She was an Indian girl, growing up on the Pala reservation in North County, a lanky teen-ager who was like brown lightning on the soccer field, a budding Pele in a pair of old shorts. She was just that graceful.
The classroom was a different game altogether--a place where she sometimes struggled with even simple concepts. But to her, it didn't matter. Book knowledge, she said, was a tool for the outside world.
She was an Indian. There was no need to leave the reservation. She'd get a job as a grocery store checker, just like others had done before her. She would get by.
Well, that may have been good enough for the girl, still a student at the school, but not for Sister Mary Yarger. The principal of the Mission San Antonio de Pala school has seen too many such youngsters blinded to their potential. And she knows the reason why.
Yarger herself is a Luiseno Indian who grew up on the Pala reservation and attended the same mission school for children between kindergarten and the eighth grade.
For Yarger, who last fall became principal of what officials call the last missionary-run Indian school in California, helping students realize their dreams is a daily passion.
She not only knows the culture, she knows the people--the mothers and fathers and grandparents--and she knows them by their first names. Much of her family still lives on the reservation, which is on California 76, about 6 miles east of Interstate 15.
She also knows what it meant to her to have parents who encouraged her to get an education, go to college, see what the world beyond the reservation had to offer.
"I saw what this girl was trying to do--she would just sit there in school and say, 'I don't have to do anything in life,' " said the 40-year-old nun, a member of the Sisters of the Precious Blood order. "And I wasn't going to allow that."
So Yarger engaged the student in frequent after-school talks. And she made regular visits to counsel the elderly grandmother who was raising the girl--conversations that focused not only on the importance of being Indian, but on opening a child's eyes to new opportunities.
Now, while the girl still struggles with her class work, her goal is to finish high school. It's a good start, Yarger says--the rest will come later.
"We got her to believe that she could do something," she said. "We got her to admit that she had dreams."
Yarger doesn't understand why the next famous astronomer, astronaut or highly regarded physician can't be a child from the mission school. Indians, she says, don't always have to become secretaries or general construction workers.
This from a woman who left the reservation to earn a bachelor's degree in education and a master's in physical education, who saw the outside world and decided to return home to help her people, an Indian who knows her roots.
In a world where minority students often fail to reinvest in their culture, Yarger has given an entire career to her people.
After years of teaching science in other Catholic schools, she returned to the Pala school three years ago to help begin an athletic program there.
Last fall, she became the second Indian to ever run the 33-year-old school, a group of adobe and red-tile roof buildings that are part of the 174-year-old Mission San Antonio de Pala.
Since then, her life has become a focused struggle not only to help keep the school financially afloat but to help teach Indian children the meaning of being Indian, salvaging the frayed threads of their culture that she says have been neglected for more than a generation.
Her message to students is simple: You'll never know what you can become until you try. And if you believe in who you are, you can achieve anything you want, no matter who tells you it's not worthwhile. But success comes hard, she tells her students; you've got to work for it.
To the boy who wants to become a professional football player, she explains that he must go to college. And to get to college, he must first finish high school. To do that, she warns, he must keep his grades up.
To the sixth-grader who wants to be an astronomer, she advises that looking up into the sky isn't enough--he must take math and science courses.
"It's something he never thought of," she said.
"Too many young people become too comfortable on the reservation," she says. "It's a very closed society with uncles and aunts and grandparents living sometimes a few houses away. It's very easy for children to just dig in.
"My job is to teach kids not to just look and see where their parents have gone with their lives but to explore the opportunities of a new generation--things their parents never even thought about."
Yarger is one of a new generation of mentors for Indian children, educators say. She is someone who is trying to come to grips with problems that still plague many of the about 4,000 Native Americans living in North County on any one of eight reservations--the Pala, Rincon, La Jolla, San Pasqual, Pauma, Mesa Grande, Los Coyotes and Santa Ysabel.
"She is proof that the Indian experience has come full circle," said Sister Eucharista Marie Mitchell, pastoral minister for the mission. "She's a role model. She has a personal touch that forms a bond with these children an outsider could never quite achieve."
Patricia Dixon, a Luiseno Indian who attended grade school with Yarger and is now chairwoman of the American Indian Studies department at Palomar College, says Yarger provides just the dose of reality that many schoolchildren need.
"She can see through the smoke screen kids throw at you, saying 'I'm just an Indian, I don't know.' She can tell them 'Hey, remember, I grew up here, too. I lived three doors down from your father.' "
For Yarger and a handful of other nuns who run the mission school, the job isn't just motivating students, but trying to keep the nine classrooms open for business.
