Wilma Brooks has served the Hobbs Municipal School District since 1967. Photograph by Gabriella Marks.
MONDAY THROUGH FRIDAY, Wilma Brooks readies herself for the day and reports to the Harold Murphy Alternative Learning Center, in Hobbs, even though the chairs and desks sit empty.
While it’s not a requirement, Brooks still prefers to work from her classroom to teach her home economics courses, which have transitioned online since mid-March due to COVID-19. On that Friday, she and the other instructors were notified that in-person instruction would be suspended the following Monday.
“I’ll never forget that day,” says Brooks. “Students in math and English were already working on their subjects with laptops, so switching online wasn’t so devastating to those two classes.” The elective courses were a different matter.
Brooks’s home economics classes had always depended on in-person labs and activities, so the shift online required a fundamental change in the methods she’d used for more than 50 years as an educator. It held high stakes for the students as well, because home ec often helps struggling students gather the last few credits they need to earn their high school diploma.
“Most people are here for recovery,” says Brooks of her students. “We get underserved and underprivileged students who have been knocked down, beat down, and talked down to in their homes.”
An Oklahoma native, she learned the importance of serving others from her mother. “She was an advocate for children’s rights, I never shall forget,” Brooks says. “She helped to get the hot lunches going at the country school I attended.”
That spirit of civic duty has been a hallmark of Brooks’s career. After graduating from Oklahoma State University with a degree in home economics, she accepted a position as a second-grade teacher with the Hobbs Municipal School District in fall 1964. However, she wanted to teach in her field of study and accepted a position in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1965. After just a year, she returned to New Mexico, and eventually rejoined the Hobbs district. It’s where she’s been since January 1967, making Brooks the second-longest-serving educator in the state.
The move to online classes required collaboration between Brooks, the principal, and other instructors to continually check in with each student on his or her progress. Brooks noticed that the change was good for some students in her family-living, human-development, teen-parenting, and hospitality classes. “One girl was so far behind, and she started finishing all of this coursework when we switched to online,” says Brooks. “She was on fire.”
Despite the challenges, the class of 2020 endured, and the Learning Center graduated the highest number of seniors ever in Brooks’s tenure.
Lori Llamas, the assistant director of Child and Family Services in Hobbs, took Brooks’s class in 1986 and has collaborated with her in adulthood. “I have so many kids tell me, ‘If it wasn’t for Mrs. Brooks, I wouldn’t have graduated,’ ” Llamas says. “She was there and would get on Zoom and give them opportunities for extra credit. She went above and beyond with her kids to get them to graduate.”
After more than five decades teaching in Hobbs, Brooks firmly believes in the capability of teachers to connect with each and every student. “You can always find a way for every student to be successful,” she says.
Llamas believes that Brooks’s positive nature fuels the Hobbs community far beyond the classroom. “At the beginning of the pandemic, Mrs. Brooks ordered hand sanitizer packages online and gave them out to everyone,” Llamas says. “She made masks and gave them away. If she had students who needed to print out their coursework, she would do that for them.”
Llamas reflects on what Brooks means in the Hobbs community: “Everywhere you go, you see Mrs. Brooks. This is her life’s work. To her, this isn’t work. She’s just doing her.”