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English Teacher Challenges Her Locke Students to Excel

May 22, 1986|GARY LIBMAN

When she attended Alain Locke High School, Grammy-award nominee Patrice Rushen once tried to bluff her way through a term paper so she could concentrate on music classes and rehearsals.

"Two weeks later I got it back and it had a big fat F on it," the singer-pianist, 31, recalled. Barbara Smith Palmer of Locke's English department had rebuked her thoroughly.

"She had gone through it page by page and those areas I had lifted out of the books she not only put quotations around but told me what book they came from," said Rushen, nominated for rhythm and blues Grammy Awards in 1982 for a vocal, "Forget Me Nots," and an instrumental, "Number One."

"She said 'You've got to do another report because I caught you cheating. As talented as you may be, that won't be good enough to get you through my class. You're going to have to work and pass the tests and write the term papers like everybody else. I expect more of you because you're gifted.' "

Making similar demands on students since the 25 1/2-acre campus opened in South-Central Los Angeles in 1967, Palmer has scared, pushed, coaxed and encouraged hundreds of young people to improved performances.

Her achievement was recognized when she was nominated for California Teacher of the Year in an annual contest sponsored by Encyclopaedia Britannica and Good Housekeeping magazine. Judges named her one of four finalists among approximately 175,000 teachers before choosing science instructor Robert Mange of Folsom High School near Sacramento as winner.

"I wish I could tell you the number of students producing at grade C or below who left class producing A and B work in less than 20 weeks," said actor William Allen Young, a 1971 Locke graduate who played Pvt. Henson in "A Soldier's Story."

"In class we would read each other's work," said Young, who also played photographer Jacques Danvers in the recent miniseries "Sins" with Joan Collins.

"I was amazed at the young men and women who weren't doing very well in other classes and the stuff (they were turning out in Palmer's class) you could print somewhere."

Palmer, who grew up in Compton within a few miles of Locke High, created her success out of a belief in her students. She staunchly defends the school against detractors.

"I don't think that this school has any more problems than any other school," she said recently in a classroom lined with flyers from student writing contests and with books by Shakespeare, William Golding and Richard Wright.

" . . . Over the years we've all had the experience with people saying, 'Oh, you work in Watts? Is it safe?'

"And a lot of times people know of some horrid incident that has happened in the community that they simply associate with the school.

"There are fights at any school. We don't have any more than any other place.

"There are probably drugs on campus in a greater degree at other schools than there are here. It may be because our supervision is good. It may be because the people respect the school and do those things out in the community. We don't have kids falling out in the halls.

"We have youngsters here who aren't interested and aren't motivated, but there's a whole lot more who are. I wouldn't be here this long if it wasn't a good place to work."

Palmer, who earned a doctorate in curriculum and instruction from the University of Southern California, says she has been offered more lucrative jobs developing curriculum but has rejected them.

"I decided when I became a teacher," said Palmer, who is married and the mother of a 16-year-old daughter, "that I wanted to make sure that all the youngsters who came by me had whatever it took to be successful.

"I've seen a need in the young people for people who believe they can be successful--who will push them, nurture them, love them, inspire them to do something they like."

Palmer, who has ridden horses, worked as a lifeguard and played the violin, uses all of these approaches.

One day recently she broke her seniors into small groups to discuss their essays on "Brave New World." Wearing a white sweater and a tan plaid skirt, she walked the room to listen as they decided which papers to read to the class.

When one girl shyly refused to stand and read, Palmer soothed her and let her wait. By the end of the hour, she was ready to recite.

But Palmer is no pushover. Although gentle, she is demanding and she scares a lot of students.

"She always started class with a very straight and stern look," said Young.

"She always made us seem very bright . . . She treated us like we were college prep straight-A students. We didn't have the grades. Most of us didn't have the self-image to justify that either.

"We tried to be more than we thought we were, which created quite a strain. The struggle to produce more than we thought we could was intimidating. In the process fear became very real. What if I don't produce? This teacher seldom smiles."

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