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Last updateFri, 16 Sep 2016 12pm

The documentary The Bad Kids begins as a probation officer follows up on a young man named Joseph McGee.

McGee tells the officer that his father is currently serving time in prison, and that he’s having problems showing up to school. Soon, his mother—sitting across from McGee and the officer—begins sobbing and says she’s done everything she can—including taking away his bedroom door so she can keep a better eye on him.

The probation officer asks McGee what he wants out of life. He’s then shown enrolling in Yucca Valley’s Black Rock High School—the subject of this powerful film by Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe.

During a recent phone interview, Black Rock’s principal, Vonda Viland, described the kids who come to Black Rock High School, an alternative school that’s part of the state’s Continuation Education program.

“Ninety percent of our students live below the poverty level,” Viland said. “They are the students who will not be able to graduate at a traditional high school, and they are behind on credits for one reason or another. Often, it’s family issues, attendance issues, discipline problems or they’re struggling with the work. Any students who cannot graduate from a traditional high school are the ones we take.”

Viland said the students, and not the learning materials, come first at Black Rock.

“We really work hard with the child before we get to the curriculum,” Viland said. “The curriculum is important, of course, but the child and their issues are more important.”

The Bad Kids won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. During a recent phone interview, Pepe explained what interested him in Black Rock High School.

“My partner, Keith Fulton, and I had been doing a number of short online documentaries for different foundations about public education, and we knew the Mojave Desert from our own trips out there from Los Angeles and thought, ‘We should do something out here,’” Pepe said. “… We have a contact at the Morongo Unified School District who we would call anytime we would get a commission to do a project. She would take us around to different schools in the Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms and Yucca Valley area and introduce us to different teachers, and we did a couple of different projects in that district. One of the times, we were on a research trip and she said, ‘I have this school I want to show you. It doesn’t fit any of the criteria you were looking for, but you have to see this place. It’s one of the most special places in our district, and it’s something we’re really proud of: This is the high school that’s for the kids on the verge of dropping out.’

“We were initially apprehensive about it at first. She drove us to Black Rock, and we walked through the doors. Instantly, our preconceived notions of ‘bad kids’ went out the window.”

The film’s undeniable hero is Principal Viland. She’s shown waking up at 3 a.m., exercising and then going to the school to prepare for her day. After work each day, she takes a short nap—and goes on a five-mile hike. You may wonder: How does she have time to sleep?

“I asked her that question, and the answer was, ‘Not much,’” Pepe said. “She’s one of those high-energy people who kind of thrives on being engaged in something at all times.”

Of course, working at Black Rock can take an emotional toll.

“I have a rule with my husband when I get home of no talking to me for 20 minutes,” Viland said. “I’m so overwhelmed and emotional. Lou and Keith said that my job is triage, going from one crisis to the next crisis to do what I can to help. By the end of the day, the teachers and I are emotionally and spiritually drained.”

The film tells the stories of some of the students—and given all of the tears and frustration, it seems like everyone at Black Rock is engaged in an uphill battle.

“I think you actually feel the opposite when you’re at Black Rock High School,” Pepe said. “You meet Principal Viland, and you meet the staff, and you actually have an incredible sense of hope. You see how much that staff works to help kids deal with more than just school work. … You think, ‘Every kid here has a fighting chance.’ Then there would be days where you’re like, ‘Oh no, that problem—how can a 16- or 17-year-old cope with that problem?’ Those were the rough days. The teachers at Black Rock deal with that on a daily basis.”

Viland told me that before she took my call, she was dealing with a student in her office.

“Earlier, I had a student who started out this morning so good and had a little bit of an emotional uproar, and we had to talk it through. It really is minute to minute,” she said. “The thing that’s amazing about these kids is that even while they’re resilient, life keeps throwing them road blocks, and they keep jumping over them and just need for us to be their cheerleaders to get over the next hurdle.”

