“Hi, girls. Hi, girls,” said Jennifer Beltran walking into a second-floor classroom at Sacred Heart High School. It was her 9:47-to-11:16 B-day health class with mostly sophomores, along with a few juniors and seniors, on a Wednesday morning in late September.

Smiling but not overdoing it, the 32 students settled down in their desks and got out their iPads. Many had already taken off their red blazers.

“OK, you guys can pull up your notes,” continued the first-year teacher, who also coaches the varsity volleyball squad at the all-girls’ academy in Lincoln Heights.

At age 22 — not much older than her students, in fact — Beltran shows the same poise she displayed playing the demanding defensive position of libero (who never rotates to the front line) for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, from which she graduated this past spring. Anchoring the nationally ranked Illini volleyball team for four years, the graduate of St. Thomas the Apostle School and Marymount High School in Los Angeles set a Big Ten freshman record for “digs.”

And so this morning’s lecture on managing stress is something the neophyte instructor knows quite well, having juggled practices and games with late-night study sessions that earned her a solid 3.0 grade point average in college.

“What causes stress?” she asked, standing in the middle of the large classroom, flanked by double rows of students to her left and right. “Who’s stressed right now?”

Hands shot up.

“Ok, what causes stress?”

“Teachers,” one girl called out matter-of-factly, generating muffled laughs along with a bashful expression from their teacher that clearly implied, OK, I really walked into that one.

“Is stress always bad?”

“No,” said another student.

“Right. There’s positive stress when it helps you escape from a dangerous situation. Let’s say you’re walking at night and a man comes up with a knife. Well, stress is going to help you run away. You get an adrenalin rush and your heart beats faster.”

Stress talk

Now Beltran was meandering back and forth down the aisle, her long auburn hair flung over her right shoulder, with the easy-going confidence of an athlete on her home court.

“Stress can help you concentrate and perform at your best,” she said. “I know it did for me and my teammates at Illinois, especially during big games and finals.

“But overwhelming stress can be harmful,” she pointed out. “And I’ve had that, too, in my life growing up in the inner city. I didn’t want to hear gunshots at night. But some of us live in neighborhoods where that happens, right?”

Many students were nodding. Others just had blank stares. But hardly anyone took her eyes off the young teacher.

Continuing the question-and-answer didactic strategy, Beltran got the teenagers talking about how major life changes, like moving and deaths, can cause stress. And if something isn’t done to help the situation, these stressors can become debilitating, she pointed out, leading to eating disorders, insomnia and even heart attacks.

Still strolling the middle aisle, her words and demeanor took the form of a coaching pep talk. “How you react to stress is important, and your personality influences how you react in a situation,” she noted. “So staying positive can really help you. Focus on things you’re really good at, and don’t focus on your mistakes.

“Energy is real,” she emphasized. “If you give out negative energy, you’re going to get that back. So smile at someone or open a door for them. And take this with you: Don’t direct your energy to what you can’t control. I always tell my family that. Energy is so real.”

Success … and doubts

Jennifer Beltran — who was born with the last name Bonilla but changed it during her sophomore year in college — surely needs all the energy she can muster these days at Sacred Heart High School.

There is the considerable learning curve of being a first-year teacher, with two health/PE classes. And then, like most of her Catholic school colleagues, there’s her other jobs: registrar, assistant athletic director, admissions coordinator, attendance officer plus volleyball fundraiser.  

“I keep track of tardies, absences and all the fun stuff,” she said with a chuckle after her class. “I don’t yell at them, but I remind them nicely.”

Nicely, because she knows that there may be young women in her midst who could use the same sort of encouragement she got not so many years ago.

Her mother Antonia, who immigrated from El Salvador and cleaned houses mostly in Santa Monica and the Westside, put her only child in kindergarten at St. Thomas the Apostle. There she quickly became friends with Gustavo Beltran, an aide in the classroom. When she would tell other kids “he’s my dad,” the school worker jokingly went along with it. They remained close, and in third grade he encouraged her to join the volleyball team he was coaching.

