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Life Lessons in Helping Schoolchildren Succeed : Education: A revered teacher is about to retire. 'There isn't a limit with children,' she says. 'They are like sponges. They just absorb what you feed.'

June 02, 1993|DIANA S. KIM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The group of kindergartners refused to go home until they had learned to read.

By the end of their first day at Eagle Rock Elementary School, Barbara Ishida had taught them how to count and not to hit or push each other--enough for a group of 5-year-olds, she thought. "Now, it's time to go home," she said.

"They said, 'Oh, but we can't go . . . we didn't learn to read.' And they just sat there," recalled Ishida, still marveling at the memory nearly three decades old. Impressed, the young teacher quickly wrote a simple sentence on the chalkboard and the children learned to read it. Only then were they ready to go home.

"I guess their parents had told them that they were going to school to learn to read," Ishida said. "After that, I taught that group to read. And even geometry . . . there isn't a limit with children. They are like sponges. They just absorb what you feed."

Ishida never forgot the group of children who taught her about their potential and her duty as a teacher. And for almost 30 years since, she has more than delivered on that lesson at the same school, working with children and parents on Saturdays, providing books, school supplies and gifts from her own pocket, and organizing schoolwide activities.

Ishida freely tells her young students in third and fourth grades that she loves them and wants the best for them. She also impresses upon them a sense of responsibility: that they are being educated so they will have choices as adults, that this is all preparation for the future so they can provide for their own children as their parents did for them.

But now, school cutbacks are prompting Ishida, 58, to retire this month after guiding a loving but firm hand over hundreds of children to be their best. She has never settled for less, they said.

"She is a tough-fisted disciplinarian. As a mother, I implicitly trusted her and knew that she really loved the children and had their best interest at heart," said Elizabeth Pattengale, whose three sons all were taught by Ishida; the youngest is in her class now.

"You don't easily replace a Barbara Ishida. . . . She knew how to get the parents involved in the child's education process as much as (she did) a child," said Pattengale, who is organizing a farewell reception for Ishida at the school June 28.

Pattengale and Principal Sheila Watson expect hundreds of families to attend.

"She considers teaching a creative and professional activity," Watson said. "Twenty-eight years is a long time and she is continually thinking of new things to excite her kids."

Ishida works on Saturdays, offering extra tutoring. Other students come to class on Saturdays with their parents to work on special projects.

She finds it important to offer herself on Saturdays so that mothers and fathers can get more involved in the classroom. And because working parents have less time to teach their children social skills, Ishida also drills her students in manners--quiet voices, saying please and thank you. The children find her so engaging that several of them usually can be found eating lunch in her room.

"She did this all by herself. I would never ask someone to do so much work," Watson said. "And, I'm not supposed to know this, but she just donated $200 worth of books for the PTA's book fair."

Ishida's generosity in rewarding her children with books, pencils, erasers, project kits, records, toys and other gifts out of her own pocket has been known for years, said Vonda Onsted, a first-grade teacher.

"Always for the benefit of the children," Onsted said. "Always."

But perhaps the defining act of selflessness for Ishida, a Japanese-American who was born in Hawaii and raised there during World War II, was denying herself the love of her life for the sake of two young children.

Growing up in rural Wailua on the island of Oahu, Ishida's childhood was filled with idyllic days of running barefoot on the sandy beaches and plucking wild bananas, mangoes and guavas. Wailua was removed from the rest of the island and the war, and Ishida's family was spared from the Japanese internment process.

While working as an elementary schoolteacher about 25 years ago, she fell in love with a divorced father of two who was white.

But when he asked her to marry him, Ishida decided an interracial marriage would pain his children too much.

Divorces were rare then, Ishida said, and she saw the pain and confusion divorces were causing some of her students at the time. She said she could not hurt the man's children even further with an interracial marriage.

"As a teacher, I couldn't do it. . . . Now, (interracial marriages are) OK, but I didn't want to confuse the children," said Ishida, who admits that she has privately regretted her decision at times. "At the time, it was the right thing to do."

She never married. Instead, she threw herself further into her work, earning a reputation as a teacher that children yearned to have.

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