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Irresistible Force of a Teacher's Will

Profile: Mrs. Mellor and her pupils defied all expectations. She coaxed

farm workers' children into achieving and elite colleges into accepting


By JESSICA GARRISON, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

April 21, 2002


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



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



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



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."


And then came her inspiration, one that would transform the lives of

hundreds of her students.


He took a front-row seat in her class: skinny Ricardo Gonzalez, with his

slight Mexican accent, his big eyes and his endless questions about

college and life outside Huron.


'Someone Who Believed in Me'


Born in Mexico, Ricardo came to the Central Valley with his parents when

he was 6. Even as a child, he worked summers in the fields, picking as

much cantaloupe as his arms could carry.


He was determined not to spend his life picking crops, aware that his

father had moved from Mexico mainly for his children's education.


Ricardo spent hours after school talking to Mrs. Mellor. And with her own

children a continent away in Eastern colleges, he took a place in her

heart. "After hearing so much that you're not going to be anything, I was

looking to find someone who believed in me," Ricardo said.


Mrs. Mellor remembered a summer program at UC Berkeley that accepted

gifted middle school and high school students to take college classes. She

had Ricardo apply. He was rejected.


The next year, Mrs. Mellor buttonholed Berkeley officials at a conference.

You say you want talented minority students; well, I've got one for you.

Who cares if his test scores are low? He has talents those tests can't



In the summer of 1986, armed with a backpack and some emergency numbers,

off went 14-year-old Ricardo to stay with Quaker friends of Mellor's in

the Bay Area.


"It was a complete disaster," Mellor cheerfully recalls. The only Latino

boy in a program full of mostly middle-class white kids from the Bay Area,

Ricardo sank into lonely isolation.


"I was miserable," he said. "It was tough material, and there was no one

to talk to."


But Ricardo went back for five consecutive summers.


During the school years, Mrs. Mellor paid him--sometimes out of her own

pocket--to grade papers for her middle school math classes. The teacher

packed him and a bunch of others into a van one Saturday and drove them to

Stanford University so they could see the campus. The morning after his

senior prom, he went to Mrs. Mellor's house with his friends. She made



He finished high school and returned to UC Berkeley for college, helping

to found the university's first Mexican American residence hall.


After college, Ricardo became a teacher--of math, as it happens. After two

years in the schools, he turned to the business world; now 30, he runs his

own computer business from a home office in Hanford, not far from Coalinga

and Huron.


Such a future seemed unimaginable at the end of that first disastrous

summer in Berkeley. Teacher and pupil talked and talked about what had

gone wrong, what could make it better.


"I told her that it would have been perfect if I had some company, someone

going through the same thing with me," Ricardo said.


'Disaster' Inspires Redoubled Effort


Mellor was inspired all over again. Rather than back off from the Berkeley

program, she would send more students, dozens of them. She would spend her

summers with them, egging them on. Their families would come up on

weekends to ease the homesickness and remind the children what they were

working to attain.


She learned that Berkeley officials wanted to bring more minority students

into the summer program.


Mellor told them: I've got the students. All you have to do is change your

criteria so you're no longer relying on the SAT, and give them financial



Berkeley officials were game. "We were going to change the criteria

anyway," said Nina Gabelko, director of Berkeley's Academic Talent

Development Program. "But she was very insistent about it. She came in



Mellor decided to include students of all ethnic groups from Coalinga and

Huron. She hoped to start breaking down barriers, and she believed that

the white students also needed more demanding classroom work and a bigger

perspective on school and life.


In the summer of 1987, Coalinga-Huron House was born, an organization to

help students get into the Berkeley program and pay for their stay. It was

also the name of their rented digs in Berkeley.


Ricardo's parents sat on the first board.


During the school year, Mrs. Mellor's proteges had to do all their

homework, all the time. They had to fill out the intimidating Berkeley

application. And they had to help bring in the cash for summer room and

board, using Mrs. Mellor's moneymaking ideas.


They ran through public parks plucking wisteria pods that they sold to a

dried flower distributor in Oregon. They sold candy, tamales and cinnamon

rolls. They staged the Cow Pie Drop, a rustic form of bingo still held

every May.


Near a park in the center of Coalinga, students draw a grid on a field,

marking it off like a giant bingo board. Nearby, a cow munches on grass.

Other students sell bingo boards to townspeople, who bet on where the

just-gorged bovine will make its mark.


That first summer, Mellor managed to get 17 students into the program,

with their costs covered. As June turned to July and the heat pushed down

on the valley, the students made the four-hour drive up Interstate 5 from

their tan, level towns and into the colorful streets of Berkeley.


