By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Rose Gilbert outlasted 14 principals. She’s given away millions to public education. She inspired generations of students and taught for 63 years. And now, she will enjoy her retirement, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Gilbert, or “Mama G” as she is known to students at Palisades Charter High School, retired in February. Her students were devastated.
“They said, ‘No, no, no! Don’t you love us anymore?’” chuckles Gilbert. “I told them I had to do something new, otherwise I’d be too old. I want to retire when I’m alert and on two feet.”
The beginning of a legend
Gilbert put herself through UCLA working as a secretary. After graduation, she signed up with the UCLA employment agency and was hired as a temp at MGM because she spoke Spanish and knew shorthand.
She assisted the agent in charge of contracts with studio stars. When that person quit, Gilbert took over, working with Liz Taylor, Judy Garland, Spencer Tracy, Greta Garbo, Mickey Rooney and Lana Turner. Taylor and Garland were sensitive and sometimes came to her in tears when they had problems. Garbo was difficult.
“They were people, like anyone else.”
When Gilbert became pregnant with the first of her three children, she quit MGM and became an English teacher in 1949. On her first day as a student teacher at University High School in Los Angeles, the teacher next door had a heart attack and died.
“The principal came to me and said I had to take over,” she recalls. “I’ve been teaching ever since.”
When Mama G began her teaching career, schools were still segregated, the Berlin wall wasn’t built, President Truman was just creating NATO, and color television had not yet entered the homes of Americans, notes a Huffington Post story.
Then and now
In the 1950s, girls’ skirts were below the knees and boys had short hair.
“Now kids wear shorts to school, and there’s no hair policy,” she muses. “Girls practically wear bikinis to school and pajamas. Things have changed.”
In the 1960s there was turmoil on campus, and students protested.
“There was a student walkout over the Vietnam War, and another over whether students could have long hair. The teachers supported the kids. Now kids are apathetic. They don’t care much about anything besides themselves. They are the Entitled Generation.”
Education became driven by standardized tests, but Gilbert didn’t change her teaching style much. She donned colorful costumes and used props in class to make learning fun, once wearing a “Freudian slip” when students wrote a paper on Freud. She continued to be creative and teach her class like a college course, so her students would learn how to be critical thinkers.
“I’m going to miss all that,” she says.
She refused to use a Scantron (test-scoring machine) because she loves grading papers.
“It’s not for me,” she says with disdain.
Students called “bubalas”
“I loved how caring and dramatic she was. You never knew what she would say,” says Cathy Salser, who was Gilbert’s student in 1982. “Mama G was an advocate for students who were different or ostracized. She called us ‘bubalas.’ She made sure we knew how to formulate our thinking and our sentences so we could articulate our point. She made sure we got the basics; she was like a hammer on certain things. She had incredible energy.”
Salser recalls that Gilbert didn’t have the entire class read one book at the same time; she picked out three books for each individual student to read and write an essay about.
“It was kind of like having your fortune told,” she recalls. “You knew she was choosing those books just for you. I was very shy, and she picked books for me that had to do with artists.”
Salser went on to found an art group that helps heal victims of domestic violence.
A generous spirit
Gilbert donated millions to Palisades Charter High School to establish a pool in the name of her daughter Maggie, who died at a young age. She rebuilt the UCLA library and a learning center for student athletes on the campus where she earned her master’s degree.
In short, she made good use of the millions she inherited from her late husband, who owned a construction business. Gilbert has an entire wall in her home covered with articles about her accomplishments as a teacher and philanthropist.
She still wears large-framed, rose-colored glasses and calls herself “optimistic” about life.
On her first day of retirement, Gilbert volunteered at A Window Between Worlds, the nonprofit founded by Salsar. She volunteers on a regular basis.
“I’ve been teaching for 63 years, and it’s been a joy for me,” says Gilbert. “It’s never been a chore for me. The kids know it. They can sense it.”
Remember that all kids are different, and that is what makes them special when they are in your class, says Gilbert, who made a point of getting to know and appreciate her students as individuals.
“Be earnest and honest,” adds Gilbert. "If you say you’re going to give an exam, then give it. You have to be earnest so they believe you.”
“If you’re going to teach, be enthusiastic. If you’re not enthusiastic, you’re going to fail. Don’t expect things to be perfect. Teaching is a lot of hard work.”