Mrs. Phelps' Kids
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."
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.
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."
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."
Five years from now? I don't know. I'll be playing basketball, I guess.
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."
Five years from now, I'm gonna be drawing something. I'll be the best artist in my school.
November 15, 1990,
in Mrs. Phelps' fourth-grade class
Jaime Bustamante stares across the Plexiglas window at his visitors at the Madison Street Jail. It's a Sunday evening, one week before Christmas, and almost one year since he participated in a robbery-murder that landed him here.
Jaime turned 16 in jail. His face is scarred with acne, and his pasty pallor looks like yesterday's oatmeal. He's about five feet five, and says he weighs about 120.
He describes how he passes time awaiting disposition of his case: "I got my eighth-grade diploma a while ago. Now, I listen to the radio a lot."
But what about the skill that made Jaime stand out in Mrs. Phelps' class during the 1990-91 school year?
"Oh, I don't draw no more," he says, shrugging his small shoulders. "I haven't been drawing for a long time."
Jaime manages a smile for his 23-year-old sister, Maria Peralta, who visits him religiously. He tells her he's heard that the alleged mastermind of the Taco Bell murder is going to take all the blame.
"He's gonna own up," Jaime tells Maria over a telephone. "I'm gonna get out of here, I really am. And I'm gonna stay out of trouble. Run with the right crowd."
Maria just nods. She knows the score, and it doesn't look good for Jaime.
Months ago, a judge agreed with prosecutors that Jaime should be treated legally as an adult instead of a juvenile. He may spend much of his life in prison if a jury convicts him.
On December 30, 1994, Jaime was one of four young men who participated in the murder/carjacking at a Taco Bell on Ninth Avenue and Camelback.
Their leader undoubtedly was Albert "Chino" Contreras, a 26-year-old felon nearing the end of a murderous weeklong rampage. The quartet devised the idea of stealing the car, a 1993 Honda Civic, and killing its owner if he resisted. Jaime and Gilbert Brown walked up to the car, as their cohorts waited nearby.
Jaime later told police that Brown shot the 17-year-old victim twice in the head, yanked him from the car and dumped him on the pavement. (Others may testify that Jaime pulled out the dying victim.) As planned, the pair then stole the Honda.
Police nabbed the gang within hours.
During a tape-recorded confession, Jaime told police he was a member of the West Side City Chicanos, a powerful gang.
Mrs. Phelps was horrified, but not flabbergasted, when she learned about the Taco Bell murder.
"I had bumped into Jaime a few months before, and he was the same as always to me--polite and warm," she says.
"I knew he'd gotten kicked out of Hamilton, and everyone said he was in a gang. They talk themselves into thinking the gang is all that loves them, when the gang would turn on them in a minute. But I don't preach, don't lecture. They're not gonna listen to preaching anyway. I just treated him with respect, like he always treated me."
She'd always had a fondness for the boy, touched by his introverted nature and his facility for drawing. In turn, Jaime once wrote a poem for Mrs. Phelps. He called it Club House:
I had a big tree/I made a club house/That was my favorite tree/It gave me fruit/Sometimes I share my water/Sometimes I climb its trunk/It looks like a family tree.
Mrs. Phelps had known that the odds against Jaime staying out of trouble were long. He was reared in the Coffelt, a project that houses about 1,500 people in one-story brick duplexes.
Only one street goes into and out of the beat-up old project.
"It's hard for a lot of people to go out and stay out," Maria Peralta notes wryly.
Jaime's mother, Ramona Peralta, is a Mexican native who migrated to Phoenix with her first husband when Maria was about 3. Neither that union nor a subsequent marriage, to a man who fathered Ramona's two youngest children, survived.
Clearly, her children are her life. But Ramona seems a bit befuddled that her two oldest sons are behind bars. (Lorenzo Peralta, now 26, is doing a long stretch at Arizona State Prison.)
Most of her days are a whirlwind: Ramona cleans offices at a building near Sky Harbor International Airport. She looks after daughter Maria's two youngsters for a few hours. She visits her imprisoned sons in Florence and Phoenix.
Smiling photos of her children and grandchildren dominate the decor at her residence in the Coffelt. Atop a microwave in the kitchen, Ramona has lighted three thick candles. A wallet-size baby picture of Jaime leans against one of the candles.
"It's for prayers," she explains in Spanish.
Maria Peralta expresses apprehension that her youngest sibling, 13-year-old Eddie Bustamante, may succumb to the same fate of his older brothers.
"I've told him a lot because I've experienced a lot," says Maria, a determined and gracious young woman, "but some kids don't think anyone else knows nothing. I tell him to stay cool, that shootings happen and people die. I just don't want the people I love to be into that stuff anymore."
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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