The recess bell has rung, but 10-year-old Anahit Kasparian is in no hurry to leave the classroom.
With a barely contained smile, she approaches Maggi Robson, her fifth-grade teacher, and tells her proudly about taking second place in an area dance contest, demonstrating the leg-stretching ballet move that won the prize.
“Wonderful! Let’s see if I know that one,” says the 63-year-old Robson, herself an avid dancer. She grabs one leg and twists it at a crazy angle. “You would do the toughest one, wouldn’t you?”
Teacher and student both laugh, but moments later Robson switches to a sharper tone to admonish inattentive class members. It is this delicate balance between unselfconscious affection and no-nonsense structure that Robson has managed to strike in a career at Reseda’s Cantara Street School that has spanned four decades.
Today, the Manchester, England, native marks her 30th anniversary of teaching in Room 14 at the same school. In June, she will retire.
“You have to create a situation where learning isn’t drudgery, but at the same time there is some drilling involved,” she said. “You must let the kids know that you care and that they have choices.
“Some of them, unfortunately, chose to be gangsters. But many of my students are doctors, nurses, teachers.”
Graduates of Robson’s classes tend to keep in touch, especially now that word of her retirement has circulated. Last week, she returned with the class from a field trip to find a student she had 20 years ago waiting in the room to surprise her.
Occasionally, her message has not hit the proper chord among a student body that, like the San Fernando Valley as a whole, faces increasing urban ills such as crime, drugs and broken families. Her room has been targeted by vandals and in 1993, it was deliberately burned, destroying decades of work.
“People have said to me, ‘They wouldn’t do that if you weren’t succeeding,’ ” Robson said. “And I suppose they’re right.”
After June, Robson has few plans other than taking a cruise and furthering her passion for ballroom dancing. She knows she wants to continue in some way to work with kids. And she half-knew the answer when she spontaneously broke into song to ask students the question the Beatles famously posed: “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?”