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Real Life Protagonist: The View from an Educator

Protagonist: 1. the principal character in a literary work

2. a leader, proponent, or supporter of a cause: CHAMPION

(Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

About a year ago, I had the idea of writing blog posts where I would share stories of everyday people making a big difference. It stemmed from me noticing people whose small acts, perseverance, work ethic, or positive attitudes make others’ days brighter in spite of possibly going unnoticed or unappreciated - the grocery clerk who brightly smiles and makes conversation in spite of the long lines and impatient customers, the young person in my neighborhood who cheerfully walks from house to house to pick up neighbors’ recycling and put out their trash cans, the office manager who juggles what seems to be a million tasks all with a smile and a warm hello, the retired person who volunteers and helps wherever needed, doing things that many don’t know about, and expecting nothing in return.

There are so many people doing so many wonderful things, and while they may not want recognition, the rest of us actually need to hear about them because when we do, we are inspired. We are encouraged. We start to see that every little contribution, when woven together, knits us all into one beautiful blanket of hope.

As a storyteller, I know there’s more to these people, these protagonists/champions of real life. There’s more to their strength, their positivity, their ability to work well under pressure, and the little things they do without even thinking about it. It’s these stories that we need to hear. They are models of how we can all live our lives. With the current situation we are in, this idea has come to my mind again. This is a time when stories of hope and positivity are much needed.

One of the first people I thought of when thinking of people who inspire and bring hope was my former teacher, then co-worker, mentor, and friend, Dolores Ledbetter.

So today I begin the first of hopefully many more writings about the real-life protagonists and champions in our world, starting with her story.

I’ll begin by sharing my experience with Dolores, who I called Mrs. Ledbetter for most of my life because she was my 5th Grade teacher. She was a teacher who was firm but fair, a model I strove to achieve during my own training to become a teacher. I remember her love of literature, something else that stuck with me long after those much needed pauses after lunch recess to hear her read from one of my many favorite chapter books such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, or A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle, or The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. Last but certainly not least, I remember the little jump in my heart the day she told me I was a good writer and asked if she could save my Hummingbird Report as a sample after reading it aloud to our class. I will never forget that moment, nor will I ever stop hearing those words echo in my mind on days I have doubts about my writing and my choice to share my writing with others as an author. When I was eventually hired to teach at the same school where I was taught by Mrs. Ledbetter, I was thrilled to see she was still there as the school librarian, continuing to spread her love of books to staff and students.

Someone with such a passion for books deserves to have one written for her, which is why I also thanked her on the acknowledgements page of my first book Sticks and Stones for being one of those who encouraged me to pursue writing. I’m sure there are many others who she has inspired, and if you aren’t one of those yet, sit back and prepare yourself to be uplifted by her story.

Dolores was born in Ottawa, Kansas on March 10, 1935, and moved to Redondo Beach, California when she was five. She is the oldest of six children, three boys and three girls, which makes me feel like I could end this right here and you’d be able to simply imagine the character building nature of that scenario! Her father worked in the shipyards of San Pedro, California after the start of World War II, and became a carpenter after the war ended. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom.

“My mother was the one I looked up to as a child,” Dolores says. “She was quiet and kind, but firm when it came to responsibility and play later.” (Hmmm, I see where Dolores may have received her natural teaching style!)

Dolores explains that the only thing her mom really insisted upon was that her three daughters have the ability to be independent workers if necessary. “So in high school, we had to take typing, shorthand, bookkeeping, and business machines for electives. That turned out to be a good thing, even though we did not like it at the time.”

Her favorite childhood memory was simply growing up in a small town near the beach. When chores were done, she and her siblings would play outside without her parents having to worry about them. “It was such a sleepy little town then. I loved roller skating, and there was a huge roller skating rink on Horseshoe Pier in Redondo Beach at that time,” she remembers.

But as much as Dolores enjoyed her time outdoors by the beach, she also knew she had to invest time in hard work in order to have a successful future.

“We were not wealthy people, and I knew I wanted to go to college. So I knew I had to work hard and do my best in high school to achieve this.”

Dolores woke up early every Saturday morning to head outside, but not for roller skating or beach going. She woke up to be at a bakery by 4:00 a.m. where she helped with all the baking and then worked the rest of the day there as a clerk, and since there was no public transportation in Redondo or Hermosa at that hour, she would run from Redondo to Hermosa!

“The running actually helped me since I ran track at Redondo Union High School. It was dark at that hour, but back then my mom and dad didn’t have to worry about me. I wouldn’t even see a person or car at that early hour, and at the end of the day, I could ride the bus back to Redondo since the buses would be running by that time. I believe having to work for what I wanted was a good thing. I was careful and saved my money.”

