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It’s No Mystery Why She’s Teacher of the Year

Times Staff Writer

Forget the Thin Man and Travis McGee.

Temple City High School has its own fictional private eye. She is Anne (Dusty) Rose, an attractive, silver-haired sleuth who bears an uncanny resemblance to English teacher Shirley A. Rosenkranz.

Dusty Rose is the glamorous protagonist of two books of suspense fiction written and published by Rosenkranz and her students.

As Rosenkranz, who this week was named 1987 California teacher of the year, explained recently, Dusty Rose was born in 1983 during a classroom brainstorming session.

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Organizing Theme

One of Rosenkranz’s honors classes wanted to put together a book of their own short stories. But before they could begin to write, their teacher recalled, “we realized we’d have to have an organizing theme. It couldn’t just be about what the kids had learned in the wide world.”

The solution was Dusty Rose, the fictional teacher-detective who appears in some fashion in each of the 30 stories in “Kindred Spirits,” the book Rosenkranz and her students, calling themselves A Class Act, published in 1985.

Supplied with autobiographical material about their real-life teacher, each student wrote a short mystery whose cast of characters includes an unflappable investigator with a passion for books, antiques and stray cats.

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A subsequent class wrote 28 short plays about the female sleuth, which were collected and published in September as “Kindred Spirits: The Sequel.”

“My middle name is Anne, the same as Anne Rose--no similarities, of course,” explained Rosenkranz, with a laugh.

Rose is Rosenkranz’s acknowledged alter ego--a glamorized version of the veteran teacher with a penchant for the shade of pink called dusty rose.

Like Rosenkranz, Dusty has a “Save the Whales” T-shirt and keeps a bagful of great books close at hand for emergency reading. And both women are single, have green thumbs and drive venerable yellow Cadillac Sevilles.

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“She travels at the drop of a hat,” Rosenkranz said of Rose. “She hasn’t been anyplace I haven’t been but she goes more often. And she has more money for some reason.”

Like James Bond and other fictional peers, Dusty is larger than life and freer from such mundane constraints as the obligation to grade papers and to live within a teacher’s means.

As Rosenkranz wrote in the second volume of Dusty’s adventures, “If Dusty traveled as much as these books portray, all her plants would be dead, her cats would have moved away and the school district would have suggested that possibly Dusty should consider becoming a substitute.”

The stories and plays her Temple City students wrote are not all “wonderful classic literature,” Rosenkranz said. But they’re something almost as good from a teacher’s point of view: competent attempts at constructing a new reality out of words.

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Life-Changing

For a few students, the project was life-changing. Josie Rachford, an 18-year-old Temple City alumna, said she decided to become a writer as a result of seeing her story, “The Antique Murder,” in print.

“It proved that I could do it,” said Rachford, now a freshman at Pasadena City College.

Rachford said she is “entering all the writing contests I can get my hands on.” She is also taking a correspondence course in short-story writing.

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Rachford said she wants to get a teaching credential, another ambition that she traces to Rosenkranz.

“I find joy in watching people’s faces light up when I tell them something they didn’t know before,” Rachford said.

Rachford’s experience was not unlike Rosenkranz’s own.

Teacher’s Influence

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In an autobiographical sketch submitted as part of her teacher-of-the-year nomination, Rosenkranz attributed her desire to teach to the influence of her fifth-grade teacher.

Rosenkranz recalled that the teacher comforted her after she burst into tears while the teacher was reading a poignant passage from “Toby Tyler, or 10 Weeks in the Circus” aloud to the class.

“The teacher came to my desk and put her arm around my shoulders to comfort me,” Rosenkranz wrote.

“She said, ‘Honey, sometimes life is very sad and we do lose things we love.’ I was hooked! It was probably at that moment that my future as an English teacher was determined. . . . That teacher’s implication that literature was a mirror of life itself helped to instill in me a love of reading and creative writing.”

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Nominee for National Honors

As state teacher of the year, Rosenkranz, a 19-year veteran of the Temple City Unified School District, will represent California’s 180,000 teachers during the coming year. She is also California’s nominee for national teacher of the year, to be announced by President Reagan in March.

“It’s a beautiful validation of all the things I’ve tried to do as a teacher,” the 45-year-old educator said of the honor, which recognized her as “one of California’s best,” according to state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig.

