El Barrio del Diablo: A Look Back at Grammar School & Life in the Projects – Space Cadets

It was our family’s second year at the projects in a central El Paso neighborhood known as El Diablo; just a stone’s throw from the Coliseum, I was too young to know about my barrio’s reputation.

We lived at 405 Webber Way, apt 130, a block south from Paisano Drive. I had started second grade at Burleson Elementary, a short walk only four blocks away.

Mrs. Barbara Medlock
Mrs. Barbara Medlock

Our teacher, Mrs. Barbara Medlock, was a jet-black brunette with Bette Davis eyes and a happy smile. The girls adored her the moment she glided into the room that first day. At first glance I thought she was gonna be strict, but I was way wrong. She was fair to everyone in class.

That first day after I got home from school mom asked, “What do you think of your teacher?” I shrugged my shoulders, “She has big eyes and smells like perfume”.

It was still the early part of the year and Mrs.Medlock had divided the class into three reading groups: The Bluebirds, the Yellowbirds and the Redbirds. We weren’t asked which one we wanted to be in. I ended up in my least favorite, the Redbirds.

I couldn’t believe it. No way could I tell anyone at home about it – my older sisters would disown me.

bowieYou see, Gloria and Vicky attended Bowie High School, one of the oldest institutions in El Paso and the pride of hundreds of families. My sisters were very proud of the school and its blue and white colors.

They never missed a pep rally or football game and were always involved in extra-curricular activities. My sisters’ room was decorated with Bowie’s stickers and pennant flags. Even their curtains were blue.

The colors influenced me significantly. Their book covers displayed the bear mascot and on weekends my sisters dressed in white buttoned cotton blouses, blue capri jeans and white sneakers.

Bowie’s crosstown rivals were the Jefferson Foxes and their colors are … red and white. Hence my gripe about being placed in the Redbird reading group.

So what was I doing in the Redbirds group? My sisters would be so ashamed if they knew. I felt like a fox in a bear trap. “Oh teacher…..I want out” I wanted to say. After a couple weeks of passing the reading tests, I made the Yellowbird group. I felt a little better. We sat in a circle and as I looked over my fellow birds my mind and focus jumped to attention when Mrs. Medlock joined us.irma

One morning it was Irma’s turn to read aloud. A pleasantly-plump girl, Irma had curly black hair that she wore back above her forehead. On class picture day – her eyes were closed.

So Irma started reading and, whoa … you’d think it was a speed-reading contest. She never took a breath and the words sounded like a recording on fast forward. My heart was racing just listening to her. I’m surprised smoke wasn’t coming out of her ears. I needed a drink of water after that. Our teacher waited patiently until Irma ended finished.

Mrs. Medlock addressed her in a very caring tone, and reminded all of us to pause after periods and take time pronouncing the words. Irma looked down with a half smile. Nerves, I guess.

Back in the classroom, Mrs. Medlock continued her encouragement.

She waved and gestured as she read to us, turned to make eye contact with everyone as she wrote on the blackboard and did it all with great conviction and charm. I was picking up on her teaching methods, nailing the tests as they came.

Others were too. Some rockets were flying ahead … leaving the others behind as they scattered forward across space.

Jose & Maria Smarty-Pants
Jose & Maria Smarty-Pants

Ahead of the rest were two spaceships, neck and neck, passing planets and stars past the midpoint of the race, edging closer to the finish line. It was the quiet Maria and me.

I guess many of us were quiet then….lets call her Maria Smarty-Pants.

I was confident and feeling pretty good about what had become a tight race. One morning, our teacher made an announcement, “Class, we seem to have the makings of a close race”, and we all smiled at how this game had developed.

She continued ”How many think Maria is going to win?” All the girls screamed loudly.

She waited for the miniature hysterics to die down. “How many think Jose is going to win?” The boys tried to yell as loud. Some looked over at me and all I could do was smile.

A buddy got up from his desk, walked over and patted me on the shoulder “You’re gonna win, Jose”, and more hollering came from the boys.

Mrs. Medlock smiled at everyone’s enthusiasm, “Okay. This Friday is the last test, so we’ll soon find out!” This time the class gave a unified cheer. Our very bright and crafty teacher had created a jubilant learning atmosphere. She had single-handedly inspired us to compete positively. I was really impressed.

The following Monday morning came and a bunch of kids had gathered at the bulletin board. I walked in and took my seat. Maria was being congratulated by the girls. A couple friends came over and said “sorry” to me.

I was okay about it. Really. I had come down with a stomach flu that had kept me home on test day and back then there weren’t any re-takes. Nevertheless, it was a close race. Maria and I left everyone else behind by an extremely large margin. I didn’t mind her winning after all that.

But I did regret something.

After that school year I should have thanked our dear Mrs. Medlock. I should have told her what an amazing teacher she was. Inspiring, excellent teaching skills and very clever ideas. Space Race aside, she was one of my best teachers at Burleson.

I’ll never forget her and those Bette Davis eyes.

Jose Oswaldo RicoJosé Oswaldo Rico, Guest Contributor