Custodian Transforms Students into Stars
Custodian Hector Pena had it up to here with problem kids who vandalized the bathrooms at Fern Elementary School every day.
His solution--to have the troublemakers star in their own show--was new to teachers and administrators, who thought they had tried everything. And it certainly was an innovative approach to custodial work.
Now, three years and several student talent shows later, Pena has become a highly appreciated producer of dazzling entertainment at the school in Rosemead.
The girls in that first show--whose ringleader proved to be “a great little rocker with real talent,” Pena said--graduated and did well in intermediate school.
The vandalism ended then, but Pena has continued to produce about three shows a year. Performers have included low achievers who need some kind of success, as well as good students who just want to perform.
Pena, 38, has taken on the unpaid roles of confidante, problem-solver, music teacher, youth leader, service club director and PTA officer.
Outside of school, Pena said, he is a part-time professional percussionist who plays with a variety of groups and for studio shows. He also knows how to use sound and light equipment.
“Hector’s job title might not be teacher, but he does teach all the time,” said Randy Knight, a special education teacher at Fern Intermediate School, which adjoins the elementary school.
Knight remembers the ringleader of the first group Pena worked with as a special education student in his class, when he taught the sixth grade. “She didn’t have any friends and was kind of looked down on,” he recalled. But after that first show, Knight said, “Boy, all of a sudden she was popular and everyone wanted to sit next to her. She got her little limelight.”
Pena said: “That’s all she needed, just a little. And she took off from there.”
The girls had been “taking their anger out on the school,” he said. “I guess they had knocked on every door and I was the last door.”
Pena had already been assisting with entertainment at the school and several of the girls who had caused the mischief told him of their interest in performing.
“They wanted their own music, and I said, ‘OK, come in here (the cafeteria) during recess and let’s see.’ They did and I said, ‘Wow! I know we got something here!’ ”
Show a Success
The show, presented on the last day of school that June, was such a success that students were dancing in the aisles and teachers asked for a second performance, said Knight and Jim Dugdale, a sixth-grade teacher who also teaches music and works with Pena and Knight on the student shows.
“I wouldn’t have kept those girls. I would have thrown them out,” said Dugdale, “But Hector has so much more patience than anyone else. He pulled them together.”
Ever since that first show, pupils have made up their own acts and auditioned for Pena’s approval in little groups, singing and dancing along with popular records and tapes. They rehearse during recesses and lunch periods for up to three months. The shows are presented at student assemblies. Pena, Knight and Dugdale provide special sound effects, scenery andlighting. Pena said his volunteer work stems from a lifelong interest in youngsters, and his knowledge of music helps him to help them.
He understands a child’s mental processes enough to know that bathroom vandalism and other anti-social behavior are sometimes directly related to personal problems, including academic failure. Children who act in a destructive manner often have no one to talk to and need attention and encouragement, he said.
“I just care a lot about these kids,” he said. “They’re here every day. Somebody’s gotta pay attention to them. Somebody’s gotta communicate with them, help them to express themselves.
“It’s like that big heart is right there and you ask--how close can you get to that? That’s what I ask myself every day.”
Pena began working for the Garvey School District at Fern School in 1981. While continuing his regular workload, he volunteered to help Dugdale, who is blind, with student Christmas shows.
When the first group of students asked Pena to help them perform in 1986, he said, he got Principal Joyce Metevia’s permission to coach them during recesses in the school cafeteria, which has a stage and doubles as an assembly hall.
Pena is often simultaneously pushing a dust mop and calling out advice from the back of the room.
“Communicate with your hands,” he’ll call out. Or, “Use the whole stage, not just a little spot,” or “Looks good! Looks good!”
Students say the performances give them confidence that helps them in the classroom. While some have academic problems, Pena said others are good students who just want to sing and dance.
“I just started in December and already I feel better,” said Jaime Sellers, a sixth-grader. “I was kind of embarrassed auditioning in front of three people, and now it’s OK in front of 10.”
Jaime is in a group rehearsing to perform Tiffany’s hit song, “I Think We’re Alone Now.”
She may grow up to sing and dance, she said, “because everybody is so nice and smiling and clapping after, and telling you that’s great. And Hector’s always telling you nice things about it. I don’t even think he’s a grown-up, he’s so nice.”
Brian Angel, 10, a fifth grader, said Pena helped him with a special “rap” on drugs that he performed last year.
“He’s different from other adults--he helps us out with difficulties,” said Oscar Rodriguez, 11, another sixth-grader whose group pantomimes a tape by New Kids on the Block, “Please Don’t Go, Girl.”
“I think in many instances Hector has helped children with achievements outside of the classroom,” said Principal Metevia. “The shows are good, and it’s rather prestigious for children to be in them. I think it is rather rare that a custodian would put so much extra time like this.”
Pena said he grew up in a large family in a housing project in East Los Angeles, where one particular friend stands out as a role model.
“His name was Alfred, and he taught the kids how to dance and to play a little football. He was much older, but he liked us and we liked hanging around him. He would get teams together and help us express ourselves. It helped a lot.
“That’s more or less how I’m carrying myself, through his example.”
To be an example, Pena said he “would not dare” to smoke or even talk about drinking anything alcoholic, nor will he allow the children to use dirty language.
Pena is married and has two stepchildren, aged 20 and 13. He lives near Fern School, and Knight and Dugdale said he often drops by on weekends to check on the school. He has also organized a club, Service Cubs, made up of Fern students who qualify for membership with good grades and volunteer service. They help at the school with such chores as setting up equipment before shows, gardening, and assisting kindergarten children in the cafeteria.
Pena is also historian for the Fern School PTA, which pays for the Service Cubs’ jackets and for special outings. Pena said he rewards the Service Cubs and volunteer students with these special treats, “because kids should always be rewarded.”
In a school with 550 pupils, Pena said, “all of them have something unique to give or to express. I like to express myself as a friend, someone they can trust. If they get hurt or lost or whatever, they can come to me and maybe I can help them solve the problem.
“That’s why I’m here. Thank God for schools.”