Mrs. Phelps' Kids

Five years after the kids last left her class, a veteran teacher catches up with former pupils from a tough grade school

In December 1990, New Times profiled Glenna Phelps' fourth-grade class at Hamilton School in a story headlined "The Real War on Drugs." Staff writer Paul Rubin interviewed many of Mrs. Phelps' students at that time for the story. Five years later, Rubin tracked down Mrs. Phelps - who retired after the 1990-91 school year - and three of her ex-students.

Fifteen-year-old Walter Martinez breaks into a big grin.
His old fourth-grade teacher is standing outside his home, near 19th Avenue and Buckeye Road in Phoenix. Glenna Phelps is making a visit.

Walter hasn't seen Mrs. Phelps in a while, but he greets her with a blend of warmth and a hint of lingering trepidation.

"You been staying out of trouble?" she asks him. "I know I don't even have to ask that, but I'll ask it anyway. Remember all those talks we used to have about who was running the show?"

The deadpan query elicits an even wider smile from the 200-pound boy. Wordlessly, he engulfs his former teacher--a slightly hunched-over woman in her early 60s--in a long embrace.

It doesn't surprise Walter or his parents that she's stopped by unannounced.
Though Mrs. Phelps retired in 1991 after 30 years at Hamilton School, she's still renowned in these parts for being more than a teacher: The ringing of the school bell never signified the end of her day. And retirement has not meant the end of her relationship with untold students with whom she connected.

"I argued with her at first because I always thought I was right," Walter Martinez says of his former teacher. "She had this reputation for being really tough. She was. But she taught me stuff and she cared about me--even when I was a jerk. She was like my parents to me. It was always education, education, education."

After saying her goodbyes, Mrs. Phelps drives down West Hadley Street to an immaculately kept home next to a tiny church. Inside, Elia Cabada is instructing her older of two children in certain facts of life.

"You got some homework that needs to get done," she tells 15-year-old Machy. "I'm not going to beg you. You have to do things yourself. La Raza won't give you nothing. Okay?"

Machy has heard this before, many times. His mom says she believes hard work, staying straight and prayer are the answers to a good, if not a lucrative, life. Whining about racism or one's station in life is a meaningless exercise.

Machy towers over his mother, but he's not about to argue with her. Like Walter, he seems genuinely pleased to see Mrs. Phelps--also for the diversion her presence creates.

"Marcial always was a gentleman, even when he was mad at me," Mrs. Phelps tells Machy's mother, using his full name. "And he got mad at me less and less as the year went on, right?"

Machy nods his head and smiles.
"Yup," he says. "I remember."
Mrs. Phelps brings up the name of Jaime Bustamante, whom she taught in the same fourth-grade class with Walter and Machy.

"It's a waste," she says sadly. "I still love him, but if he did the crime, he'll have to do the time."

"He's a [gang] banger," Machy replies. "He just got caught."
Jaime was one of Mrs. Phelps' favorites, a diminutive, shy boy with a gift for sketching animals and people. He grew up in the Coffelt housing projects, off 19th Avenue and north of the I-10 freeway.

But for almost a year, 16-year-old Jaime's home has been the Maricopa County Jail. He awaits trial as an adult on first-degree murder and other charges in the December 30, 1994, execution of a 17-year-old Phoenix youth.

Though Jaime and his three co-conspirators are admitted gang members, this was not a drive-by shooting, a turf battle or a matter of revenge: The victim in this murder was in the drive-through lane of a central Phoenix Taco Bell waiting for food.

The motive? Car theft. Jaime has pleaded not guilty, but he and two of the others have confessed their involvement to Phoenix police.

Mrs. Phelps has a message for Jaime.
"Tell him I'm disappointed in him and for him," she says, "but that he did a bad thing and he's going to have to pay for it. You also tell him I love him and I won't give up on him until I die or he dies."

Glenna Phelps is a senior citizen's version of Charles Barkley--scrappy, loyal, not averse to verbal bluster, and, despite her grandmotherly appearance, vaguely dangerous.

"I knew that if I could get through Mrs. Phelps, I could get through anyone or anything," says onetime student Rosalinda Dossie, whose daughter, Danise, was enrolled in Phelps' last class at Hamilton. "I wouldn't own my house right now if it wasn't for her. She could be a bitch, but I love her. She told me to keep fighting to be good. She's a fighter herself."

Mrs. Phelps continues to fight. She's helping selected ex-Hamilton students to continue their education--with her own money and with donations from folks she corners, cajoles and conquers.

"I'm not giving back to the community," she says, a bit testily. "I'm just doing what Ido. I would have been the same way teaching in Paradise Valley, but this mattered more to me. I didn't grow up dirtpoor like some of these people, but I know what not having much is like. Poor people love and want the best for their kids as much or more than everyone else. Sometimes, it's just harder to make things go right."

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