There were moments when Pepe and Fulton had difficulty continuing to film. At one point, the filmmakers are at McGee’s home while his mother is fighting with her boyfriend. McGee and his younger sibling stay put in a bedroom—trying to just ride it out.

“My partner and I had a mantra that we would say to each other for our filming. It was: ‘Embrace the awkward,’” Pepe said. “That stuff is difficult, because you, as a human being, want to make a difference, but you, as a documentarian, are there as an observer and a witness. That stuff is rough, but it’s also real life.”

Viland said the relationships between her staff and the students don’t necessarily end when they graduate.

“We work really closely with the community college out here, Copper Mountain College,” Viland said. “The majority of our kids transfer out there, which is nice, because they can come back and get help with homework, or if something happens in their life, we help them. As soon as they graduate, we don’t just send them on their way. We have about 10-15 percent who will go on to the military, and a small percentage who will enter the workforce. But mostly, we try to get them to go to the community college. We also have some that will get into cosmetology or go into the art institute.”

Viland said she’s inspired by some of her former students.

“I just got a text from a girl who just finished up her veterinary assistance program and was letting me know she graduated,” she said. “After the documentary (came out) and the trailer went up on Facebook, I’ve gotten all sorts of Facebook posts from kids saying, ‘Hey Ms. V, I want to let you know I’m principal at an elementary school,’ or, ‘Hey Ms. V, I wanted to let you know I’m head of a company.’ It’s been really rewarding.”

Pepe said he’s been thrilled by the response the documentary has received.

“People get very emotional about the movie, which Keith and I are very proud of,” Pepe said. “We intentionally made a film that’s not a talking-heads educational film, but an observational film that plays out dramatically. I love it when I hear the sniffles at certain scenes, because I know people are connecting to the story and characters. The film usually has a really strong impact on people who are teachers—anybody who’s had a connection with young people and making better lives for themselves. We’ve also shown it to audiences of high school students, and those screenings are also really exciting. A lot of students see themselves in the characters in the film and are kind of overwhelmed, knowing they aren’t alone in the struggles they face in life.”

For more information, visit www.thebadkidsmovie.com. Below: Black Rock student Joseph McGee.

Published in Features

In most ways, Aiden Stockman is a typical 18-year-old guy.

The Yucca Valley resident recently graduated from high school. He is just getting his driver’s license, and he’s debating what to do with his life.

However, attendees of Palm Springs Pride’s Harvey Milk Breakfast, held in downtown Palm Springs on May 22, know Aiden is far from typical: He and his mother, Kelli Drake, spoke at the event, and had many attendees in tears as they told Aiden’s story of struggle—and surprising acceptance—in Yucca Valley as a transgender youth.

Of course, transgender people are all over the news these days, thanks to the success of Orange Is the New Black actress Laverne Cox, the Golden Globe win for Jeffrey Tambor playing a transgender woman on the Amazon.com series Transparent, and, most notably, the journey of Caitlyn Jenner.

However, Aiden—who was born Victoria Stockman—was dealing with what’s called “gender dysphoria” well before anyone had heard of Laverne Cox, Transparent or Caitlyn Jenner. While his journey was far from easy—in fact, it almost cost Aiden his life—he said his Yucca Valley High School classmates were incredibly supportive when he finally told them he was transgender.

“Everybody at school was like, ‘OK, cool. That’s what you want to do?’ he said during a recent interview with his mother at the Starbucks in Desert Hot Springs. “I got Homecoming Prince during my senior year, and I was on the wrestling team, so people didn’t really care. Your classmates vote for Homecoming Prince.

“I dealt with some pricks here and there. I was sitting at a table one time with friends at lunch, and all of a sudden, these guys threw a bunch of food at me. They called me a faggot, and I was like, ‘All right, whatever.’ Obviously, it hurt my feelings, and I just started to walk away. My friend Jared and my friend Kevin asked me what was wrong, and I told them; they went up and got up in their faces and yelled at them. My whole family and my cousins messaged them and got in their faces, too. The next day, they came up to me and said they were sorry.”

