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LOS ANGELES – At first, the teacher didn't believe the 14-year-old kid known for habitually missing school and making trouble in class when he said he wanted to become a professional singer.
"You want to sing?" the teacher asked the boy skeptically. "Sing in front of him."
That's when Stevenson Middle School's new music teacher, Steve Shin, walked through the door and stopped to listen to Cuauhtemoc Lara. What happened next stunned them both: Lara began singing Mexican ballads known as corridos. And he was good.
For years, there were no music classes for students like Lara at Stevenson Middle School. The few arts courses available were only for students in the magnet program. Lara's Spanish teacher called his counselor and asked for him to be switched to Shin's class.
The class wasn't much — just Shin playing on a scratched-up piano as kids sang lyrics karaoke-style from an overhead projector.
Almost immediately, though, Shin and Lara bonded.
"I'm probably the only one who understands him," Shin said.
The relationship between Shin and Lara shows the advantages but also the limitations of arts education as Los Angeles Unified School District and others move to increase arts classes after years of focus on reading and math.
Shin took up Lara on his interest in singing, telling him he was talented and calling on him to sing in front of the class.
"He has what it takes to make it," Shin said.
Lara lives in a cramped two-bedroom apartment with eight people. At night in his East Los Angeles neighborhood, he said, he hears gunshots. By the age of 12, he was involved in gangs.
Then one of his best friends was killed. Lara decided he wanted to get out of gang life. He started listening to corridos.
The ballads on the radio talked about everything from undying love to murders and kidnappings.
"I like mostly corridos that talk about life struggles," said Lara, who is tall for his age and has dark, solemn eyes that make him look older than his years.
It's easy to understand why Lara relates, Shin said.
"He has those stories," Shin said. "And then he has the skills to sing. So once he realizes and puts it together, his stories are going to break some hearts."
But on a recent Tuesday afternoon, Shin started his class and Lara was nowhere to be seen. Lara said he was sick. Shin was skeptical. He said Lara often misses his class, either because he skips school or gets sent to the dean's office during an earlier class.
Lara said Shin's class is a motivation to stay in school.
"It's my favorite class," he said.
Shin wonders if one school year can make up for a childhood of missed chances. He hopes it can.
"I got his attention," Shin said. "I just got to keep him in school somehow."
Follow Christine Armario on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/cearmario.