Apodaca: A 'marvelous, quirky' lady

January 14, 2011|By Patrice Apodaca
  • Sixth-grade teacher Claire Ratfield, in red, gets into the act with her students, who perform a "bubble physics" exercise at Lincoln Elementary School.
Sixth-grade teacher Claire Ratfield, in red, gets into… (Don Leach, unknown )

The first time I spoke with Claire Ratfield nearly a decade ago, she chased me down a school corridor, breathless, skirt flapping, her raspy voice calling out that she had to speak to me about my oldest son, who had just started sixth grade in her class at Lincoln Elementary School in Corona del Mar.

Uh-oh, this can't be good, I thought, and took a reflexive step back.

"I have to tell you," she panted, "I love your son."

She proceeded to tell me a story, "The Brilliant Thing My Son Said," and went on to describe him in such accurate detail it was as if she'd known him since birth.

I would soon come to know that such moments are vintage Claire.

At 64, the flame-haired iconoclast, a one-time stand-up comic, is a teacher like no other. In her eyes, all children have talent and promise, and she works feverishly — often in unconventional ways — to help them flourish. She has taught in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District for 41 years — one of only two teachers to reach that mark — and in that time no student who has walked through her door has ever been quite the same.


Claire has been on my mind since last month, when I heard that she'd been in a serious accident. Her car was totaled and she was ferried by ambulance to Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian — all the while cracking jokes about the hunky paramedics. Fortunately, the hospital staff found that aside from some nasty bruises and bumps, she wasn't badly injured.

Good thing, because the world still needs Claire. When I called her Sunday, she was — I should have known — working in her classroom. In typical fashion, she launched into a speech about the need for educational reform and promised to send me books and links to websites so I could see for myself the points she was making.

Truth is, half the time when Claire starts talking about "brain-based teaching," "parallel study" and "dialectics," it goes about a mile over my head.

No matter. In an age when students are continually exhorted to pursue their passions, Claire shows them exactly what passion looks like through her exuberance and pure joy in teaching.

And at a time when the failings of the education system have come under increasing scrutiny, Claire is a model for how one dedicated teacher can transform young lives.

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