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Teaching Lessons of a Lifetime

At 90, Sylmar High's Eleanor Bralver proves there's no substitute for experience.

October 14, 2003|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

The lesson being taught Monday at the classroom in Sylmar was strictly old school.

And so was the teacher.

Ninety-year-old Eleanor Bralver was explaining to Sylmar High School freshmen how they will have a better chance at a long life if they eat right, have healthy habits and know how to laugh.

The oldest full-time public school teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District seemed to be making her point to the 32 pupils in her third-period health class. After all, seeing is believing.

"I don't think of her as being 90. She knows what we go through -- you can feel that she can relate to us when she talks to us," whispered 14-year-old Heather Martinez from her seat near the back.

Bralver turned 90 on Sunday. She had hurried Monday to her bungalow classroom at the edge of the campus after a surprise birthday celebration in the school auditorium. It drew the school marching band, local dignitaries and former students in a crowd of about 600.

Bralver laughed and clapped as school cheerleaders spelled out her name, the student choir serenaded her with "Happy Birthday" and a huge, student-baked cake was carried to the front of the auditorium stage.

"Eleanor, I don't think I'm going to ask you to go down there and try to blow out 90 candles," said Principal Linda Calvo.

No worries, Bralver said, hurrying to the stage steps. "I'll try." And with a few quick puffs, the health teacher extinguished all 90 of them, coming away with a blob of icing that she immediately licked off her fingers.

Calvo explained how Bralver had been the first one to greet her when she arrived at Sylmar High 15 years ago. Bralver had attached a penny that she had found on campus to a card on which she had written, "This is your lucky day."

"Eleanor, it was," Calvo said.

Bralver's imprint seemed everywhere on campus Monday.

Senior David Madrigal, 17, who presented her with a personalized No. 90 Sylmar High baseball shirt, explained that his mother had taken a health class from her in 1976.

Wendy Dalzell, a 1979 graduate, traveled from San Diego for the party. "She looks exactly the same and sounds exactly the same as back then. It's awesome," Dalzell said as she stood at the side of the auditorium.

Three sisters who are former students, Pauline Ball, 48, Barbara Stout, 49, and Alice Garcia, 39, had Sylmar High T-shirts for Bralver to autograph after the ceremony. They said they have never forgotten how Bralver was there for them after a 1977 family tragedy.

"Our dad killed our mom and then he was killed in an 8-hour standoff with police. She was the first one at our door," explained Garcia, a 1982 Sylmar graduate.

"She showed us true love in her heart. There was no pretend," said Stout, a '72 graduate who now lives in Mentone, Calif. Added Ball, a '74 graduate who lives in Elizabeth Lake: "She's part of our hearts because she made us feel like she really cared about us."

Bralver said she can't help but take a personal interest in students' problems.

"I've mixed my tears" with those of many troubled youngsters, she said. "I'm involved in kids' lives. There's nothing I haven't heard. We live in a very troubled world. I want these kids to be able to go out there and face the world."

Teenagers today grow up too fast, Bralver said. And sometimes education does not keep the same pace: "We don't need words, we need funds. If we're not going to leave our children behind, we need more federal funding."

Bralver's teaching career began in Detroit in 1935, where she taught physical education. She took a 22-year break to raise her two sons before deciding, at age 52, to return to teaching. At the time, she needed to work to boost the family income so one of her sons could go to college.

She was a substitute teacher for 3 1/2 years at Sun Valley Junior High School before beginning her stint at Sylmar High in 1969. Between 1973 and 1995 she never missed a day of work. Bralver lives near the campus, renting a room from a former teacher.

Los Angeles school officials believe Bralver is the oldest full-time public school teacher in the country, although no national records are kept, according to district spokeswoman Monica Carazo.

The school district has no official retirement age, allowing teachers to stay in the classroom as long as they can do their job.

Bralver acknowledged that she is "in the twilight of my teaching years," although "I don't want to even think about retiring."

And she used herself as an example Monday during her third-period class as she spoke of healthy habits and their long-term benefits.

"Maybe I should be humble. But I enjoyed what happened today," she said. "You live to be 90 and you'll get a party like I did."

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