While some may find the support that Aiden received from classmates to be a welcome surprise, nobody should be surprised by a recent graduation honor his classmates bestowed upon him.

Aiden was voted “Most Changed Since Freshman Year.”


As she looked over photos of Aiden as a child, Kelli Drake noted that Aiden always showed off a masculine side.

“I think when me and Aiden’s stepdad got married, it was a fight, because we wanted him to wear a dress, and he was like, ‘I’m not wearing that!’” she said. “So we had to settle on a pair of brown skorts. He was mad that we even made him wear that.”

While Kelli Drake can laugh at memories like this now, Aiden’s childhood at times was downright painful. She talked about how Aiden spent almost an entire school year in and out of the Loma Linda University Medical Center, dealing with depression and behavioral issues. It was during this time she learned Aiden was binding his chest with an Ace bandage.

“We didn’t know he was doing that until we took him to Loma Linda, and they were doing admitting,” she said. “They do searches and go through all their stuff. The lady brought it out, and I asked, ‘What the hell is this, and where did it come from?’ We had no idea. It wasn’t until after that we saw what was going on.”

Aiden said he can remember when he decided he wanted to transition.

“It was probably during seventh-grade when I started going through puberty. It was kind of a wakeup call, and I was like, ‘This sucks!’” he said. “During my freshman year, I went to the hospital in Loma Linda, and I was there for a couple of months back and forth. … They just loaded me up on medication and were like, ‘OK, there you go. You’re fine.’

“I remember I came out to my mom as transgender during my sophomore year, and that’s when I started going to a psychologist, and I got the paper from the psychologist saying it was necessary for me to start hormone therapy, because I had gender dysphoria.”

At one point, Aiden tried to kill himself. “I remember my mom and my stepdad went somewhere, and my brother was home with me. I just took all of the pills. I was having a dysphoria kind of day. When my mom came home, I told her I took them all, and I felt bad I did it in front of my brother. I went to the hospital, and my mom stayed with me all night.”

Aiden and his mother have learned the hard way that insurance companies often don’t deal well with the issues transgender individuals face.

“We would call up the insurance company and get a representative over the phone and say, ‘OK, this is the deal: My son is transgender. We need to find an endocrinologist and hormone-replacement therapy,’” Kelli Drake said. “They would put me on hold and wind up e-mailing me this letter with a thousand different doctors on it—and they’re all doctors that are trying to get him pregnant. It was very hard to find doctors that dealt with this, and even the doctor we see in Redlands now, Dr. (Victor) Perkel—Aiden is the first transgender person he’s ever treated. He usually treats people for diabetes and stuff like that, not for this.”

However, Kelli Drake said Dr. Perkel has been supportive of Aiden’s needs as he goes through the physical transition from female to male.

“We made a few phone calls at first and made sure he knew why we were going there,” she said. “When we went there, we already had the letter from a therapist saying he had been through therapy and basically had his brain picked, and this is what he wants. Surprisingly, Dr. Perkel was fine with it and said, ‘Wow, this is great; of course I’ll do it.’ The first couple of months, we had to go down there because of the shots, and now we’re to the point where he writes a prescription and calls it in, and Aiden injects himself once a week. It’s a relief. We also had to get a letter from him because we found a plastic surgeon who does this kind of top surgery, and he basically wanted a letter from Dr. Perkel saying that Aiden understands the surgery is irreversible, just to cover his butt. (The plastic surgeon) got a letter in the mail a week later recommending the surgery, saying that it was medically necessary.”

Later this year, Aiden will have that chest surgery, or “top surgery,” as it’s called.

“I’m not nervous about it at all, and I’m really excited,” he said. “My cousin wanted to go to the U.S. Open of Surfing tournament this summer. I told him I’m not going, and he asked me why, and I said it was seeing guys with their shirts off, and I couldn’t take mine off. He didn’t know it, but last year, it sucked for me.”


