Rose "Mama G" Gilbert dons a red plastic fire helmet and excitedly begins lecturing on George Orwell's novel "1984."
Her Advanced Placement English literature students soon feel the heat as Gilbert connects current events to themes in the book — government surveillance, conformity and sexuality.
With her energy, it's easy to forget that she's old enough to be the great-great-grandmother of her Palisades Charter High School students. Gilbert is 88.
"You can't stop her when she is on a roll," says Elieka Salamipour, a 17-year-old senior.
Gilbert's helmet really isn't necessary. It takes only a minute or two for her to get excited about just about anything.
"I want them all to just live literature, love poetry and love life — not just get caught up in grades," Gilbert says.
Gilbert effortlessly connects with her pupils — she affectionately calls them "bubbelahs." She engages and challenges them. A wrong answer or a student who tries to get away with something is likely to get a quick rebuke: "That's bunk," Mama G will say.
Pupils usually don't start out liking poetry, so Gilbert eases them in with love poems by e.e. cummings. "It's very sexy," Gilbert says.
Gilbert is the oldest teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Two other female teachers, both 87, also work full-time in the district, the second-largest in the nation where there is no mandatory retirement age.
It's not clear where Gilbert's age ranks her among the nation's 3.25 million public and 467,000 private school teachers — the U.S. Education Department doesn't track that statistic. But she's certainly among the oldest full-time instructors.
Amy Sherman Smith, a 1970 graduate, recalled Gilbert wearing a slip over her clothes while teaching about "Freudian slips." When Smith reconnected with Gilbert last year for the first time in ages, Mama G hadn't changed a bit.
"Very feisty, very opinionated and her mind is still as sharp as a tack," Smith said.
Gilbert doesn't have to work — her husband left her millions when he died. But she loves it too much to quit.
Mama G's energy is infectious, said Masha Elakovic, a 17-year-old senior who's had Gilbert the past two years. "She comes in, she is really pumped up," Elakovic said.
Gilbert started teaching in the 1940s, took a break and then went back to the classroom teaching full-time in 1956. She transferred to Palisades Charter when it opened in 1961 and has been there ever since.
The racially diverse school, located in a wealthy L.A. enclave, has 2,700 students and an idyllic setting, perched atop a hill with a view of the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Monica Mountains.
Barry Farber, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University in New York, believes if teachers are satisfied with their job, they won't want to quit, regardless of age.
Gilbert's classroom offers a litany of reminders of the difference she's made. Part classroom and part museum, it holds thousands of memories — walls display memorabilia and plaques, as well as cards and letters from students dating to when the school opened.
Students from her first class wrote: "She's a rebel but we love her that way." A picture shows a wastebasket stuffed with district memos and teachers' guides, a nod to Gilbert's dislike of bureaucracy and anything that gets in the way of teaching.
About a dozen current teachers were Gilbert's pupils. One of them is Holly Korbonski, who graduated in 1978. She said studying techniques Gilbert taught helped her get through college. Now she shares them with her students.
"She is formidable," Korbonski said. "I think people are deeply respectful of Rose. I think we have a sense of what this job means to her."
'More energy than a kid'
Gilbert has been known to collect 10-page essays from a class with two dozen or more students and have them graded the next day.
Every morning, Gilbert lifts weights and does yoga. Weekends are filled with UCLA basketball and football games and visiting with the grandkids.
Asked when she will stop teaching, Gilbert pauses.
"When I'm tired," she finally says. "I'm not tired. I have more energy than a kid."