‘Where’s the fish?’ Los Alamos Middle School teacher is retiring after 35 years and is ready to spend even more time fishing at her favorite spots. Courtesy photo
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Rita Sanchez has taught at Los Alamos Middle School for 35 years and has finally walked away from her classroom taking with her memories of thousands of kids who crossed her path during that time. She may no longer be working for Los Alamos Public Schools but hundreds of her former students still keep in touch with her, young people and those who are no longer quite so young who have shared laughter and tears with her, the good time and the not so good times.
In an interview at her home with the Los Alamos Reporter Sanchez said she was born in Albuquerque and raised in Cundiyo in Santa Fe County where her parents built a house together on land her mother’s family, the Vigils, had there.
Sanchez’s father, Jose B. Sandoval, worked for the Forest Service in Albuquerque and continued to work for the Forest Service when they moved to Cundiyo until he retired.
“He retired twice from Los Alamos National Laboratory, once from the Pro Force and once from something else. He was a hard worker,” she said. Her mother, Bertha Rodriguez, was a school teacher and taught Spanish at Pojoaque Valley High School. She now lives in White Rock.
“She told me not to teach. She did not want me to be a teacher because of the big people’s stuff, the administration stuff. It wasn’t even bad like it is now back then. I had no plans on teaching,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez herself graduated from Pojoaque Valley High School in 1977 and went to the University of New Mexico where she studied Spanish, New Mexico History and Women’s Studies.
“I hated math. I hated the normal stuff so I tried to get that out of the way. I hate math with a passion. I studied all the stuff that I really enjoyed and then I got tired at one point and I thought I’d take a break for a year and I worked at El Rancho de las Golindrinas as the assistant curator,” she said.
Sanchez loved her job there and has many stories to tell about that time in her life.
“They were filming movies while I was there and I have not changed,” she chuckled. “I would climb up to the flat tops of one of the roofs while they were filming at night if they had a night scene. I still remember climbing up with my cooler of beer, my pillows and my blankets when I was providing security at the movie. That was fun and I met some great people there.”
Sanchez then returned to UNM and finished her Bachelors in University Studies before going back to Cundiyo.
“I planned to take a break but my mom’s friends at PVHS said, ‘Just sub for us once in a while’. Well, I ended up subbing on an almost daily basis and I love it. It was almost always Boy’s PE. I subbed for all the coaches and my mom and I was there almost every day,” she said. “I decided, oh, crap, I like teaching. I’d better go back to school so I went back to graduate school at New Mexico State University.”
She recalls that when she returned, Jim Goetzinger was a teacher in Los Alamos and his wife was one of the teachers at PVHS.
“He said he could get me a job in Los Alamos. And I said, ‘I don’t want to work in Los Alamos’. He replied, ‘Too bad. You’ve got an appointment with Jean Elder’. Jean was the superintendent at the time,” Sanchez said.
She still remembers the maroon-colored, Mexican-style silk dress she wore to the appointment.
“I went up there thinking I don’t want anything to do with this lady and I got a job teaching social studies. It was a part-time job at the middle school. And that didn’t last very long because right away a position came up in Spanish and that was it. I’ve done all my teaching up there,” Sanchez said.
She said she has had “millions” of principals during her 35 years.
“There’s a song that says ‘I watch them come, I watch them go’. That’s how I always felt. There was no staying power. I had some great principals that I really liked and others that I couldn’t stand,” Sanchez said. “The best principal I ever had was Cheryl Pongratz because I could tell her absolutely what I thought. I was safe talking to her and she would do whatever she wanted but I was able to say what I felt.”
Asked about the biggest changes she has seen during all those years, without hesitation Sanchez said “Technology”. I hate it,” she said with a laugh. “When I get stuck, my students are the ones who help me and they never make me feel stupid. Some of those kids are really, really smart and they’re really, really sweet.”
She said as far as changes in the kids, some of the parents seem to enable them a lot.
“So some of them don’t take responsibility for what they do, like the kid has the egg dripping in his hands and the parent says, ‘oh my hito would never do that’. I have had maybe five parents in all of my years of teaching that I felt threatened by. The rest of them have been so supportive,” Sanchez said.
She said she got to “cheat a little” because she had her students for two years when they took Spanish 1 and Spanish 2.
“We got to be like a family. The seventh graders always say I scared them because I start off really rough telling them this is the way it’s going to be, and this is what I want. Then pretty soon as they start learning, I can loosen up a little bit, and by the time we go to Rancho de Chimayo we’re a family. That hasn’t changed,” Sanchez said.
For a long time, Sanchez has taken her Spanish 2 students on an annual field trip to Chimayo, something students from over the years still recall with excitement.
“We go to the Santuario in Chimayo. I’m not a very good Catholic as far as going to church, but I’m really a very spiritual person. The Sanctuario is my go-to place, my safe haven. I worked there in the summer at the trading post and my one of my ancestors, Bernardo Abeyta, was the one who founded the Santuario,” she said,
Sanchez said he believes in the power of the holy dirt at Chimayo and that she has it all over her home. She has a locket with dirt in it and she would always have a little vial of dirt with her when her son Bryan wrestled at Los Alamos High School. Bryan would ask her to “dirt me,” she recalled, and she would place some on the back of his neck to keep him safe and help him wrestle well.