Earlier this year, Aiden had his name and gender legally changed.

“It went through on March 23,” Aiden said. “The judge was all like, ‘Good morning,’ and I said, ‘Hey!’ He asked if I wanted the name change and the gender change, and I said, ‘Yeah,’ and then he said, ‘Congratulations! You’re a young man now.’ And I yelled, ‘SWEET!’

“We walked out of the courtroom, and my mom said, ‘You’re supposed to be polite and say, <em>Yes, your honor</em>.’ It was my moment for a second, and he got me happy.”

Despite some great moments, Aiden is still struggling with a lot of issues related to his transition.

“I want to join the Army or the Marines, but they said I couldn’t until I’ve fully transitioned,” he said. “They would call my phone, asking for Victoria Stockman, and I would answer like, ‘Yeah, this is her.’ I was thinking about going to college and getting my prerequisites done, but I don’t really know, honestly. I’ve just been hanging out.”

It’s all too common for transgender individuals to face challenges regarding unemployment. A 2013 report issued by the Human Rights Campaign showed transgender people are twice as likely to be unemployed, and that four out of 10 transgender people who do have jobs are underemployed.

“I would try to get a job, but I would go into places, and my stuff wasn’t changed yet, and it says ‘Victoria Stockman’ on it,” Aiden said. “People would give me an application; I would fill it out, go back in, and they’d look at it and be like, ‘Yeah, OK, we’ll call you.’ … It’s a cold shoulder. It sucks.”

However, Aiden has found comfort in sharing his story.

“Through the (Yucca Valley High) Gay Straight Alliance, Palm Springs Pride, and the Harvey Milk Breakfast, I’ve talked to a bunch of kids, and I’ve shared my doctor’s information,” he said. “If someone older than me could have explained it to me, I wouldn’t have had to go through all this myself.

“If they want information, I’m really open about it. I talk about everything, and if someone wants to know something, I tell them.”

Below: Aiden Stockman today, and pictures from his childhood. Aiden’s mother, Kelli Drake, said Aiden—formerly known as Victoria—showed a masculine side even as a toddler and a young child.

Published in Features

Desert dwellers crave wine.

Rose Baker and her husband, Buster, suspected as much when they envisioned a wine bar in Yucca Valley.

The venue is no slick wine-country rip-off.

Rose and Buster’s Wine Tasting Room sports an eclectic vibe the couple calls “cowboy feng shui”—with Buddhas, cactus, dream catchers, Ganesha banners, mandalas, the headdresses of Southwestern tribes, craft beers, guitars and, of course, Northern California wines. Wines like Peterson Winery’s Mendo Blendo from Redwood Valley, Hop Kiln pinot noir from Healdsburg, and Rose and Buster's own private-label wines, from cab to chardonnay, bottled at Vista Verde Winery north of Paso Robles.

The couple carries Tulip Hill’s sauvignon blanc, a summertime hit obtained from the winery’s Rancho Mirage tasting room. They’ve exhausted their supply, though, and can’t get more, so they eagerly await the next batch.

“I’m bummed out about that,” Buster says. “I hope they’re making more. I have enough reds to choke a horse.”

Travelers can’t miss the new “Wine Tasting” sign along the Twenty Nine Palms Highway through Yucca Valley. Before the Bakers came along, a Yucca Valley wine aficionado’s choices were limited to mass-produced grocery store wine—with its six-bottle discount and bland selection—or a drive to the nearest wine bars in Palm Springs. Tulip Hill Winery’s tasting room in Rancho Mirage is a 45-minute drive, and Temecula wineries are twice that.

The Bakers wanted to bring a big gulp of Northern California to Yucca Valley. Buster lived in Santa Rosa 18 years ago, when he moved west from Ohio. His friends worked for wineries and turned him on to old vine zinfandels. Love at first sip.

