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New York Daily News

Model Teacher Speaks To Needs


January 5, 2003
Copyright © 2003 New York Daily News. All rights reserved. 

When Schools Chancellor Joe Klein goes looking for role models for new teachers, he might want to take a ride up to Public School 64 on Walton Ave. in the east Bronx to visit Marie Reyes-Salcedo. A fourth-grade bilingual teacher, she's been turning immigrants into New Yorkers for 30 years.

"My children are new arrivals, and my main concern as the new year begins is that they don't have warm clothing," Reyes-Salcedo says. "My kids are from the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Ecuador, Mexico, Puerto Rico - like me - and many come to school in the winter months shivering, dressed in flimsy clothes and sandals.

"I keep a few sweaters in the closet and sneakers they can wear in class. But they need warm clothes to call their own. That's not all they need, of course. Many never get toys for Christmas. They also need school supplies - crayons, notebooks, pencils, book bags. You name it."

Reyes-Salcedo says that many of her students are from single- parent, welfare-assisted homes, where poverty is sometimes compounded by drug and alcohol abuse.

"After school, instead of doing homework, some of the girls become mamitas who must care for infant siblings," she says.

"Some come from Latin America with stomach parasites from bad diets. Others get head lice, so I'm always cutting coupons for Rid out of the Daily News. Some go to bed without a hot meal."

She says the kids get breakfast and lunch in school but that her classroom sometimes resembles a bodega because there are always fruit and cakes and things for the kids to snack on. Her nickname in the school is The Shopping Bag Lady because she's always carting in stuff for her kids.

"It is impossible for a kid to learn when his or her mind is on hunger," she says. "So what I do is incorporate food into the learning process. For example, if I am teaching fractions, I might bring in a few pizzas and show them how they are cut into eighths. I tell them the higher the denominator, the less you eat. And as they learn the math, I also teach them the corresponding English words for the numbers and the foods."

Learning from life

By law, Reyes-Salcedo must teach her kids three periods a day in English so they will begin to assimilate into the public school system. "The fourth grade is critical because by the end of it they must take the standardized test," she says. "So you have to do things to capture their imagination, to make learning fun.

"You soak an egg in vinegar for three days and it starts to bounce like magic. You put oven cleaner in Reynolds Wrap and watch it disintegrate. Then you teach them the science behind those little experiments, and the English words like 'disintegration' and 'combustion' to describe the science, or the math, and slowly they become, well, New Yorkers."

After school, in the warmer months, this earth mother takes her students to Orchard Beach to feed the sea gulls and collect shells, translating from Spanish to English the words for sand, wind, sky, the sea - and for everything else they see and hear and smell and touch - using the world as her classroom.

"My own three kids are all grown up now," she says. "One lives in Milford, Pa., so when I visit I go to the outlets and I buy bootitas, two pairs for $5, and so what if they're a little big? My kids will grow into them.

"One night I was driving home through New Jersey when a state trooper pulled me over for speeding. When I gave him my license, he shouted, 'Maestra!'

"His name was Kenneth, and he was my student in 1974. Now he was a trooper, married with four kids. He said, 'You always told me I was a good boy and that someday I would have a good life.' Instead of a ticket, I got a hug and a kiss. I was so proud."

Reyes-Salcedo says her own children still remember that whenever she bought them new toys, she'd take their old ones into school for her students. "My son, who is 22 now, still remembers that I took his Hulk Hogan action figure to give to a boy who had no toys. But how many toys can one kid have?"

What we can't have enough of are teachers like Marie Reyes- Salcedo, who still sees teaching as a selfless, noble calling and not just a civil service J-O-B.

"Right now, my kids need warm clothes - sweaters, coats, hats, gloves, scarves, boots. Also toys, school supplies, anything that will help make poor kids smile in the new year as they learn."

That's a teacher's teacher.

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