Sanchez recalled when a basketball player hurt his knee and his family asked he to put some holy dirt on it saying, “Ms Sanchez, you have connections”.
“I put my holy dirt on his knee and said my little blessing and that was it. The next Tuesday I get a text, ‘Ms Sanchez, the dirt worked. There’s nothing wrong. It was bruised’. That’s why I wanted to take the kids to a place that’s important to me,” she said. “I also took them to Ortega’s Weaving Shop in Chimayo because my family wove for them. And of course we always ate at El Rancho de Chimayo.”
She noted that last year a parent donated more than $1,000 to pay for the field trip.
“I am so sad that the field trip couldn’t happen this year during my final year of teaching,” she said.
Sanchez’s enrichment programs also included having wolves brought to school by a friend who rescues wolves, much to the delight of her students. She also brought in guests from Albuquerque to teach the kids Flamenco dancing.
“We used to have a home economics room and I used to make biscochitos at school with all my classes. The recipe has been floating around forever and the first thing it says is ‘wash your hands with hot soapy water’. That was always fun,” she said.
Sanchez said all the state requirements now have taken time away from teaching.
“There are so many tests that we can’t do all the fun stuff as much. We don’t have a home economics room which I think is such a loss. I could use that room and the home ec teacher could use my classroom for the day,” she said.
Sanchez used to take an electric skillet to school and would make breakfast burritos in the classroom. The kids would bring the ingredients and she cook would them and the kids would assemble them. Another favorite of the students were her frito pies.
“Those things are easy for me and the kids loved it,” she said.
She recalls kids asking her what a tamale was, and being apprehensive about tasting green chile for the first time but loving it.
“It wasn’t always about the language. I thought there was so much more to it.” Sanchez said.
She said being the sponsor of the Native Hawk Club was also very important to her.
When she first started teaching, Sanchez said she practiced her Spanish with the janitor.
“I’ve seen a lot more Hispanic kids coming, and a lot more Hispanic teachers and parents, and that has been great. My parents have been very supportive most of the time,” she said.
One of Sanchez’s favorite things to do was to call a parent from the school phone where they see the school number on their phone.
“I’ve had some kids that had some difficulties but they worked so well for me. I remember calling a parent and hearing the sigh at the other end of the phone. I said, ‘I have a little bit of a situation here – he pulled a 100 on his test today’. The parent was so excited and said, ‘He did? We studied all night. That’s the best news’. That’s the kind of phone call I always liked to make,” she said.
Sanchez said parents have been very generous to her and very trusting and supportive for the most part.
“I was very honest. I tried to deal with kids first before I had to call parents. It had to be bad if I was calling a parent,” she said.
She said emotionally that kids knew she was a safe person to come to if they had a problem. She choked up as she recalled having to explain to kids that they were not worthless.
“They knew to call me and that they could always reach out to me. I always watched out for them,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez’s involvement in and presence at sports activities in the district is something that her students and former students loved about her. She got close to the wrestling team when her son Bryan started wrestling in seventh grade.
“I sort of stuck with that club. They have had some great, great coaches. It is an incredible sport. I loved being a part of it,” she said.
Former LAHS athletics director Robert Abney told Sanchez that she should consider working the events as a monitor seeing as she was always there, and she has been monitoring since 2000.
“I’ve been there for everything except soccer and almost never missed any kind of activity. I was reliable. It was good money. When you get money for hugs, it’s cool,” she chuckled. “That was a really positive thing for me because when my students they left the middle school I could see them at high school. That to me was the coolest thing. It’s one of the things that I’ve done that I loved.”
Sanchez said sometimes she wouldn’t get home until 11 p.m. and it was still fun.
“I worked for (former athletic director) Vicki Nelms for a long time and she was incredible. She said the other day, “If I asked you to do something, you always did it’. I always wanted to be helpful. I had my own corner in the gym – Ms Sanchez’s corner. At football it’s always the back gate,” she said.
Sanchez became a little melancholy as she discussed how the COVID-19 crisis has affected her final year of teaching, noting that she could never have imagined not being able to be around her students who mean so much to her. Former students and their parents were the ones who helped her to pack up her room and move her teaching materials and personal belongings and it was a quiet departure from what had been her home away from home for 35 years.
“Someone called me a legend the other day and I started laughing. I told them I just like kids. I love middle school aged kids. I could never do elementary – I had a hard time with little ones, but middle school I loved because they’re still young, you can still mold them so to speak, and they’re still really nice,” she said. “People said I must have been nuts to stay at the middle school level for 35 years but I would never switch.”
These days, Sanchez gets great joy from spending time with her daughter, Elena and her husband Emmet, and their children Emmet and Liliana who live in El Paso, Texas.
Sadly, Sanchez’s beloved son Bryan died at the age of 21 in a tragic automobile accident on his birthday, Dec. 24, 2008. For many years, the Bryan Sanchez Memorial Wrestling Tournament drew young wrestlers from far and wide.
Sanchez has lots to look forward to and keeping in touch with her former students will surely remain an important part of her life. The Los Alamos Reporter is looking forward to singing Christmas carols with her again this year at the maximum security prison in Santa Fe.
Rita Sanchez has taken her parking sign from Los Alamos Middle School home with her. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Longtime LAMS teacher Rita Sanchez stands by her altar at her home. She is retiring following 35 years at Los Alamos Middle School. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com