Last year, the cost of educating each student was about $1,800. Since annual tuition is only $600, the sisters must find other ways to find money not only to buy books, but maintain an athletic program, fill the gopher holes that riddle the football field and keep the termites from eating through the wooden beams that arch over each classroom.
Many of the girls at the school--which has an enrollment of 167 students--still wear the same hand-me-down green-plaid uniforms Yarger and others wore in the 1950s. There is no money to buy new ones, she said.
"Being an Indian principal of this school is both good and bad," she said. "Sure, I have an insider's view of the problems here, but even with knowing people so closely, there's only so many times I can go back to the well, asking them for money for the school."
The school doesn't require needy families to pay the tuition each year; they give what they can. The lack of funds has put the mission school administrators in some dire monetary straits.
The school has sponsored several fund-raising efforts, including a million-coin drive to buy a new school bus and hire an additional driver. One of the mission school's two buses is a 17-year-old vehicle that the school purchased with Green Stamps.
Students have circulated jars around the reservation, asking for donations and some have given their own change.
"I'm not prejudiced, I'll take pennies," Yarger said.
So far, the children have collected 19,000 coins. "That's only 2% of a million but don't tell the kids," she said. "They think we're doing great."
Even a million pennies, she acknowledges, would only be $10,000. "Frankly, I don't even know what a new bus would cost. I'm afraid to look. But I'm sure that $10,000 wouldn't buy much these days."
But things have come a long way since Yarger returned to the school in 1986 to begin building an athletic program. Back then, there were only a few team sports and the only event the school competed in regularly was an annual track meet.
She started several programs, including football and soccer teams, as well as boys' and girls' basketball. Since most of the parents had to leave the reservation to find work, transportation to and from games was a major problem.
So Yarger borrowed an old van from a friend. She even coached many of the teams--until her energy inspired others in the community to come forward to help.
"One night, this older man who was home from his job on medical leave, came to one of our girls' soccer games," she recalled. "We were getting beat but good. He just stood there laughing.
"The next night, he came to a girls' basketball game and laughed some more. I told him 'Okay, if you know how to coach so well, you coach.' " The man soon began helping out with several teams, she said.
Now, as principal, Yarger has other worries. One of her chief responsibilities is making sure students get enough encouragement and guidance, not only at school, but at home.
To do that, she visits them at their houses, trying to find out which person--whether it is the mother, father, an uncle or grandfather--can serve as their mentor and encourage them to keep up with their work.
"I have to find out who in their family is going to do them the most good," she said, "and it's usually a different member from each family. But grandparents are usually the best. Around the reservation, there's still a lot of respect for grandparents."
Yarger says that grandparents often have the most tangible connection with their fleeting Indian culture.
"During World War II, everyone wanted to be known as an American and nothing else," she said.
"A lot of the Indian culture was lost as young people fled the reservation. They were foot-loose and fancy-free and didn't want to learn. Now they're older and many have come back to find they don't have any culture left--for them or their kids."
Yarger herself is an example of that lost Indian generation. She cannot speak her native Luiseno language and has lost many of the other customs. She knows part of the Indian culture within her has died.
"I wasn't brought up within the Indian tradition," she said. "My father was an Indian and he was proud of that. What I carry with me are the strong feelings that were passed down through my father's family, that's what I hold dear."
Now her job, she says, is to pass that pride on to her students.
"A lot of kids know they're Indian but they don't know what that means," she said. "Teachers have asked kids 'What kind of Indian are you?' and they'll respond 'I don't know, I'm Indian.' Well, that just won't do."
The middle school, with more than 65% of its students Indians, tries to give students a clear picture of their Indian identities before they become lost in the larger high school scene in nearby Fallbrook or Temecula.
"We try to understand the way the American Indian does things, the way its young people think," she said. "We know that the Indian isn't a competitive person so we take a lot of that stressful competition out of the classroom environment.
"For example, we never pit the boys against the girls. We want kids to achieve their personal best and not feel like they have to beat everyone else in the classroom."
While there is much literature on certain Indian tribes such as the Apache and Navajo, little published research exists on most of the tribes that inhabit the Pala reservation in North County and others like it--groups such as the Lupeno, Diegueno, Pomo and Modoc.
So Yarger plans to invite several reservation veterans into the classroom to speak about their culture not only to the students, but to the staff of 10 non-Indian teachers as well.