Jervey Tervalon’s Novel “Understand This”

After writing his first and probably the most famous novel “Understand This”, Jervey Tervalon once said at the interview: “I’m trying to create a body of work focused on black life in south Los Angeles and the United States.” The main focus of his books is on the black life in south Los Angeles area. He writes in a documentary style leaving behind the entertainment hype. Jervey uses his talent and understanding of unfortunate truth of life today to express it in all its unpleasantness and brutality.

Jervey Tervalon was born in New Orleans, LA on October 23, 1958. His family soon afterwards moved toLos Angeles, California. This way he spent most of his childhood in Los Angeles. His father Hillary was a postman and his mother, Lolita used to work as a keypunch operator. Both of his parents supported Jervey in his striving for education and encouraged him to read and attend college when he reached the age.

Jervey Tervalon was raised in Central Los Angeles. Most of his inspiration for writing came from the teenage years when he was a troubled student and also from adult years, when he worked as a teacher. In 1980 he graduated from University of California in Santa Barbara and received his BA degree. Soon after receiving his diploma he started teaching English at a disadvantage school in Los Angeles called Locke High School.

In Locke High School he witnessed things that have touched his heart deeply. One of such great effects on him had the murder of a good student who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. A little time passed since then, and Tervalon left teaching at the High School and continued his education to afterwards pursuit creative writing career. He continued his studies in the University of California, Irvine, where he wrote his famous book titled “Understand This”. He published the book in 1994and received the New Voices Award for the Quality Paperback Club.

After this Jevrey Tervalon became widely recognized as an award-winning novelist. In 1996 “Understand This” won Gold Crown Award from the Pasadena Arts Council. He has taught writing and literature courses at numerous colleges and universities, including University of Southern California, U.C. Santa Barbara, and OtisSchool of the Arts, Cal State Los Angeles and UCLA. He was a Remsen Bird Writer in Residence at OccidentalCollege and is currently Writer in Residence at Pitzer College. He received the Josephine Miles Award 2001 from PEN Oakland for his novel Dead Above Ground and his other works include All The Trouble You Need, published last year by Pocket Books, and LITA, to be published this May.

Currently Jervey Tervalon is teaching writing and literature courses at Cal State LA.  He recently came out with his second novel, Living for the City, which can be read as a companion to Understand This.  Tervalon now lives in Pasadena, CA with his wife, Gina, and daughter, Giselle.  He expects to publish another novel next year.

Understand This is Jervey Tervalon’s novel about young people in South Central Los Angeles. The content of the novel grows out of his experience teaching in a high school there and his pain at the death of one of his favorite students. The story is told by eight different narrators, the most significant of them is Francois.

The murder of Dough starts the novel; he is shot dead by his drug-addicted girlfriend. Among the narrators is Francois, who is the best friend of Dough – he is constantly searching for his role in life. There is also Margot, Francois’ girlfriend, who has potential for being one of the fortunate few to leave Los Angeles. Then Francois Mother, she is tempted by to move away from Los Angeles to look for a safer and a better place to live. There is Ollie, Dough’s brother who quickly follows Dough’s steps. There are Rika, Doug’s pregnant girlfriend; and the killer, Tommy, Francois’ business partner; and Michaels, a high school teacher approaching marriage and a mental collapse from the students who desperately need him. “Understand This” reveals brutal, devastating issue such as drugs, violence, sex and their influence on expressions of anger and love in relationships.

The university of Michigan conducted the study among the graduating class of 1994, it appeared that fifty-four percent of all students had used and elicit drug by the time they reached their senior year of high school. Drug abuse became a major problem in the high schools today. In “Understand This” Tervalon describes this problem in very specific and illustrative examples that make you understand the whole tragedy of the situation.

There are four factors that generally accelerate youth violence. They are: easy access to weapons, especially handguns, early involvement with drugs and alcohol, association with antisocial groups and pervasive exposure to violent acts showed in the media.

Let’s assume that you jus moved to Los Angeles, and you have a son and a daughter of school age. What would be you concern in the situation like that? Jervey Tervalon gives us a pretty good picture of all possible dangers and things to avoid.

Eight-one percent of weapons brought to school come from the home. A safe school is characterized as effective, accepting, freedom from potential physical and psychological harm, absence of violence, and being nurturing, caring, and protective. Some school based protective factors are positive school climate and atmosphere, clear and high performance expectations for all students, good values and practices throughout the school, strong student bonding to the school environment, high levels of student participation and parent involvement in social development, and schoolwide conflict-resolution strategies. An unsafe school is characterized by lack of cohesion, chaotic, stressful, disorganized, poorly structured, ineffective, high risk, gang activity, violent incidents, unclear behavioral and academic expectations. Some risk factors are poor design and use of school space, overcrowding, lack of caring but firm disciplinary procedures, student alienation, rejection of at-risk students by teachers and peers, anger and resentment at school routines and demands for conformity, and poor supervision.

Impacts and influences of school violence are:

1.) Large schools and classrooms of students, that prevents teachers from developing meaningful relationships with students.

2.) Overcrowded schools normally have higher rates of discipline problems and vandalism than schools that are at or below the enrollments for which they are intended.

We must begin to reform the schools who need it. There are direct strategies as well as indirect strategies. Examples of the direct include things such as locks on doors, metal detectors, and random searching for weapons. Indirect strategies include requiring school uniforms, and establishing a positive school climate. It is likely that more direct strategies are more effective than the indirect, but they do not change the culture of the school. It is recommended that schools maintain a zero tolerance policy for weapons, fighting, or other acts of violence, minimized the number of unlocked entrances, exits, and halls for students and visitors, require students to carry a hall pass when roaming about the school during classes and to limit the hall passes to an absolute minimum.

Watching violence in movies increases the risk of some people’s acting aggressively. Many people have problems linking media violence with violence in real-life. Only small percentages that watch violence are responsible for violent acts. Most people are unaffected by it. Even though doctors, lawyers, juries, and judges cannot establish a direct link between media violence with violence in society, they still can make conclusions from data. Media violence is one thing that causes people to do violence. Since media violence is much more vicious than that which children normally experience, real-life aggression appears bland by comparison. Children do not always realize this is not the way things are handled in real-life. They come to expect it, and when they do not see it the world becomes bland and in need of violence.

All these actions are yet to be introduced and facilitated. However the violence and drug abuse has to be approached individually as well. You can be the one to understand the society problems and to make an attempt to help out the situation. It is possible to psychologically prepare your child for what is waiting for him in the outside world. It is up to you to prepare him for the temptations waiting and make sure the drug abuse would not be an option for your child. You can raise him in an atmosphere of love, so he can take this love in the outside world and make it better.

I think that Jervey Tervalon’s novel is very educative and is worth to read. Adults and children both have the right to know what is going on in the outside world especially if it waiting for you right behind the door. He gives us a good picture of what can happen to a teenager that took the wrong path and what can be done to avoid it. It is up to us now to listen and make some conclusion not be in the place of that teenage or his parents.


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