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

That's no exaggeration. In the fall, he played tackle on Central High's freshman football team. After practice, Walter took a city bus home, trudged a few blocks, showered, ate, studied a little and fell into bed.

Last summer, he and others from his neighborhood (including Machy Cabada) worked long days doing landscaping in a Mesa-based program for poor kids. The work earned Walter much-needed pocket money, and helped pay for school clothes.

"Working outside isn't easy," says his father, Ramon. "It's hard. The better he does in school, maybe he won't have to work outside his whole life."

Walter Martinez, once the class clown, is growing up.
"I'm still funny, I hope, but my main concern right now is to get my education," he says. "I have no other obligations. My mom is always saying that she's not gonna be around forever to take care of me."

Machy
Five years from now? I don't know. I'll be playing basketball, I guess.
Machy Cabada,
November 15, 1990,
in Mrs. Phelps' fourth-grade class

Like Walter Martinez, Marcial Cabada III is a work in progress, but with a major difference.

Machy's father is in prison, and the 15-year-old has no dominant male figure in his life. But Machy is blessed with a strong-willed mother who is trying to keep him and his younger brother on the right track.

Elia Cabada knows, however, that there are no guarantees.
She grew up near Yuma, one of five children of Mexican immigrants. She and her siblings joined their parents in the fields as teens, picking tomatoes and vegetables in unthinkable heat.

Elia's own mother was uncompromising--"She'd let us girls go to a dance maybe once a month"--and loving. Elia is much the same with Machy, and with good reason.

First, there's history: When Machy was 5, a car struck and nearly killed him. Though it wasn't her fault, the event traumatized Elia, and led her to what she calls "overprotective thinking" toward her sons.

Then, there's the neighborhood: A rash of gang-related shootings has plagued the area.

"Sometimes, I think I'm too strict," Elia says, as Machy sketches in a pad at the dining-room table of their home. "If I let him go his own way, things can happen to him--people can hurt him. He's avoided the VSP gang and Southside Posse so far, and I want to keep it that way."

In truth, Machy isn't on as tight a leash as Walter Martinez. Elia works long hours as a housekeeper for a Phoenix family, and it's difficult for her to keep tabs on Machy as much as she'd like. So far, though, he's stayed out of harm's way.

Machy is enrolled in a magnet program at Alhambra High School, and he says he wants to be an athletic trainer someday. But his true knack is for sketching and playing basketball.

"My dad taught me to draw before he went away," Machy says. "We used to draw together, and he still draws us stuff from where he is. In basketball, I'm gonna be good enough to play high school, but the NBA? No way. What is it, 300 out of how many thousands get to play up there? I better learn something else."

Mrs. Phelps remembers Machy as anaverage, well-behaved student. She sensed he had a decent chance at a good future because of his mother's unceasing efforts.

"He was one of those in-between kids," she says, "who could go good or bad down the road. But he has a mother who just won't let him go bad. So far, so good."

Machy has survived in his neighborhood by affecting a nonchalance, as if all that swirls around him bothers him not a whit. It helps that he's physically stronger than most his age.

"I don't dress ganglike, colors and stuff, so I don't get hassled by that stuff," he says coolly. "I don't go struttin', 'cuz that would be stupid. But you got to fight now and then. I got into a fight last year with some punk at the park. He was kicking my new basketball around. I told him to stop, and we got into it. Afterward, he didn't kick it around anymore."

Machy usually obeys his mother, but a few signs of typical teenager-parent discord are starting to reveal themselves.

"She doesn't like my friends to come over here because we like our bass music too loud," he says. "I like it as loud as I can get it. Bass Bomb rules! She just can't take it."

On cue, Elia Cabada asks her son about an upcoming dance at Alhambra.
"How late is it going to be?"
"Seven 'til nine or ten, Mom."
"Same as last time. I want you coming home right after--if I let you go."

Machy wanders off to sharpen his pencils. He wants to complete a drawing of a shapely superwoman he's been creating.

His mother follows him with her eyes.
"My boys are everything I have," Elia Cabada says, her eyes misting. "When things get hard for me, and I'm not sure what's going to happen next in life, I just try and keep steady. I won't cry in front of him. I want him to know I'm strong."

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