He Wrote the Book on Rio Schools

Times Staff Writer

The need to write seized Michael Wittlin on a Saturday morning two years ago, in what was either a stroke of genius or fit of madness. He is still not sure which it was.

A public schoolteacher for 27 years, most of those in the largely immigrant Rio School District near Oxnard, the 51-year-old father of two decided to write a book about his fellow teachers, paying tribute to their dedication to education.

Wittlin titled the book "Classroom Heroes." He meant it as a response to what he sees as a steady barrage of teacher-bashing that seems to be in vogue today.

Self-published last month, the book has yet to find an audience. In fact, it's sold only 39 copies so far. But the Ventura resident believes these tales of commitment to the classroom and overcoming long odds are worth telling. And he is a patient man, a quality that comes from standing year after year in the eye of the tornado known as third grade.

"I just think education gets a bad rap and that the public needed to get some sense of the people who are teaching our children," said Wittlin, who has taught at Rio Real Elementary School since 1982.

"I think these are important stories," he added. "The question was always going to be whether I could find a market for them, and that's still the question."

There was no question when Wittlin sat up in bed in April 2000 and declared to his wife, Anne, his desire to go from schoolteacher to scribe.

Inspiration struck after fellow teacher Maria Ante-Castellanos talked to his limited-English students about her own path to the classroom.

The veteran educator, who was born in Mexico, told the students how she struggled to learn English, put herself through college and raise her daughter as a single parent. She told them that if they worked hard enough, they could beat the odds. The third-graders were awestruck. And Wittlin's book idea was born.

Over the next year, he interviewed three dozen educators in the Rio district, tape-recording their stories and transcribing them on weekends and at night, while his children slept. After he had completed a first draft, he spent the next year sending off various chapters and a cover letter to publishers.

He fired off 175 queries. He got back 175 rejections.

"When you are told you are not good enough 175 times, you start to believe maybe you're not good enough," Wittlin said. "I make no pretense. If you read the book, it's not Hemingway or Steinbeck. But I think it covers an important area, one that hasn't been dealt with a whole lot."

Wittlin finally decided to publish the book himself, paying $650 to the online publishing service Xlibris to turn the manuscript into hardback and paperback form. The book is also available at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.

He gave one of the books to Ante-Castellanos over the Christmas break in appreciation for serving as his muse.

"I thought it was a great idea," said Ante-Castellanos, who already is about three-quarters of the way through the 282-page paperback. "Every time I get into a different story, I learn something new I can apply in my life and the lives of my students."

The book profiles more than teachers.

Wittlin interviewed instructional aides, administrators and a custodian-turned-bus driver who is near the end of a decade-long journey to becoming a schoolteacher.

There is also a chapter on Rio School District Supt. Yolanda Benitez, a second-generation Mexican American whose mother picked crops to support her family.

Benitez, one of four Latino superintendents in Ventura County, is widely considered a role model and an example to the children of the small farming community that their lives can reach beyond the fields.

"He had a dream and he put in the time to achieve it," Benitez said. "I told him it doesn't matter how many books he sells. He's done an incredible thing, and he'll probably never know how many people he has touched."

Wittlin said that while he would like to at least break even on the venture, money was not his motivation. He isn't too concerned about sales, he said, although he admits to connecting to the publishing service's Web site to check.

His marketing approach is as basic as it is straightforward.

He has provided fliers to the more than 500 teachers, administrators and other personnel in the Rio district. And by the end of the month, he will have sent 10,000 fliers to teachers and other employees in every school district in the county.

Ultimately, Wittlin knows that there may be no market for his book, that despite two years of hard work, few people may want to shell out the money -- $18.69 for the paperback, $28.79 for the hardcover -- to read about his classroom heroes, no matter how noble their stories.

And if that is the case, this soft-spoken man with a wild shock of salt-and-pepper hair is prepared to give up the dream. But he will never be sorry he told these stories.

"I was 49 years old when I started, and I had seen people getting ready to check out, thinking of retirement 10 to 12 years down the line, and so was I," said the Los Angeles native, who taught in rural Washington state and inner-city Los Angeles before landing in El Rio.

"I didn't like that. I didn't like my attitude," he said. "I got to talk to 36 great people, I got to listen to inspiring stories. The truth is, this book helped me."

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