Playing the defensive libero position, she was a natural at passing and digging out balls. He paid for her to join a club team in Redondo Beach. When she was a sixth-grader, he took her to a junior USA team tryout in Anaheim. She stayed on the USA Girls’ Youth National Team for six years and was named to ESPN’s All-American First Team in 2010. Meanwhile, she led Marymount to both CIF and California state titles and was named to the All-CIF Division I Team.

During those prep years, she started staying weekends with the Beltrans in the San Fernando Valley and eventually pretty much moved in with them, while still seeing her own mother. “I always say they changed my life,” she said. “I mean, I don’t know what my life would have been like if they weren’t there. It would have been completely different, and I wouldn’t have a lot of things I have. They’re a blessing to me. They’ve shaped me into the person I am today.” 

Then it was off to Illinois on a full scholarship, where she played libero for four years, graduating last spring. Her first semester in the Midwest went really well, setting a school record for “digs” with 623 as a freshman. But then life took a self-reflective turn for the volleyball phenom.

“I was not sure where I was coming from, you know, the inner city and all of a sudden playing in college in the Midwest,” she explained. “I doubted what I was doing. I didn’t know. And I didn’t know why there were a bunch of kids back home who looked up to me. I asked myself those questions and that caused a lot of doubt in me. I didn’t know what my purpose was. I was told what it was or what it should be. But I didn’t know it myself.”

‘Really tough’ times

“So for that half year and all through my sophomore year was really tough: ‘Am I really all that everyone says I am?’” she said. “At Illinois my whole environment changed. I was alone with myself and my thoughts a lot more. And that’s when I started to question myself. ’Cause everything just happened, you know. It was awesome. But then all those negative things started to come into my head.”

But Beltran loved the game too much to quit. And as difficult as those dark days, weeks and months were, she never actually thought of dropping out of school and coming home. Instead, she learned about who she really was — and wasn’t.

“I went through a lot of tears,” she recalled. “My volleyball suffered and my grades suffered. It took a lot of reflection. It took a lot of praying. It took a lot of talking to my coach, to my parents and my friends.

Head coach Kevin Hambly told her that the other girls looked up to her. He encouraged her to take up more of a leadership role on the team. And that’s what she gradually did, getting to know each as a person and not just a fellow volleyball player.

A while before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, she decided not to pursue playing professional ball overseas. And when Principal Raymond Saborio, who was on the faculty of St. Thomas the Apostle School when she was going there, asked her to coach the varsity squad at Sacred Heart, along with an assortment of other school jobs, she jumped at the opportunity.

“At Illinois my senior year I made sure I developed a relationship with each one of my team members,” said Beltran. “I found a way for them to know that I was there and that they meant a lot to me. And that was huge.

“And that’s exactly what I’m trying to do here, with my team and as a teacher. I tell the girls, ‘I want you to be able to come to me.’ And, you know, that’s just not going to happen. I actually have to work at it. I have to work to gain their trust. And like I just told the girls in class: ‘Asking for help is not something weak.’”

Grading their teacher

Comments from Sacred Heart High students on Jennifer Beltran:

— Amanda Vargas, junior: “I like that she’s been where we are right now — struggling, students who have to manage their time with sports, extra-curricular activities and school. She’s been at a higher level that I only dream of playing one day. So it’s easier to pay attention to someone who’s been there and who knows what they’re talking about. But she brings up personal experiences that aren’t about volleyball. So you know that there’s more to life than just playing a sport.”

— Adriana Calvillo, junior: “We all love her. Why? I would have to say she’s an inspiration. I’d lost the love of volleyball, and I was just ready to give up on it until a friend suggested: ‘We have a new coach. Try her out.’ And since the first day, I was just amazed. Like, she says inspiring words and she doesn’t even know that she’s saying them. They just flow with her and it just goes with the kind of person she is. I just love her as a coach.”

To learn more about and support the volleyball program at Sacred Heart High School, contact Jennifer Beltran at (323) 225-2209 or [email protected].