It is that perspective that makes me admire Dolores. She could have complained. She could have refused to work at a job where she had no transportation to get there. But not only did she do it, she did it with a positive attitude. That is admirable. That is heroic. That can inspire me to do hard things.

And like any really good story or movie, the result of her hard work was the fulfillment of her goal. Dolores graduated from Redondo Union High School with honors and some scholarship money in 1953. She considered attending UCLA right away, but instead chose to attend El Camino Community College, where she could use the scholarship money and transfer later. Fortunately, that turned out to be an excellent decision.

“That decision changed my life forever for the good. I met Jack Ledbetter there,” she says, speaking of her husband.

Dolores calls El Camino the place for some of her favorite young adult memories. “In 1955, I was selected Empress of the Year, an honor given for scholarship and service to the college. This event was in the local and school papers, and then that same year, Jack and I were married.”

Those are certainly good reasons to call this a memorable place. From here, Dolores decided to work full time as a bookkeeper while Jack worked part-time and attended school at Long Beach State College where he graduated and received his teaching credentials. He then taught in St. Matthew Lutheran School in Harbor City, CA and later at Lutheran High School in Inglewood, CA while also completing school to receive his MA degree in English.

“I left my bookkeeping job, and we had our two boys and a girl. I became a room mother helper, Cub Scout den mother, and was a stay-at-home mom for quite a while.”

It would be quite enough for Dolores to have achieved all this, but of course we haven’t even gotten to the part where I met her as my 5th Grade teacher, so you know there’s more!

In 1964, Dolores moved to Nebraska, where Jack had received an offer to teach at Concordia Lutheran College. Dolores started taking classes at the college to earn her provisional elementary credential to teach. It was in Nebraska where unfortunately Dolores also received some difficult news.

“I got word my mother had a cerebral aneurysm burst, and she was in a coma. That was a huge challenge for me. She was only 49 years old, and I had been so busy with my own life that I felt guilty not to have been with her more. We hurried back to California, but it was too late. It was my faith in God that helped me through that shock. I still think so much about her today, after so many years. God was truly my hope in time of trouble.”

Hopefully, Dolores knows how proud her mother must be of her, as she was in Nebraska following through on the one thing her mother had said was so important when she was growing up, to be able to work independently.

Jack continued to take classes as well, earning his PhD in English at the University of Nebraska, which then led him to receive an offer in 1970 to teach at a new little Lutheran College in Thousand Oaks, CA. (say a cheer all you California Lutheran University fans!)

And guess what happened next? Dolores was offered a job at Ascension Lutheran School. (Yes! Another time to cheer!) She went on to receive her BA degree and permanent life California elementary credential in 1972, following that with an MA degree in Elementary Curriculum in 1976 and a second MA degree as a Reading Specialist.

That is all true perseverance and determination in action. I am so thankful she continued to follow through on her goals, which allowed me to be blessed by all her hard work.

“I loved my teaching job as 5th Grade teacher at Ascension Lutheran School. Some of my funniest experiences were while teaching. Teaching also gave me some of my most rewarding experiences.”

All teachers can relate to that comment. It is truly a job that brings something new each day and also provides so many opportunities to make a difference.

Dolores is also thankful for the many friends she met at Ascension Lutheran Church and School, where she taught for 46 of her 50 teaching years. “We teachers were a family of friends. We have kept in touch with each other all through the years. I love Ascension Lutheran Church and have loved being involved with many activities there.”

Outside of teaching and church activities, Dolores has also continued to be a runner, competing in the Los Angeles Marathon in 1993; she’s a cyclist, going on many long distance rides with Jack; she loves hiking and nature, being a docent at Gardens of the World in Thousand Oaks since it opened, and of course, she continues to be in reading groups because she loves to read and learn.

Dolores says her favorite book of the Bible is John, with her favorite Bible verse being Psalm 118:24 “This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

She truly lives out that verse, radiating joy and positivity to all who know her, and in addition, she has lived as an example of the advice her mother gave her when she said, “Do not fight every battle in your life, but rather save your strength for the really important things in life.” Dolores says her mother believed in love and compromise, but if something was really important in life, to stand up for it.

Thank you Dolores, for being a real life protagonist who demonstrates this love, this compromise, this fight for what is truly important in life, and for the joy you believe in and share. Hopefully we can all take these words to heart and “save our strength for the really important things in life.”

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” Hebrews 12:1-2

The next Real Life Protagonist: The View from a Teen is in the works.

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