Teaching has come naturally to Helen Colwell for her whole life.
“I enjoyed teaching and never knew anything else, really. It was always a part of me,” she says.
Helen also says she always knew she would go to UCLA for college and actively prepared for University throughout her schooling, taking all of the required courses and exams needed to get in and excelling as a student.
“UCLA was the only good option,” Helen explains. “USC was on the ‘other side of the fence,’ [meaning] you had to be very wealthy to attend and those who could were proud of it.”
Like many families during the Great Depression, Helen’s parents struggled to make ends meet, although she says she was unaware of the extent of nation’s troubles at the time. Her father was a house mover and was “always working,” Helen recalls.
“I didn’t realize it at the time,” she says, “but the store owners around town would let my mother pay on credit; everyone had to, and they knew the bill would come eventually, as it always did.”
Raised in Redondo Beach in the days before it had paved streets, Helen learned how to drive when she was eight years old, sitting on her father’s lap so he could reach the pedals. “We practiced in the cemetery,” Helen remembers, smiling. “I couldn’t kill anyone there, as everyone was already dead and buried!” By nine, Helen had earned her driver’s license and by 7th and 8th grade she was driving her father’s Cadillac to and from school full of passengers.
According to Helen, in the 1920s and 1930s there were very few families who lived in Redondo Beach year-round. Her grandfather had a beach home close to the water and she remembers watching the ships pull into the harbor, including many foreign vessels from Japan and other countries around the globe. She learned to play the violin at a young age and worked hard in school to prepare for college.
Graduating from high school in the spring of 1935, Helen was among the first cohort of students to attend UCLA’s newly built Westwood campus.
“It had been the University Teacher’s College previously, and the campus was still being built,” Helen recalls. “It was so small that everyone knew everyone.”
Initially, Helen lived in one of the student apartments on campus before moving back home.
“This was long before they built the freeways, and it took me about 20 minutes to get to campus,” she says.
Helen played violin in the orchestra throughout her time at UCLA and decided to major in music with a minor in psychology.
“My teachers were so nice and I enjoyed all of my classes,” says Helen. “I developed a reputation for doing straight ‘A’ work and never compromising on standards.”
Soon, Helen was grading papers for her professors and had accepted a teaching position in Redondo Beach.
After meeting the requirements for her music major, Helen enrolled in education courses and became a student aid for the Education department, writing and administering tests, grading papers, and teaching adult classes.
“I was treated more like another faculty member than another student, and I enjoyed studying and writing, ” she said.
One of the required courses at the time was elementary education, which was a big class of about 300 students with smaller labs. Corinne Seeds was a teacher at the time but was not yet the head of the Elementary Education department.
“I developed close relationships with many on the faculty and they supported my growth as a teacher,” Helen remembers. “It was a wonderful experience.”
After graduation, Helen became an elementary music teacher in Redondo Beach, where she taught orchestra and instrumentals. After teaching for a few years, she became an elementary school principal and finally an administrator for the city’s school district before her retirement in 1979. Reflecting back over her career, Helen exclaims, “Teaching music wasn’t work – it was fun.”