Apodaca: A 'marvelous, quirky' lady

The first time I spoke with Claire Ratfield nearly a decade ago, she chased me down a school corridor, breathless, skirt flapping, her raspy voice calling out that she had to speak to me about my oldest son, who had just started sixth grade in her class at Lincoln Elementary School in Corona del Mar.

Uh-oh, this can't be good, I thought, and took a reflexive step back.

"I have to tell you," she panted, "I love your son."

She proceeded to tell me a story, "The Brilliant Thing My Son Said," and went on to describe him in such accurate detail it was as if she'd known him since birth.

I would soon come to know that such moments are vintage Claire.

At 64, the flame-haired iconoclast, a one-time stand-up comic, is a teacher like no other. In her eyes, all children have talent and promise, and she works feverishly — often in unconventional ways — to help them flourish. She has taught in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District for 41 years — one of only two teachers to reach that mark — and in that time no student who has walked through her door has ever been quite the same.

Claire has been on my mind since last month, when I heard that she'd been in a serious accident. Her car was totaled and she was ferried by ambulance to Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian — all the while cracking jokes about the hunky paramedics. Fortunately, the hospital staff found that aside from some nasty bruises and bumps, she wasn't badly injured.

Good thing, because the world still needs Claire. When I called her Sunday, she was — I should have known — working in her classroom. In typical fashion, she launched into a speech about the need for educational reform and promised to send me books and links to websites so I could see for myself the points she was making.

Truth is, half the time when Claire starts talking about "brain-based teaching," "parallel study" and "dialectics," it goes about a mile over my head.

No matter. In an age when students are continually exhorted to pursue their passions, Claire shows them exactly what passion looks like through her exuberance and pure joy in teaching.

And at a time when the failings of the education system have come under increasing scrutiny, Claire is a model for how one dedicated teacher can transform young lives.

Claire's crowning achievement is Lincoln's annual sixth-grade play. Many other elementary schools throughout the district also stage plays. But Claire's productions — starting at California Elementary School in 1979, and at Lincoln since 1994 — are legendary.

The most significant feature of Lincoln's plays is Claire's insistence that all sixth-grade students participate — even if they're too shy to perform and opt to work the lights or change sets. Special-education students often have featured roles. Transfer students find new ways to bond with their schoolmates. Children with physical and learning disabilities routinely steal the show.

Inevitably, some kids who are initially disinterested begin begging for bigger parts, and Claire will tinker with scripts to give them a chance to shine, whether it's in a "newly discovered" scene, an extra dance, or even another song thrown in from a different musical.

The result is a wonderful, wacky extravaganza, and for many kids their one and only brush with stardom. I'll never forget my older son dancing across the stage in his crocodile costume, or my younger son belting out a gloriously off-key rendition of "There's No Business Like Show Business."

Precious memories.

Claire is not without faults. She has a quick, Irish temper and can be impolitic. She has ruffled more than a few administrative feathers with her incessant calls for reform and higher standards in teaching. Some parents are leery of the clamor and clutter in her classroom and decide that a more structured environment suits their children better.

But if Claire's students remember one lesson from her it's that we should embrace our imperfections as well as our strengths. One of her many mantras is a take on the old learn-from-your-mistakes maxim. She calls such moments "Oops — Ah Hah!" I have only to mention those words to my sons to bring knowing smiles to their faces.

Years ago I arrived at Claire's classroom to take her out to lunch at the Ritz for Teacher Appreciation Week. I found her on all fours, helping a student with some elaborate project involving plaster and paint. The room looked like the aftermath of a cyclone, and when Claire stood, I noticed that her dress — one of her best — was covered in plaster dust, her new stockings were already torn, and she wore a different shoe on each foot.

At lunch she talked excitedly about her students, waving her hands so wildly that she knocked her glass of ice tea into my lap. She apologized profusely as the waiter cleaned up and brought her another drink. A few minutes later, she spilled that one on me. Another vintage Claire moment.

There is much to fret about in the world of education today: budget cuts, dropout rates, accountability issues, over-stressed students. It's sometimes difficult to find a reason for optimism.

But as long as Claire Ratfield — this marvelous, quirky, irreverent oddball — keeps teaching, there is at least one reason for hope.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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