Ode to Mrs. Stringos-Arias, Arts Teacher
Thanks to social networking, I was recently informed that my elementary school arts teacher, Helen Stringos-Arias recently passed away. Her passing gave me pause, as a confluence of thoughts, ideas, and reflections about my elementary school experience came together in a coherent way. This, mostly due to the incredible efforts of a public school teacher in 1970’s East L.A.
Students at Lorena Street elementary in Boyle Heights lived in the heyday of arts instruction. I vividly remember participating in chorus, dance, orchestra, and drama classes on a weekly basis and constantly rehearsing for large performances in each of these disciplines. Our dance and drama teacher, Helen Stringos was known as a “tough love” teacher who demanded excellence from all of her students and was not scared to call you out if your effort was lackluster. In the classroom, she taught the gifted cluster of students and her instruction was regularly augmented with field trips not only to local places but to international ones, such as Greece and Mexico. As an eight year old, I participated in a dance exchange to Mexico City, with Mrs. Stringos leading dozens of us in this exciting competition. It was not uncommon to be surrounded by brilliant and talented peers, because she and other teachers brought out theses abilities in everyone. Two of our elementary school peers, Martha and Gabriel Gonzalez went on to form the Chicano music band Quetzal, with others going into the dance industry and academia.
I lost touch with Mrs. Stringos-Arias but heard through the grapevine that she had moved on to the L.A. Center for Enriched Studies secondary school, where she continued to have a strong impact on the lives of students on the West Side of Los Angeles. She taught dance, drama and cheer leading, with one of her later pupils going on to become a Hollywood star–Leonardo Di Caprio. Famous or not, her pupils would agree that the impact of this individual teacher was immeasurable. Mrs. Stringos-Arias taught me the acting abilities that I use everyday in the classroom when making history exciting for students, or expressing my disappointment when a student curses or acts rudely toward a peer. She taught us the value of calculated praise–she didn’t hand it out frequently, but when she did, you knew it was honest and authentic, and that you had accomplished something.
Mrs. Stringos taught us to look beyond our confines and to dream big. She gave us something to aspire towards, and lit a fire in our bellies in terms of ambition. By teaching students the value of discipline and hard work, entire generations of students went on to escape the poverty of our origins and reap the benefits of our struggles.
I often wonder how the lives of all of us at Lorena St. Elementary would have turned out without our arts teachers. The research now shows that infusing academics with arts results in increased comprehension in all subjects, yet when budget crises arrive, the arts are the first to go. I wonder how Mrs. Stringos-Arias would have adapted to Standards-Based Instruction, and the increased move towards standardized testing as the sole means of evaluating teachers and schools? I wonder if any adult whose life has been touched by a teacher as magical as Mrs. Stringos-Arias would agree with the move toward disposable teachers who work 1-2 years and are then replaced by new ones?
Luckily Mrs. Stringos-Arias is now in a better place, having lived a life full of service to all of Los Angeles’ students. And we are all the better for it.
The memorial guest book for Helen Stringos-Arias can be viewed here.