Yesterday morning, Marilyn Barrueta, a Spanish teacher at Arlington's Yorktown High School, was asked to help interpret at a school assembly for representatives from the Embassy of Spain. As she approached the auditorium, traditional Spanish guitar music thrummed through the room. But there were no embassy officials to be seen.
Instead, several hundred students and teachers stood and clapped and cheered for Barrueta, who, in a surprise ceremony, was inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame, one of five teachers nationwide to receive the honor.
National Teachers Hall of Fame Recipient Dr. Karen Crow Roark (right) is presented with a plaque by Principal Felecia Russo (left).
(Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post)
Three were from the Washington area, and two of those were from Arlington. It's the first time any Virginia teacher has been inducted and the first time two teachers have been selected from the same district in the same year. The Hall of Fame, in Emporia, Kan., was established in 1989 and considers teachers with at least 20 years' experience.
The other Washington area inductees were Karen Crow Roark, an assistant principal and gifted-resource teacher at Long Branch Elementary School in Arlington, and John F. Mahoney, a math teacher at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in the District.
Mahoney, the first D.C. teacher in the Hall of Fame, used yesterday's presentation to blast federal and city officials for "effectively ignoring" D.C. schools and spending thousands less per student than Arlington, Alexandria or Montgomery County.
"Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, D.C. public schools are not 'separate but equal,' they are separate and unequal," he said, adding, "The government is rebuilding schools in Iraq but is ignoring the schools where its own employees send their children."
Mahoney, 57, taught at Quaker schools for 29 years, most recently at Sidwell Friends School, before taking the job at Banneker four years ago. "I felt the need to do something more important," he said. "The kids in D.C., they need good teaching. They're great kids. I have kids who are so fundamentally respectful and appreciative of teaching that you feel like you're making a real difference."
He said he suspected he had been selected when he heard about the special assembly, but he was not prepared for a special guest who greeted him on stage: a five-foot-tall robot named Alejandro 1.6 that he and his students built this year. Alejandro approached his creator and bowed before backing away.
In Long Branch's gym, several hundred elementary school students succeeded in keeping mostly quiet while they waited for their assistant principal to hurry to the scene of an "accident" there.
When Roark walked in, the children screamed and whooped with excitement. Roark, 55, beamed and waved back.
Principal Felicia A. Russo said Roark, who taught for 21 years in Georgia before coming to Arlington in 2003, is known for sweetly coaxing her students into performing beyond expectations.
"She's got kindergartners reading," she said. "She's got fourth- and fifth-graders working on the stock market.
"Recently, the fifth-graders did a project on bridges, and she brought architects to the school," Russo added. "They just got bitten by that project and they just excelled."
Each winning teacher received a plaque with his or her image on it and two $1,000 awards, one for educational materials and one to be given as a scholarship to a student of the teacher's choice. They also will receive rings to commemorate the award.
Standing on the stage and blinking back tears, Barrueta, 69, who grew up in South America, tried to sum up her 48 years of teaching in Arlington, the last 27 at Yorktown. "Whatever I have achieved, and I'm not sure what that is, I think the credit goes to my students," she said. "By and large, they have always reached for that bar, and I thank them for that."
But students in her third-period Advanced Placement Spanish class batted the praise back to her, rhapsodizing about a recent trip she led to Peru, where Spanish-speaking tour guides showed them around Machu Picchu, an Incan fortress city high in the Andes Mountains, and describing class exercises that go far beyond standard textbook fare.
"Last year, we had to come up with a rap, rhyming all the Aztec god names," said Tyler Evans, 17, who has studied with Barrueta for four years. (The gods, with names such as Huitzilopochtli and Quetzalcoatl, are hard to keep track of, but they lend themselves well to rap songs, Barrueta explained later.)
"We did a soap opera of cowboys, called 'El Amor del Oeste,' which means 'Love of the West,' " said Ben Nava, 17. "It was sensual."
As Barrueta walked down the hall, teachers hurried out of their classrooms to hug her. At a reception in her honor, former students Mary Yuhas and Simone Acha, both 40, recalled studying with her in 1978 at Stratford Junior High School, whose campus later became H-B Woodlawn Secondary School.
Yuhas described having "Unconscious Culture Clash Day," when students played the roles of boorish tourists making cultural faux pas in Latin America, "like people from the U.S. going there and going, 'I'm American.' "
Acha said Barrueta rents a second apartment just to store class-related books and paraphernalia, including a giant bull's head, a collection of live tropical birds and a basket for jai alai, a Basque game similar to lacrosse.
"She's like the Smithsonian of Spanish culture," Acha said.