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

Last year, Mrs. Phelps started a volunteer "parent involvement" program at Hamilton. One goal: "Parent-volunteers will become aware of all the good things that are happening at Hamilton School, and also become aware of the problems so they may make the community aware of these."

That statement sums up Mrs. Phelps' positive, but pragmatic, position. She's known far too many kids to whom just saying no became impossible.

And she's known too many single mothers who, overwhelmed by malevolent forces, have lost children to violence.

Mrs. Phelps also has known bright moments in unexpected corners.
For example, an ex-Hamilton School student--one of 19 children--expressed interest a few years ago in attending college. Now, the girl is an Arizona State University sophomore who is flourishing in the school's ROTC program.

Mrs. Phelps is helping put her through school. (The girl asked that her name not be used, because she doesn't want her family to know Mrs. Phelps is providing aid.)

Mrs. Phelps sees the girl and the Walters and Machys as beacons of hope in a difficult world.

The Jaime Bustamantes represent something else.
"Some kids just aren't allowed to do good," she says. "I mean, there's a whole project of women who don't want their children to be in trouble, but it happens constantly. It's far easier to be a nobody down there--a gang-banger and a follower--than a somebody. That's what happened to Jaime."

In five years, I want to be in a cool school, playing football and telling people a lot of jokes.

Walter Martinez,
November 15, 1990,
in Mrs. Phelps' fourth-grade class

The second of Rosa and Ramon Martinez's three children is not a morning person. But, with his mother's prodding, Walter Martinez rouses himself before dawn each school day and hops on a bus to Central High, eight miles away.

The Martinez family doesn't have much money, but a more tight-knit clan does not exist.

Walter's parents are intent that he and his siblings will get their educations and make something special of themselves. To that end, they are watchful and involved in their kids' lives.

Ramon Martinez is a friendly man in his late 40s who oozes pride when he speaks of his family. His wife has a sixth-grade education and a ton of common sense.

"I've been here 20 years and I still can't adjust to the ways here," Rosa Martinez says in Spanish. "People have so much freedom that they can go their own way. That can be good or bad. It can get you away from your family. I want to know who my kids' friends are. They can't get in much trouble if they're with the right people."

Without rancor, Walter says his parents have been strict with him for as long as he can remember. He adds proudly that his only contacts with law enforcement have been positive.

"I don't go out much because my parents--my mom, especially--always makes sure I'm in line," Walter says. "They keep an eye on me in the learning process--education. I don't have time for anything else except goofing around the house. My mom started watching out for me when I was 6, making sure I didn't hang with my gangster friends. If I get invited to a party, I have to ask for permission. She'll ask me to say everyone's name who's there. She knows everyone."

Walter sometimes rides his bicycle around his neighborhood--"I watch what streets I go down"--but spends much of his free time reading comic books and watching horror movies.

Girls are not a priority, yet.
He calls himself a "decent" student who earns mostly A's and B's at Central. Math and science are his favorite classes, though he says he's unsure on a future career.

Walter has an academic role model living under the same roof--his 19-year-old sister Haracely. She's attending Phoenix College on a prestigious Pell grant and a presidential scholarship.

When Haracely graduated from high school a few years ago, Mrs. Phelps helped her financially so she could buy a school ring. She says it was an easy call.

"That girl works and works and works at improving herself," Mrs. Phelps says. "She never asked for a penny. I just heard about it. Of course, I helped her."

For a time, she adds, she wasn't certain Walter would follow in his big sister's successful footsteps.

"Walter came to me a little spoiled," Mrs. Phelps recalls. "First, he comes from a home where two parents are there for him, and he has a sister who's a role model. He's quick-witted, and that always had gotten him a long way. But he needed to settle down and learn some things--like how to read and write better. It was a battle, but he came around."

That year, 10-year-old Walter analyzed himself in a journal.
"I get in trouble when I pull tricks on people," he wrote early in the 1990-91 school year. "But the best thing about me is that I am funny."

Then, as now, Walter was a big, soft kid who doesn't look as if he'd harm a soul.

"I'm not a fighter," he says. "If I don't mess with nobody, then nobody messes with me. My thinking is, don't bother no one. I don't have time to get into trouble."

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