Many years ago, I was fortunate to have a male volunteer in my classroom at a public night school or extended day program. There were about forty students in my class, all of whom were older high school kids who wanted to earn a high school diploma. Most of them could barely read, write or do basic math, and my responsibility was to get them through the high school curriculum. The only way I could deal with that many needy students was to make a contract with each one with their individual assignments which they could then work on independently.
One evening, my principal asked me if I could use a volunteer. Could I use a volunteer? I would have taken a gorilla in that classroom, if he could have read. So of course I said yes. And that’s how I got Mr. Stewey.
Mrs. Stewey had called the local high school to ask if they could use a volunteer as her husband, a retired engineer, was interested in helping in a classroom. He felt that his background would make him more useful with older students, but the principal of the day school didn’t have the time or inclination to bother setting him up. So he passed the request on to the extended day program. My principal knowing the overwhelming needs in my class gave me first chance at the man.
The very next evening Mr. Stewey showed up. He was about seventy years old, short and pleasant looking. His gray hair and glasses gave him a dignified appearance that I knew would help him gain respect in the classroom, since the students seemed to really appreciate older citizens.
My methods for working with the night school pupils were basically simple. Each student had a folder with the academic work in it that the student needed to complete and it included history, English, math, and science. Since most of the students could barely read, much of the work was simplified to an elementary level. As each student completed his or her work, I raised the bar to a more difficult level. However, that meant staying on my feet and helping every student every evening with whatever material each was trying to accomplish. It worked, but it was an almost impossible task to get to every student during the three hours they were with me.
Enter Mr. Stewey. He was simply wonderful from the first evening on. Once I had explained to him how the class worked, he said, “This is great. I can move around and work with students who need the help, and you and I together can help these kids make real progress.” Just like that he became a partner, and we became a teaching team.
The students took to him almost at once. If Mr. Stewey needed an evening off, which was not very often, the kids would ask, “Where is that grandfather who helps us?” If I replied that he needed a rest, they were okay with it, but if I said he was taking a vacation, they wanted to know why he was going away on a school night. After all, if they were there trying to get through school, then he should be there also. Telling them that he did not get paid didn’t impress them. One girl, Barbara, pointed out that she wasn’t getting paid either, but she still showed up.
Mr. Stewey was delighted when I reported the conversation to him. He chuckled and said, “I’ll tell them that I had to attend my granddaughter’s birth, and then they will understand.” Every student was interested in Mr. Stewey’s explanation for his absence, and when he presented pictures of the new baby, their acceptance of his absence was complete.
Barbara, who was angry and aggressive most of the time, was particularly attached to Mr. Stewey. She called him Mr. Stewey to his face, but when he was absent she referred to him as that “older teacher-man.” Mr. Stewey loved the fact that Barbara had given him the title of teacher. He said, “My mother was always disappointed that I became an engineer. Now she can rest easy, since I’ve gained the position of teacher.” And my reply to that was that he definitely was a teacher in our classroom.
The year went on, and there was seldom an evening that Mr. Stewey did not appear. When he was late or absent, there was a restless difference in the class. Obviously I could not get to every student quickly enough, and without Mr. Stewey the students often had to wait for my help if they were stuck on a difficult assignment. There was a kind of class sigh when Mr. Stewey arrived, even if he was a little late.
Graduation arrived and some of the students had completed their requirements for a high school diploma. Barbara was one of them, and she told me she had an extremely important problem that only I could solve. She explained, “We get just enough tickets to graduation for our families, and I want Mr. Stewey to be there. But I think maybe you can get me an extra ticket. So will you, please?”
I wasn’t sure if I could get another ticket. Teachers were given one ticket, so that we could see our students graduate. The gymnasium where the ceremony was to take place was too small for more than five thousand guests, and the stringent fire laws prohibited anyone standing. However, I agreed to try to get the extra ticket.
When I asked the principal if an extra ticket was available, he shook his head, but then backed off a bit and said that maybe some student would not want all his or her tickets, so he would see what he could do. The week went on and every evening Barbara whispered to me, “Did you get the ticket?” Just when I thought I would have to give her my ticket, the principal came to the door of the classroom and handed me a ticket.
“One of our kids is not graduating, and they already assigned him his tickets. I have to turn them back in, but I don’t think they will miss one,” he said in a conspiring voice. So Barbara got her ticket which she then presented to Mr. Stewey.
The graduation ceremony was loud and raucous as parents and other guests celebrated each student’s diploma. When at last the extended day students were called up on the platform, Barbara hesitated by the microphone, and then as I watched she caught Mr. Stewey’s eye and gave him a victory sign by lifting two fingers in the traditional V.
At the close of the ceremony while families and friends milled around, Barbara left the group and went to Mr. Stewey. To my surprise she hugged him and kissed him on the cheek. Here was a young woman who was angry and aggressive most of the time, showing real affection for an old man. I wish I could have been privileged to hear their conversation, but I was too far way. Still from the smiles on their faces, I knew Mr. Stewey was celebrating with Barbara her fantastic accomplishment.
The next year, Mr. Stewey arrived ready to volunteer again. I noticed that he seemed to be slower and maybe a little more fatigued that year, but still he came almost every evening and the old students from the previous year, as well as the new kids, were always glad to see him. So was I as he made my life and my job easier to handle.
At the end of that year, Mr. Stewey said good bye to the students and to me, but promised that he would be back the following year. So when the new year began and Mr. Stewey did not show up, I was perplexed. After all, he had been there for two years, and said he would be back. Finally, I found his number in the phone book and called his house.
When his wife answered the phone, I identified myself and asked for Mr. Stewey. His wife paused for just a moment and then said, “My dear, Mr. Stewey cannot come to the phone, and he will not be volunteering this year. His Alzheimer’s has gotten much worse.”
I was at a lost for words. For two years, Mr. Stewey had tutored students in my classroom, and I had never realized that he had Alzheimer’s. When I stumbled over a reply to Mrs. Stewey, she said, “Honey, you don’t know what you did for Mr. Stewey. He was so depressed when he realized that he was losing his mind. Then I suggested that he volunteer in a public school and use what he had left. He seemed to get much better for awhile, and going to night school each evening gave him a goal for the day. He so admired what you could do with the students you taught. He constantly talked about you and ‘his’ kids, and looked forward to every class. You and your students gave him back his life for the last two years.”
Mumbling some trite reply, I hung up before I started crying. Mr. Stewey had been my partner and fellow teacher. He had math skills that not only showed the students how to get an answer, but helped them to really understand what they were doing. Obviously his long-term memory was functioning at a high level, and if he had short term memory problems, I never knew it. What a fantastic model he was for every senior citizen who suffers from Alzheimer’s or any disease that slows the mind.
Now that I am retired and have some years on me, I think often of Mr. Stewey. Three days a week I volunteer in a small, very poor school. When I sit down to work with a student on his or her math, I know that Mr. Stewey is sitting right next to me urging me on. When I am tired or frustrated with the more challenging kids, I know Mr. Stewey is telling me to get over it and get on. And I hope that he knows that he was my mentor and teacher and that I was also one of his “kids.”
Maryann K. Nunnally