Strength in Sticks and Stones

by John Beaver

Sometimes it is the teacher who gets the gold star.

But it does not happen often, and when Maribel (Perez '90) Garcia, M.Ed. '94, walked in formation with her second-grade class to a routine school assembly late last year, a Milken Family Foundation National Educator's Award was not on her mind.

Surprise. Gathered outside of Adam Elementary School in Santa Maria, California, along with staff and students, were state Department of Education officials, Milken Family Foundation Executive Vice President Richard Sandler, and the press. The occasion: public honor for Garcia. On the podium, Sandler praised her for fostering student growth, lauded her for improving the school, and thanked her for enhancing the education profession. He also handed her a $25,000 check to do with as she pleased. There were gasps, applause, flash bulbs. "Maribel Garcia has the highest expectations of her students, no matter what their circumstances," said Sandler. "She gives them the tools as well as the confidence to succeed. It is clear that Maribel is a respected and beloved educator." Then came the good tears, and lots of them, because Garcia's early education so often meant suffering, not celebrations. As the only minority at her own elementary school in Sun City, her peers ridiculed her, called her names, spit on her, even punched her. They booed when she won the school spelling bee in the sixth grade. There were hurdles at home, too: The youngest of four, Garcia was raised on a farm by her parents, Mexican immigrants who spoke little English and worked countless minimum-wage jobs. And while her family was nurturing, she was torn by her traditional cultural roots — where good daughters are expected to stay put until marriage. So Garcia's resolve to attend college — the first in her family to do so — was hers alone to make, and not an easy one. She was just 17. Between the school of hard knocks and her study at APU, Garcia says she found the missing link — confidence. She befriended a wise grade-school teacher in the Azusa Unified School District, Joe Rocha, whose approval was the key. "I always knew teaching was my calling," said Garcia. "But I never thought I could handle it. Mr. Rocha believed in me when I couldn't believe in myself." Sparked by Rocha's faith, Garcia soon earned her teaching credential and was hired by the same district. While she taught second grade and pursued a master's degree in education, the fashioning of a fine educator was under way. Garcia has since moved to California's Central Coast and teaches in the Santa Maria-Bonita School District. Principal Claudia Mackey, Ed.D., calls her "a remarkable teacher and role model, set apart by genuine passion coupled with true compassion, and a willingness to do whatever it takes for her students to learn. "Maribel goes way beyond typical expectations for both for herself and her students," said Mackey. "When one child doesn't understand, Maribel says to herself, 'I need to do something better to make sure every single child gets it.' She just won't settle until everyone understands." Garcia is 1 of only 100 educators across the country to receive the prestigious 2002 Milken Educator's Award. Based on outstanding achievement in education, guidelines are established by the Milken Family Foundation, and participating states' departments of education appoint committees to identify candidates for evaluation and selection. The entire procedure is confidential, and does not include nomination or application. Garcia says her success today both as a teacher and a person has a lot to do with her trials at a young age. "I will always remember how as a student all I really wanted was to be treated like a human being. Even during my most difficult times, I tried to keep my chin up. So now I teach tolerance, and I instill in my students the will to succeed and to strive for what they believe in."

John Beaver is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in PARADE magazine, REACT magazine, and various Christian mission publications. He lives in Sierra Madre, California.