“On my days off, heck, I’d just get in the car, drive out to Kenwood and make about five stops before it was time to turn back,” Buster says, reminiscing. “The next weekend, I’d head to the Dry Creek area. In those days, that's when Sonoma was famous for free wine-tasting. And only Napa charged.

“Now everybody’s charging.”

Sigh. Everybody’s charging.

It’s 91 degrees on a sunny Friday afternoon. Buster’s alone in the tasting room, but traffic is light. Hot afternoons, he says, make sangria a popular choice. Buster mixes his from Sangria Igardi, one of the only reds on offer not obtained from California. (The other is an Italian chianti.)

Buster adds fruit—and a splash of orange muscat. Chillicious.

“Believe me, on a hot day, people come in, and they like it a lot,” Buster says.

The bar offers a flexible flight of any four wines for $15—chosen from around 30 wines available. The fee includes a souvenir glass with the Rose and Buster’s logo.

“And we give pretty nice pours, especially if my wife is pouring! She gets talking to people and gives away the store.”

Rose is from Guatemala. Buster describes her as a minimalist. All the assorted bric-à-brac on the walls? That’s his.

“She is the yin to my yang,” Buster says.

The couple enjoys meeting folks from around the world who come in for wine. A trio from South Africa came through not long ago. They’d read about Rose and Buster’s on Trip Advisor. Buster didn’t even know a review of Rose and Buster’s existed on Trip Advisor. He’s busy juggling a lively Facebook page, Yelp reviews and live streaming of music events at UStream.

Social media makes me thirsty.

What wine would Buster want if he were stranded on a deserted island—and could only have, you know, one last bottle?

He names Manzanita Creek Winery’s Cloud Buster zinfandel from the Russian River Valley. It’s near Healdsburg. Mmm. Old vine zin paradise.

What year?

He looks at the bottle he’s holding.

“2009.”

How did Buster Baker’s life journey bring him to the desert? A cable-advertising pro in Sonoma County, Buster jumped at a better job in Los Angeles. That’s where he met Rose, and “it was love at first sight,” he says. The two married in 2008, went camping at Joshua Tree National Park to get outta the city, and ended up buying a house in Desert Hot Springs.

While scoping out kitsch at local antique shops, the two met their eventual landlord, who owns a consignment shop in Yucca Valley. He had some space opening up.

Epiphany struck.

“Something this desert needs is wine, a wine bar,” Buster recalls thinking. “I’d been spoiled living up there in wine country.”

The wine bar opened around Thanksgiving 2013. During the slow summer months, it’s only open on weekends. For the first year, because of its liquor license, the venue closes at 9 p.m. This means live music starts crazy early at Rose and Buster’s.

Buster doesn’t mind for now, since it means getting home at a reasonable hour.

“I’m an old dude.”

If pressed, Buster describes his own appearance as similar to that of a famed 1970s recording artist.

“I’m reminiscent of Leon Russell, (with) the long straight hair, mustache and beard,” he says.

Buster worked in the music industry while living in Ohio. He sang in a band; emcee’d at the Cleveland Agora, a renowned music venue; and worked as a stringer for Entertainment Tonight, producing segments on the Jamaican World Music Festival and the first-ever Rock in Rio event. He’s met musical legends from Kiss to the Talking Heads, and has the photos to prove it. For a gift, Rose ordered him a coffee mug that displays a 1971 shot of John and Yoko from a meeting in London.

A guy walked into the bar recently and saw Buster drinking out of the mug.

“Is that … ?”

“Yeah, and do you know who that is with him?”

“Is that … you?”

Relating the story, Buster laughs. “I was a lot younger then. My hair was a lot darker.”

Buster’s the kind of guy who can narrate life adventures all day long—aka an engaging bartender.

“If someone wants to come in and talk about how I met John Lennon, come on in,” Buster says. “I’ll pour you a glass of wine and I’ll tell you a story.”

Published in Wine