Among the subtler lessons Rosenkranz teaches her students, she said, is that reading allows them to transcend the labyrinth of self, and writing allows them to spin the most painful personal experiences into something golden.

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Rosenkranz said that as a child in rural Wisconsin, reading was her principal escape from poverty. (She and her sisters lived with their mother apart from their father, she said. They were on welfare, sufficiently impoverished that she was grateful when a local church sent them food baskets for Thanksgiving and Christmas.)

‘Always Booky’

“I was always booky,” she said, recalling how she would sit on her living-room couch reading one Nancy Drew mystery after another until she nearly blacked out when she stood up.

Reading allowed her to transcend the problems of her real life; writing allows her to transform them, she said.

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As an example, she cited a one-page story called “Four Eyes!” she wrote and published in the Temple City High School literary magazine. The story is a first-person account of a child’s humiliation at having to wear glasses.

Rosenkranz was the lone bespectacled child in her third grade, and she used her still vividly specific memory of that experience, from her embarrassingly frizzy permanent to the sugared lard sandwiches she brought to school, to create her story. (Like Rosenkranz, Dusty Rose wears glasses.)

Act of Courage

In the process of writing their fictions, Rosenkranz’s students discovered for themselves that writing is an act of courage.

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In a joint introduction to “Kindred Spirits: The Sequel,” several students observed: “We conquered our fear of seeing ourselves in print, because of possible criticism, but now we feel only pride in our accomplishment. We feel it is better to be daring and take risks than not to attempt new endeavors in creativity at all.”

Rosenkranz said that she asked her students to write mystery stories and plays because suspense is a form “that allows the imagination to flow.”

Besides, she loves the genre. Her Nancy Drews are behind her, but she still reads suspense books to relax. Favorites include the whodunits of Britishers Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and P. D. James, whose work includes an ironically titled study of a woman detective, “An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.”

Working on Weekends

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Working weekends and after school, Rosenkranz and her students edited, typed and proofread the contents of both their books, did most of the artwork and pasted up the pages.

Eight hundred copies of the first book were printed locally at a cost of $4,000, most of it advanced by the school district.

On the back cover of their second book are blurbs of praise from several prominent writers who were shown advance copies and asked to comment. Ray Bradbury lauded their “titanic effort” and humorist Richard Armour, now 80, wrote, “High school students, I envy you, being able to write while so young and with so many years ahead.”

Both volumes are on sale ($5 for the first, $6 for the second) at the school store and in local bookstores. Rosenkranz said all but 150 copies of the first book have been sold. The publishers hope to repay the district out of the proceeds.

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Close-Knit Group

Rosenkranz explained that the title, “Kindred Spirits,” was chosen because it “seemed to capture the feeling I had for these kids. I felt very close to them, and I still do. We felt we were kindred spirits.”

In her preface to the second book, Rosenkranz elaborated on that kinship. A teacher and her students, she wrote, “have the same concerns, and we ask the same basic questions: ‘Who am I?’ ‘How can I make my mark on the world?’ ‘How can I best spend the time I have?’ ”

Rosenkranz now has a literature class that also wants to publish a book of its own. This time, Rosenkranz said, she hopes a patron of the arts will come forward to underwrite the project.

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When Dusty Rose was last seen in print--in the last play in “Kindred Spirits: The Sequel"--she was motionless in a hospital bed “on full life support” after taking a beating from the bad guys.

The prognosis for Dusty Rose is uncertain, Rosenkranz said. The only sure thing is that she will not be the star of Rosenkranz’s next book.

“I like her a lot,” the teacher said, “but I don’t want it to get old and staid and gimmicky.”

From ‘Kindred Spirits’:

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The melodic tune on the radio made her smile. “There’s a little black dot on the sun today.” How ironic that the song was done by the Police. The boys who were arrested had more than a little black dot on their records, she thought.

. . . from “A Little Diversion,”

by Dusty Rose

(aka Shirley A. Rosenkranz)

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“Where is your room?” I asked with a certain aloofness. We detectives are notorious for gathering information that way.

“It’s right next to yours,” he smiled, showing his straight white teeth. “We have adjoining balconies.” I also smiled, showing my own straight white teeth.

. . . from “The Antique Murder,” by Josie Rachford


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