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EDUCATION / Pala Reservation : Pala Nun Dares Her Students to Dream : She Knows Herself It Changes Lives

May 24, 1990|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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