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

Maria has relived the night of the Taco Bell murder in her mind untold times. Though she has her own apartment outside the Coffelt, Maria was staying that evening at her mom's. She recalls that Jaime was arguing with their mother.

"Mom was on him for drinking and for hanging with some bad people," Maria says. "She told him he was going to go to jail if it kept going that way. It got pretty bad."

She claims she'd told Chino Contreras days earlier to stay away from Jaime. But the boy apparently sneaked out that night with Chino after Maria and her mother went to sleep. (Contreras has been accused in four murders and an assortment of other serious crimes.)

A Phoenix police detective called the Peraltas just before dawn: Jaime had been detained on suspicion of murder.

Though she's still protective and caring toward Jaime, Maria also is realistic.

"I'm sad for what happened to the other boy, and I'm sad that my brother was involved in some way," she says. "It's all sad. I got my own kids now, and I want them to be respectful and to be good. I don't want my daughter to get pregnant at 14 or my son to be [gang] banging. I'm going to do my best."

This is what she faces: Two of her three brothers are behind bars for violent crimes, as is the father of her two young children. Her father and stepfather aren't part of her life. She dropped out of school at 16.

But Maria Peralta is attending school, and says she's about amonth from earning a GED degree. After that, she's hoping toget work somewhere as a nurse's aide.

"That girl doesn't want to be a nobody," says Mrs. Phelps, who has known and respected Maria for years. "Look at what she's gone through, surrounded by bad things for her whole life. But she's honest and is trying her hardest to do something good."

She pauses, as a stray thought momentarily grabs her attention.
"It just struck me," Mrs. Phelps explains, "that's what I always told my kids. 'Try your hardest and do something good.' Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't.

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