Ellen DeGeneres surprises Oakland teacher who is helping care for students during the coronavirus pandemic

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It’s 16,000 miles from Lusaka, Zambia to Oakland, California, and a lifetime away from the days when Peter Limata’s mother made sure he got to school every day and taught him the value of giving back to his family and community.

But the first-grade teacher’s mother and everything she taught him were very much on his mind the moment he suddenly found himself on a Zoom call with Ellen DeGeneres.

“She was a rock,” said Limata about his mother, Daisy Namaiko Mweemba, who raised him and his two sisters as a single mother on a civil servant’s salary in the African capital.

The talk show host surprised Limata, 36, last week with a call to let him know that he was being honored for his work with his young students at Emerson Elementary, a Title 1 school in Oakland’s flatlands. She highlighted his morning story time sessions, which help him stay connected to his students during the COVID-19 shelter in place.

Limata jumped from his seat and covered his mouth with his hands when DeGeneres popped on the screen. At first, Limata was speechless and could only tearfully say “no, no” in disbelief.

“Yes!” DeGeneres responded. “I just wanted to meet you and say I think you are so amazing.”

DeGeneres said that she, in partnership with Box Tops for Education, was giving Limata and his school $25,000 each. She said she had heard that Limata sometimes bought supplies for his students at the school, where 75 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunches. She was also impressed that Limata, living on a teacher’s salary in the pricey Bay Area, manages to send money home to Zambia to help relatives’ children with school and other expenses.

Limata said DeGeneres was one of the American celebrities who was popular in Zambia. But it wasn’t DeGeneres’ fame alone that left him momentarily speechless. Memories of his mother flooded in. She died in 2009 of a heart attack and stroke, two years before he moved to the United States and became a teacher

“There were so many emotions that went through my head,” Limata said. “I wish my mother could have been here to see that moment, to see all she had taught me being honored at such a high table by such a remarkable person.”

Limata said his mother, who also taught classes for legal secretaries, was “very strict” and expected her children to finish college and pursue professional careers — though preferably not as teachers, which she worried didn’t pay as much as accounting.

Mweemba also opened her home to young relatives who came to study or work in the capital. “We grew vegetables in the garden, and I once shared the bedroom with cousins, six guys, but these cousins are like my brothers” he said. “My mother taught me that you always did what you could to help others.”

Limata only bucked his mother by becoming a teacher. After he met his former wife, a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia, they returned to the U.S. and initially settled in Baltimore. While Limata took online classes to earn his teaching credential, he volunteered for after-school programs in tough neighborhoods in East and West Baltimore. That’s where he learned he most liked working with younger children.

“The young ones, they are so forthright, and they speak their minds,” he said.

Limata found the same quality in his first-grade students at Emerson Elementary, a job he started in 2015 after he moved to the Bay Area. He worries that his students don’t have the same advantages as students in more affluent neighborhoods.

The disparity has become apparent during the shelter-in-place, when he’s had to help some families get hold of laptops or connected to the Internet. Every morning at 11:30 a.m., he holds Zoom classes and story time, when he greets each student by name.

For story time, he has read such titles as “How Alma Got Her Name,” by Juana Martinez-Neal, in which a father tells his daughter she has so many names to honor different relatives.

The book spurred Limata to tell his students how his full name is Peter Limata. He was born at the start of the rainy season in Zambia, and Limata is derived from a word from the Nkoya tribe which means “the huge first raindrop from heaven.”

Limata started the story time to maintain continuity with his students, knowing that school is the only “constant” in the lives of some.

“They just bring so much joy. They remain resilient.They are always caring for each other. They are always joking with me, just making me feel good,” Limata explained in his eight-minute segment with DeGeneres. “Just being around them is the best feeling ever.”

Since Limata began teaching at Emerson, he has been embraced by the school community. The students and their parents, as well as friends he has made in the Bay Area, have given him the sense that he’s found a home, he said, even if he’s far from the country where he was born. “My U.S. odyssey has done so much,” he said. “I absolutely feel like I’m here for a reason.”

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