They lived in rooms rented from a fraternity house, sharing it with the

frat boys who had remained for the summer and staring in awe at their

posters of scantily clad women. But they lived by very different rules. No

cliques or romantic involvements were permitted. Class and ethnic lines

were temporarily erased. It was as liberating for the white kids as for

the Latinos.


"Being young and stuck in our own little stereotypes, it really helped us

break down those barriers," said Richard White, a 1993 Coalinga High

graduate who spent four summers in the program and made lifelong friends

with Latino classmates.


Mellor lived in Berkeley with the students, as unpaid cook, substitute

mother and tutor. They lived on the cheap, with boxes of lettuce and

tomatoes picked by parents. When the prison in Coalinga was selling

poultry for 10 cents a pound from one of its inmate industries, the

students ate chicken for breakfast, lunch and dinner.


Mellor forced them to study. But she, too, underwent a change. So fierce

in the Coalinga classroom, she softened and relaxed in the cool Bay Area

fog. She listened as their new perceptions unfolded, listened to their

most secret dreams, and acted as a tour guide into a bigger, richer world

of experience.


They went to museums and cafes and bookstores. Mellor persuaded a local

theater company to donate tickets.


When one teen made a disparaging remark about a homeless person, Mellor

had the whole group serve food at a local soup kitchen. She brought

dignitaries to the grubby fraternity house for visits. Former UC Berkeley

Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien dropped by one day, planning to stay for half an

hour and hanging out for 3 1/2.


The number of students grew each summer, topping out at 50. In all, 200

have gone through the Berkeley program, nearly half of them children of

farm workers. It showed them that if they were willing to put in six or

more hours of study a day, they could hold their own against the brightest

students in California, urbane teenagers raised with every possible



It bolstered their transcripts with college credits from one of the

nation's best public universities.


But more than anything, the students say, those summers awoke a hunger for

all the things their muted agrarian world at home lacked.


"When you go back to Coalinga, you feel like you're worth something," said

Gilbert Mireles, who became the first in his family to go to college--at



Now 26, he has almost completed his doctorate in sociology. His area of

research is migrant farm workers.


His younger brother and sister also went through Mellor's program and then

to Swarthmore on scholarships. Isaac works at an investment bank in

Philadelphia. Laurie is a senior.


An older sister who did not go through Mellor's program dropped out of

high school in the 11th grade.


Of course, it took more than the summer Berkeley program for

Coalinga-Huron students to gain admission to top colleges. Sometimes, it

took nothing less than Mellor's indomitable will.


She pushed the students to take college entrance tests. She coaxed them to

write draft after draft of their personal statements. She slaved over her

own letters of recommendation. And then, when the carefully typed forms

had been checked and rechecked and mailed in crisp envelopes, she got on

the phone to the colleges or visited admissions offices during what was

left of her summer vacations. In 1994, she became the guidance counselor

at Coalinga High.


Debra Chermonte, dean of admissions and financial aid at Oberlin College

in Ohio, said Mellor was something of a legend in her office.


Eight of Mellor's students attended Oberlin. Many of them had much lower

SAT scores than the average Oberlin student, Chermonte said, and probably

would not have been admitted without Mellor's passionate recommendations

and lobbying.


"It was very inspiring to the admissions committee," Chermonte said.


The lessons went on even after the acceptance letters came in. Gilbert

remembers Mellor sitting him and a friend down to dinner at her house,

teaching them to use a knife and fork properly, what to do with multiple

spoons and how to pass plates.


For children who consumed almost every meal using tortillas as a utensil,

it was a valuable starter lesson in facing the intimidating world of

prestige colleges.


'Mrs. Him' Finds Her Calling


Mellor says she has more in common with her students than they know. She

was the child of Swedish immigrants and grew up in rural Michigan before

going off in 1955 to Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Surrounded by

sophisticated young women from well-off families, she felt sorely out of



After graduation in 1959, she married and taught for one year, then quit

to rear two children. She said she never thought she would do anything

else with her life.


"I was Mrs. Him," she said. "I didn't have anything to say for a long time

in my life. I think I was a slow developer."


Her husband, a history teacher and college administrator, appears lovingly

perplexed by the transformation in his wife.


"When we first got married, she wasn't like this," said Reed T. Mellor.

"She was more a typical woman of the 1950s."


But about the time her youngest daughter, Kate, now 35, went off to first

grade, Mellor began to think about going back to work.


The women's movement and the civil rights movement transfixed her, made

her yearn to do something with her life. Besides, she said, "I'm bossy.

I'd run my kids' lives if I was at home. I had to find some other outlet

for my energy."


She began teaching again, taking night classes to get her credential.


"I was hooked," she said. "And of course what hooked me were the underdog



In 1984, Reed Mellor came home and said he had a job offer in California

as an administrator at West Hills College.


