Women in March, Part IV of IV
Every day that Dr. Emma Martinez goes to work as Superintendent of the South Conejos School District, she sees herself in at least one child, maybe two. Among these children who easily could be a younger version of herself are a few who are unfocused or perhaps too young to understand what they’re going through.
The district Martinez oversees is the same one where she began her education, where her family has lived for generations, where many of the students are connected through blood and familial bonds. More than anything, the district is home to the well-traveled, veteran educator.
On a recent Friday morning as she took her daily walk---the schools are on a four-day week---Martinez talked about the serpentine route she has taken from the Valley and back again.
Her first stop out of the Valley was Colorado Springs, a period of her young life wracked by rebellion and lack of identity. “We lived in a tough part of town,” she said. The toughest part may have been the junior high school she attended. There were fights and the now superintendent acknowledges that there were even a few suspensions. “I would think when I was suspended, ‘If only I had someone to talk to.’” But there was no someone to talk to, no someone who could recognize that there was a young girl outwardly tough but fighting a silent struggle within. That left her on the same path. “You had to show your grit, or you would be a victim.”
Moving back to the Valley---to La Jara---and in with her grandparents gave her life a structure that had been missing. “When I moved back with my grandparents,” she said, there were rules. One, she recalled, was her grandmother’s edict that there would be no dating “until you’re sixteen.” Another new light in her life was her Aunt Maria, biologically an aunt, chronologically a peer. But, in Maria and her grandmother, “I had role models.” Discipline and order, two essential pillars, were now part of her life, said Martinez. For the first time, she had the tools to “reinvent myself.”
Then, there were teachers who, for the first time, took the time to engage her. One, in particular, a Mr. Davis who Martinez said was either crazy, she said a wink in her voice, or had enough confidence in her to actually let her teach the class. He noticed she understood the lesson he was teaching and casually asked, ‘How would you like to teach the class?’ “I stood up and took over the chalkboard. I found my calling.”
College was not in the plan after graduation until ‘Tia Maria,’ on her way to take a college entrance exam invited her. “Come on,” she said. “we’re taking the ACT.” The college board test was her ticket into Adams State University. She soon earned a scholarship, the Rotary Scholarship. More scholarships followed. In the next five years, Martinez would earn both an undergraduate and master’s degrees.
Diploma in hand, she returned to her old high school where her former teachers were now her peers. “I was teaching remedial reading and math,” she said. From this vantage point, for the first time, “I truly understood their struggles,” teachers and students. She remained there for two years and then her journey and ladder climb took form.
She became a counsellor in Del Norte, then on to Colorado Springs with a three-year stop in Denver that included finding a husband. She bounced between the classroom and counselling before she headed west to San Diego. The journey peaked with a job as a school principal, not something a rebellious young teen could have ever imagined.
Today, back where it all started, Martinez has found a satisfaction that was more often than not ephemeral and not secured. In the Valley, she said, “I get to interact with the students.” From time to time, a young boy or girl will tell her, “My grandmother says we’re related,” a not uncommon bond in the tight knit Valley. “I tell them, ‘Yes, we are!’” Maybe not the best part of the job, but a great perk, said Martinez.
The pandemic has changed life for kids, teachers, and principals. To manage during this time, “I was taking notice of what was going on around the country…I was just committed to not miss a single meeting where this was being discussed,” she said. Still, even after outfitting her students with computers, hotspots (for internet connection) and everything they would need to weather the virus, achievement suffered.
Martinez said some kids and their families bought in and stayed current with their lessons. Others, unfortunately, didn’t. And supervision at home was often lacking. That, she said, is not altogether shocking.
Assessing the impact of the pandemic on students won’t be possible until normalcy returns and that is an open-ended proposition. “A child struggling before the pandemic, may be struggling more.”
Before Martinez was appointed to her current job, the district went through six superintendents in five years. “It didn’t scare me off. Part of my challenge is to bring the community together.” She knows she has her hands full. But she also said, she’s been through tough times before. “I love what I do.”