The School Has Changed, But Mission Remains the Same


It's 7:45 a.m. and Teri Uyemura's sixth-grade class is drifting onto campus like the morning fog that often blankets this part of Northwest Pasadena. They walk past the three security guards posted at the school, through halls of jostling, yelling seventh- and eighth-graders and plop down into the wooden desks of Room 115 at Washington Middle School.

There's Chris Spearman, wearing a pair of knee-length "Do the Right Thing" shorts and sporting a red, yellow and green pendant of the African continent on his chest.

Followed by Victor Hernandez, with his rat-tail haircut, inquisitive eyes framed by glasses held in place with a skier's-type leash.

And Hugo Sanchez, with his pants slung low on his hips, who will make several trips to the pencil sharpener and the Kleenex dispenser in the coming hours as other heads bend over class work.

"He's so bright," Uyemura says wistfully of Hugo, who already towers over his 5-foot, 1-inch teacher. After 19 years of teaching sixth grade, the last four at Washington, Uyemura knows that with the right encouragement, Hugo will blossom.

Welcome to the sixth grade, Pasadena Unified School District.

Here in a sunlit classroom festooned with children's drawings and homework assignments, Uyemura wrestles with ignorance. She battles the effects of missed breakfasts, broken homes, too much TV and not enough sleep.

Washington Middle School, built in 1924, during the post-World War I boom when Northwest Pasadena meant swank homes and privilege, now lies in the poorest, most ethnic part of town.

Many affluent whites have fled both the area and its public schools. Most of Uyemura's kids are black or Latino. More than half have only one parent at home, teachers say; most families are on welfare.

That doesn't faze Uyemura.

"I don't want to hear any kind of complaining," she announces during the first month of class, pivoting on her low heels to better take in the room. "All of you guys are supposed to get ready for the seventh grade, and you're not going to get anywhere unless you do this work," she says, referring to math problems (division with remainders) she has just assigned.

Whether she is explaining homonyms at the board or asking her wriggling charges to name the seven continents and four oceans, Uyemura is the boss in Room 115.

She knows it, and the class knows it too.

Unlike some of the other teachers they have for electives, Uyemura commands students' respect. They may murmur and goof off when she leaves the room for a minute, inscribing the desktops with a style of graffiti found throughout Northwest Pasadena and throughout Los Angeles. Or the boys may flick pens at each other to impress the girls, then holler, "Don't you be touching on me!" as they punch the nearest shoulder.

But a sibilant murmur of "Sh's" accompanies Uyemura's return. Several of those in the class are garrulous, but this year, Uyemura says with relief, she has a basically good bunch of kids. There is no troublemaker, and just a glimmer of a class clown, the playful Rickey Armendariz, whom she has so far discouraged by explaining that such behavior is for babies and will not be tolerated in the grown-up sixth grade.

Others, like Margaret Gonzalez, she merely beams grateful smiles at, smiles that the smart girl returns shyly. Slender, with brown locks pulled back neatly in a ribbon, Margaret breezes through her assignments, then pulls out "A Light in the Attic" and reads while the others catch up.

Uyemura instills trust too. When she bends over a student's work, she sticks her face right up to theirs, looking them eyeball to eyeball, praising them out loud for good work, sometimes admonishing them privately for bad behavior.

Sixth grade works on a simple system of incentives, punishments and rewards. Students who finish a set amount of class work, which varies whether they want to earn an A, B or C, can go to "break" when the bell rings. Those who don't stay in.

"I like the sixth grade," Uyemura reflects during lunch, catching her breath while students wander in and out of the classroom to talk about weekend excursions and coming projects.

"They're right at the age when you can talk to them and reason with them. They're trying to discover who they are."

It's hard sometimes, since the class is interrupted repeatedly, by a monitor coming around for candy money, an instructor poking her head in for 30 seconds to confer with Uyemura, a special-education teacher collecting a child for individual counseling.

Despite the attentive classroom and the children's interest in learning, this is no little red schoolhouse.

"A lot of kids I have are borderline to giving up. They're really close," Uyemura says, her voice tinged with sadness. She mentions one student about whom she is concerned.

"He could real easily be out on the street and be a gang member," she says.

Another has shown up twice for school in recent weeks. When he arrived one of those days, another instructor sent him right to detention. He hasn't been back.

Things were different between 1958 and 1960, when Uyemura attended Washington Middle School. There was a woodworking shop, intramural sports, social and civic clubs--more of a campus life.

Today, security guards patrol the campus to keep violence, especially gang-related activities, away. The school is surrounded by fences that are locked at night. After-school sports were scuttled when games started attracting unsavory neighborhood denizens.

The ethnic makeup was different then too. Uyemura remembers a fairly even mix of white and black students then. Today there are few whites and an increasing number of Latinos, with a sprinkling of Armenians.

But kids are still kids, especially at that tremulous threshold between childhood and adolescence. Earlier in the day, they had hung with rapt attention on the words of Jim Robinett who team-teaches science with Uyemura in the adjoining classroom.

Robinett had sliced open the embalmed heart of a sheep before the intrigued class, and the talk had gone from arteries to embalming fluid to a well-received discussion about Cleopatra and the famous Egyptian mummy King Tut.

To the kids, this suddenly wasn't school, it was "Raiders of the Lost Ark," with Robinett assuming the mantle of Indiana Jones as he spun his tale.

Later, Deandre Hall, a slender boy whose hair is closely shaved, except for a triangular patch at the base of his skull, came running up to his teacher.

"Mrs. Uyemura," he said, happy to show off his knowledge of ancient Egyptian history. "I heard about him. I heard about that man who was wrapped."

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