesn't dare wear red, the color of the Bloods, the Crips' longtime rival. "I wouldn't come home," he says. "I wouldn't make it."

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Photographs by Genaro Molino, Los Angeles Times.

Photographs by Genaro Molino, Los Angeles Times.


'It's Like You're Climbing Everest': Eleven boys thought they'd leave high school as they entered it -- together -- on graduation day. It wasn't that simple.

By Erika Hayasaki, Los Angeles Times, Page A-1.

Feb. 3, 2006

LOS ANGELES — Isaac Castillo watched uneasily as a pack of 15 boys streamed out of a Van Nuys McDonald's. They paraded across Balboa Boulevard, ignoring four lanes of traffic.

Isaac and four of his friends headed toward their car in the Del Taco parking lot. The other boys closed in.

One faced Isaac. You wanna fight?

All year, Isaac, 17, had dodged confrontations with this group of teenagers. A rivalry over a girl had escalated into a bitter grudge. Now whenever Isaac passed one of them in a school hallway, on a street corner, at a fast-food restaurant, he clenched his fists.

Despite some failing grades, fights and suspensions, Isaac had made it into the home stretch at Birmingham High School. Graduation was just a few weeks away. If he was caught fighting on this breezy afternoon, in a parking lot two blocks from Birmingham, the school would kick him out and bar him from commencement.

His pulse quickened beneath his gray hooded sweater.

Suddenly, a boy rose to Isaac's defense.

My friend is trying to graduate, said David Parraz. So if you have any problems with him, take them up with me.

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Photos and video by Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times

Photos and video by Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times


Islam, Punk and Questions: Hiba Siddiqui struggles with being a Muslim teen in America

By Erika Hayasaki, Los Angeles Times, Page A-1, Column One

WATCH VIDEO HERE

Nov. 19, 2008

SUGAR LAND, TEXAS — The front door shuts with a thud, and Hiba Siddiqui heeds her father's footsteps, heavy from a day at work, plodding across the foyer downstairs.

Time to change clothes, Hiba thinks, peeking her face over the balcony to shout "Hi, Baba!" before rushing into her bedroom, brightened by lime green and tangerine bed covers, splashed with the words "I ROCK." A magazine photo of a punk band called Anti-Flag is taped behind her door.

Hiba slips out of the white T-shirt with black letters that read "HOMOPHOBIA IS GAY," which she wore to Kempner High School, where she is a junior. It's one of a collection of slogans the 17-year-old has silk-screened on T-shirts in her bedroom, unbeknownst to her parents, both Muslim immigrants from Pakistan.

There are other aspects of Hiba's life lately she thinks they might not approve of either, like the Muslim punk music she has been listening to with lyrics such as "suicide bomb the GAP," or "Rumi was a homo." Or the novel she bought online, about rebellious Muslim teenagers in New York. It opens with: "Muhammad was a punk rocker, he tore everything down. Muhammad was a punk rocker and he rocked that town."

This much Hiba knows: She is a Muslim teenager living in America.

But what does that mean?

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Kanzius (1).jpg

Sending Cancer a Signal: John Kanzius, sorely weakened by leukemia treatments, drew on his life's work as a radio engineer to come up with his own battle plan.

By Erika Hayasaki, Los Angeles Times, Page A-1, Column One 

Los Angeles Times. Nov. 2, 2008

ERIE, PA. — When doctors told John Kanzius he had nine months to live, he quietly thanked God for his blessings and prepared to die.

Then 58, he had lived a good life, with a loving wife, two successful adult daughters and a gratifying career.

Now he had leukemia and was ready to accept his fate, but the visits to the cancer ward shook him. Faces haunted him, the bald and bandaged heads, bodies slumped in wheelchairs, and children who could not play.

Like him, they had endured chemotherapy treatments that caused their weight to plummet, hands to shake, bodies to weaken, and immune systems to break down to the point that the slightest germ could be deadly. Kanzius knew their agony. He believed if cancer didn't kill him first, the treatments surely would.

He thought there had to be a more humane way to treat cancer.

Kanzius did not have a medical background, not even a bachelor's degree, but he knew radios. He had built and fixed them since he was a child, collecting transmitters, transceivers, antennas and amplifiers, earning an amateur radio operator license. Kanzius knew how to send radio wave signals around the world. If he could transmit them into cancer cells, he wondered, could he then direct the radio waves to destroy tumors, while leaving healthy cells intact?

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Photos by Genaro Molino, Los Angeles Times 

Photos by Genaro Molino, Los Angeles Times 


A Cultural Divide on Campus: At Montebello High, as elsewhere in the state, Latinos split between the more Americanized and those drawn to their immigrant roots.

By Erika Hayasaki, Los Angeles Times, Page A-1, Column One.  Los Angeles Times Best Writing Award winner.

Dec. 3, 2004

LOS ANGELES — During lunch, there is a line at Montebello High School that students on either side rarely cross. Part gravel, part grass, it runs between a row of bungalows and buildings, lopping off the short end of the L-shaped quad.

They call this the border.

It separates rock music from ranchero. Cheerleaders from folklorico dancers. English from Spanish.

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Photos by Damon Winter

Photos by Damon Winter


A Writer Turns to Teaching: Beginning a new chapter in his life, Ricardo Acuna's first year as a new teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. 

By Erika Hayasaki, Los Angeles Times, page A-1. Livingston Award Finalist and Los Angeles Times Best Writing Award winner.

Dec. 19, 20 & 21, 2004 (Three-Part Series)

LOS ANGELES — He told them about himself, how he had been like them. "I can help you," he said, "I can help you."

One slept. Others stared, bored.

He had planned today's class carefully: His students would relate to him. They would ask his advice about college. Then he would divide them into teams and lead them in a tic-tac-toe spelling game.

They would compete fiercely. Excitedly.

A girl in the front row studied herself in the mirror of her compact. She ignored him.

This was Ricardo Acuna's third week as a teacher. Day after day, it was growing more difficult. He gave the girl a tense look. Then he wrote her name in red on the board: detention.

"Mister! I wasn't putting on makeup." She slammed her books on her desk. Then she crossed her arms and slumped in her seat.

"If you have an education," Ricardo told them all, "you can make a difference in your lives and your families' lives."

The hour passed without any sign that he was making much difference himself. When the bell rang, he forced a smile. "This isn't me," he told a visitor, as he gathered an armload of books and a brown briefcase stuffed with papers.

He walked down three flights of stairs to another classroom, where he would do the same thing all over again, with no better result.

It was starting to take a toll.

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