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Love of writing and students fires her up

The oldest full-time teacher in L.A. Unified at 88, Rose Gilbert can't imagine being anywhere else -- except a Final Four game.

May 13, 2007|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.

James Joyce, "The Dead"

--

In front of a classroom of chatty 12th-graders, Rose Gilbert is passionately demonstrating how not to fade and wither with age.

Sporting a red plastic firefighter's helmet, she tells her 30 students that "I'm on fire," and she wants them to be on fire, too. She sticks a gold star on the forehead of one good-natured young man who has said something clever. As she dashes about the room -- looking like a kindergarten teacher in a blouse printed with bookshelves, a sweater vest adorned with crayons and globes, and sensible Mary Jane shoes -- she exhorts her "bubbies" to elaborate on the themes of the Irish writer James Joyce's novella "The Dead": spiritual paralysis, people's inability to live fully, the necessity of love.

"In Ireland," she tells them dreamily, "they call rain 'a softness.' "

They believe her. Why wouldn't they?

Rose Gilbert is 88. With the retirement last year of a 93-year-old health teacher in Sylmar, Gilbert became the oldest full-time teacher in Los Angeles Unified School District, apparently the oldest in California and one of the oldest in the nation. She has taught for more than 50 years -- first at University High School in West Los Angeles and then at Palisades Charter High School in Pacific Palisades, from its opening day in 1961.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 17, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 97 words Type of Material: Correction
Palisades high school teacher: An article in Sunday's California section about Rose Gilbert, an 88-year-old teacher at Palisades Charter High School, said she had taught "some of the Beach Boys" at University High School. Gilbert taught the singers Jan and Dean. In addition, the article said that J.J. Abrams, creator of the TV shows "Lost" and "Alias," was a 1984 graduate of Palisades Charter High. At the time he graduated, it was not yet a charter school. Although the story suggested that the school became a charter campus in 1961, the school received the charter in 1993.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 20, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 98 words Type of Material: Correction
Palisades high school teacher: An article in the May 13 California section about Rose Gilbert, an 88-year-old teacher at Palisades Charter High School, said she had taught "some of the Beach Boys" at University High School. Gilbert taught the singers Jan and Dean. In addition, the article said J.J. Abrams, creator of the TV shows "Lost" and "Alias," was a 1984 graduate of Palisades Charter High. At the time he graduated, it was not yet a charter school. Although the story suggested that the school became a charter campus in 1961, the school received the charter in 1993.

She married into money, which allowed her to visit many countries (rainy Ireland among them) and do many things.

Unlike most of the green teens in her literature classes, she has experienced life in all its Technicolor palette. In her nearly nine decades, she has reveled in love and endured punishing loss. Her second marriage, to wealthy UCLA booster Sam Gilbert, brought happiness -- and scandal.

"She has so many stories, and she knows what she's talking about," said Erica Pool, 17.

"She really is a dynamo" -- all 5 feet of her -- "more energetic than most of my other teachers," added Eric Rosenstein.

She is "Mama G," and Erica and Eric are just two of the thousands of "bubbelehs" she has shepherded in an honored career. Any plans to quit, Mama G? "I'll quit when I'm tired." Ever get tired, Mama G? "No!"

Living history

"At University High School, I taught the children of Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum. And some of the Beach Boys."

The memory carries Gilbert back to the 1950s, when she started teaching after years as a stay-at-home mother, chauffeur and PTA volunteer.

Now a great-grandmother of six, the English teacher is still powering her way through three Advanced Placement classes and one honors class each week.

Wearing oversize wire-framed spectacles, she prepares class plans, grades papers the day students turn them in, coaches Academic Decathlon participants and still finds time to do yoga, lift weights and avidly support the UCLA Bruins men's and women's basketball teams.

"People think you die when you're over 70," Gilbert said. "You either live living or you live dying, and I'm not going to die."

To see the walls, and even the ceiling, of Room 204, Gilbert's lived-in classroom, is to grasp the bond she has achieved with generation after generation of students.

Exuberant posters and signs indicate that Gilbert is equal parts schoolmarm, mentor and materfamilias. "All my poetry is great. All my books are great." "Mama G is watching you. Big Brother is watching you." "I am not your maid." Some posters feature words shaped long ago from Cheerios, a favorite Mama G snack, now gray with dust: "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless student."

In December 1966, a class created this inside-joke memento: "Mrs. Rose Gilbert is hereby authorized to serve food and beverage to her little sluggards." From the 1987 Academic Decathlon team: "Thank you, Mrs. G. Love, your bubbs."

The Class of 2006 montage features students' photos and the names of the top-notch colleges they planned to attend: New York University, UC Berkeley, USC, Harvard.

Like many of her favorite female protagonists (Anna Karenina, Lady Chatterley, Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin's "The Awakening"), Mama G flouts convention. In California, teachers retire on average at age 61. One-third of California's 308,000 teachers are expected to retire in the next decade.

At a time when overcrowding and students' surly behavior are driving teachers out of the classroom at an alarming rate, Gilbert is that rare teacher for whom burnout is simply not an issue. "I'm not burned out, because I love to interact with the kids," Gilbert said. "I love to stimulate them." Each semester, she lectures on dozens of great works, among them "The Great Gatsby," "The Iliad," "Waiting for Godot" and "The Stranger."

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