They arrived in Coalinga that summer, a rough time for the area. A 6.7

earthquake had nearly leveled the downtown the year before.


Almost immediately, the Mellors noticed the fault lines separating whites

and Latinos, and the low expectations for all students.


"I was just simply doing what needed to be done," she said. "My conscience

said do it, so I did it. . . . Everyone else would have done it too if

they had thought about it a little longer."


Many in town, even some who were wary of the program and Mellor's methods,

say they grew to admire her work. "A lot of people said, 'You can't do

that with those kids.' And she said, 'I'll prove it to you,' " said Roger

Campbell, principal of Coalinga High School for the last decade. "It

opened my eyes."


Mellor cared little about warnings from some teachers and parents that she

was asking too much of her students, or that Berkeley was not the proper

place for children to spend their summers.


She also turned a deaf ear to her family's complaints about her long



"At times, we were put out," her husband said. "Particularly in the

summer. She was just gone, solid, completely away from me for six-plus

weeks. And even though I'd come up and visit her, I couldn't even spend

time with her, because she was so busy."


The only thing Nancy Mellor took to heart was the successes or failures of

her students.


So it was a terrible blow when, in the early 1990s, her relationship with

Ricardo Gonzalez--her first protege, the inspiration for her entire

program--was torn apart in hurt and bitterness. Both say they don't recall

the specifics of the quarrel that separated them. But Ricardo, now 30,

said he felt that Mellor was trying to control his life, even his social

life. The rift has not healed.


"She tried to be my mom and get too much into my life," he said.


Mellor was despondent. She began to reevaluate her relationships with all

her students. Was she trying to be a parent instead of a teacher? Should

she stop playing such a huge role in their lives?


No, she could not do that.


She would simply have to accept that children grow up and leave their

teachers behind.


"All teachers with passion have a problem knowing how much to love," she

said. "Sometimes, you love too much . . . and there is a time when they

don't need the love any more."


She sighed a few times and took a deep breath. "It took me awhile to

realize that, that you just let them go."


In the mid-1990s, Mellor began to yearn for a higher post. If she had been

able to accomplish this much as a counselor and teacher, just think what

she could do as a principal. But she says she was turned down for

promotions in Coalinga and Huron. In 1997, she left the district to become

assistant principal of a high school in nearby Avenal, where 94% of the

2,400 students are Latino.


Earned Doctorate in Education


She has shot up the ranks there, from assistant principal to principal to

assistant superintendent in charge of curriculum. She also earned a

doctorate in education from the University of San Francisco.


Some of her earliest students have returned to Coalinga to continue in her



Josh Walker, a white student who went to Stanford University, is back in

the classroom at Coalinga Middle School. His father, an art teacher at the

high school, said he always figured his son would get a Cal State

education, until Mellor convinced him to think bigger.


After graduating from UC Santa Barbara, Richard White also returned to

Coalinga to teach. Now 26, he works for the College Board in the Bay Area.

His area of interest: improving minority access to higher education.


Eduardo Gonzalez, Ricardo's younger brother, took a job working with an

education nonprofit in the Central Valley.


In 2000, he won a seat on the Coalinga-Huron school board. His mission:

Get the schools to do a better job of helping farm workers' children. His

brother Javier, who went to Yale, teaches elementary school in the valley

and serves on the Huron City Council.


But the last few years have been rocky for Mellor's amazing college

entrance machine. Coalinga High School students no longer have her to

bully and cajole them through the application process. Acceptances to

elite colleges have fallen.


In 1998, the first summer after Mellor left the Coalinga-Huron school

district, her summer program didn't happen. The next year, she brought it

back to life and added students from Avenal--but no longer lived in

Berkeley as director.


The replacements she hired haven't quite worked out--she's had a new one

every summer.


"She's nuts," said Gabelko, the administrator at Berkeley. "Why can't we

find another nut?"


But the program seemed to work its magic even without her there.


Mellor, now 64, takes inspiration from a 14-year-old boy from Avenal who

enrolled in a basic writing course at Berkeley. Night after night, he

reworked drafts of simple five-paragraph essays. Week after week, his

instructor handed back the papers with big red Ds and Fs. Even when it

became clear he would not pass the class, he kept his temper in check,

kept checking his spelling and hammering out his topic sentences. On the

night his last essay was due, he stayed up past midnight going over his



He ended up the victorious author of one glorious paper with an A at the



For students like these, Mellor said, she recently decided to return to

Berkeley part-time this summer.


"They all go somewhere," Mellor said of her students. The day is ending

and children trickle off campus at an Avenal middle school, their clothes

and backpacks bursts of color against the brown landscape and washed-out

sky. Just beyond the parking lot, the fields stretch to the hills. "And

there are so many more like them."