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The Irresistible Force of a Teacher's Will

Profile: Bucking odds, she coaxed kids of farm workers to achieve and elite colleges to take them.

April 21, 2002|JESSICA GARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COALINGA, Calif. — Before they met Nancy Mellor, their world was the long flat fields of the Central Valley, their backs hunched in the heat picking cotton and tomatoes, the hazy slope of mountains in the distance holding back the outside world.

At school, the children of farm workers were not expected to enroll in advanced classes or go to college.

That was before the strange, scary math teacher from Pennsylvania showed up.

She recruited the farm workers' children for her advanced math classes, coached them and tutored them in sessions after school and at her home. She issued impossible instructions:

You will stop working in the fields for the summer. You will attend a six-week program for gifted youths at UC Berkeley, and you will study harder than you ever thought possible.

To raise the money to go there, you will persuade strangers to buy tickets betting on where a cow will relieve itself.

You will take the SAT. You will apply to colleges, and write and rewrite and rewrite again your personal statements until I am satisfied with them. You will win scholarships.

She badgered the Berkeley summer program into accepting her students and subsidizing them; she wheedled colleges into looking past the students sometimes lackluster test scores to the gifts and grit underneath.

Over the next decade, almost all of the children of farm workers who came under Mrs. Mellor's wing would attend college, nearly 100 of them. Gilbert Mireles is at Yale. Eduardo Gonzalez went to Brown. Others went to Harvard, MIT, Stanford. They have become city councilmen and school board members, bankers, engineers and teachers. Some of them have returned to transform their hometowns.

It was almost inevitable that Nancy Mellor would make waves when she moved to Coalinga 17 years ago. A Pennsylvania Quaker, she had come to the Central Valley to follow her husband to his new job at a community college. Her background was in the civil rights and feminist movements. She came with a love of city culture--music and plays--and, as the mother of two college students, she held strong opinions about the importance of education.

Then 46, she found herself in an isolated world of tiny, dusty towns, vast fields and clearly marked boundaries between whites and Latinos. A place without so much as a movie theater.

Coalinga was a town of mostly working-class white people, where the modest ranch houses were set out in rows almost as tidy as the surrounding crops and where many made their living in the nearby oil fields.

Huron, 18 miles away, is a town of farm workers, mostly Mexican immigrants. Many live crowded into trailers and crumbling apartments.

The two towns have long shared a school system, with Huron students bumping over country roads on a bus to Coalinga.

In school, the gulf between the two towns and two ethnic groups was stark, Mrs. Mellor learned.

The new teacher walked into sunny Room 10 at Coalinga Middle School to convene her advanced math class and blinked in surprise. On a campus that was then 51% Latino, almost all the faces gazing back at her were white.

She asked administrators for an explanation. Their answer, she said: Latino students did not speak English well enough to take higher-level math classes.

Her students say such attitudes were common. Gilbert Mireles, now a PhD candidate at Yale, recalls being told that he would not be allowed to enroll in the ninth-grade honors English class. A straight-A student, he asked why not. The answer: That class was for the college-bound only.

"The established social order is just so valued to people in that community," Mireles said. "As a Mexican, you're supposed to be humble."

Mellor refused to accept the situation. She plucked promising Latino children from her other classes and installed them with the other advanced students.

The anointed students were terrified. The middle-aged teacher with the flyaway hair and caged rat named Pepito allowed no lags in attention during class and piled on the homework. After reading that students test better if they are slightly uncomfortable physically, she threw open the classroom windows one winter morning before handing out exams. But the students were entranced by her talk about how the world would open up for them if they were willing to work hard.

Many of their mothers and fathers were delighted too. Mireles' father, Gilbert Sr., had made a habit of calling schools of education to solicit advice on how to help his children succeed. In Mellor, parents saw an ally close to home.

The children started coming into Mellor's classroom after school to tackle their homework together, and stayed to chat about whatever was in their heads. Room 10 became their hangout. From advanced math, they moved onto the academic pentathlon team that Mrs. Mellor coached. Suddenly, they were seen as serious students; they saw themselves the same way.

Before long, many students were spending time at Mrs. Mellor's house and calling her "Mama Mellor."

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