Janet Sheridan: Volunteers make a difference
I had a new grade level to teach, a new reading program to master, a summer of preparation behind me and 33 high-spirited fourth-grade students in a room built for 25.
I enjoyed my new assignment, and during September, I developed ways of coping with too many bodies in too small a space. My students were learning and happy, But I carried increasing weariness and stacks of papers home every night.
Then Mrs. Johnson walked into my room with a letter I’d distributed to the families of my students in hopes of finding a volunteer: some good person willing to work with my students and me from one to three hours a day for three to five days a week.
Wearing a flowered housedress on a stout body and tilting forward from the waist on her orthopedic shoes, she sailed into my classroom like a handsome profile on the prow of a ship: all business and on the move. A student’s grandmother, 80 years old, smelling of peppermint, with shining eyes above a prominent nose, she briskly shook my hand and assured me she’d be in my room every day for any two hours I wanted, on time and ready to work. She’d raised too many kids to be scared of them; she was ready to start, and “Y’all can call me Ms. Esther.”
Oh, how we loved her.
Her first day, I watched and listened as she completed each task I gave her, doing everything I had explained with a personal touch: She circulated among the children as they worked, encouraging, appreciating and helping. She listened to individuals read, laughing and chatting with them about the story and ignoring slowness, hesitancy and minor stumbles while praising victories large and small. She checked, approved and recorded assignments students brought to her or sent them to their seats with suggestions on how they could do better, always with a smile, sometimes, when needed, with a hug.
By her second day, knowing the other students were in the capable hands of Ms. Esther, I could concentrate on class instruction or work with small groups and individuals. We had a treasure.
All year my students circled in her sunshine. We relied on her, and she met any challenge. A quiet tut-tut from her ended misconduct, and her raised eyebrow stopped antics before they began. She told shy students who didn’t want to read above a whisper they needed to help her out because she was older than the mountains and couldn’t hear; and she played the bit part of an angry baker in a play we produced, shaking a rolling pin and grumbling with conviction.
On the day of the first heavy snowfall, the principal announced he would supervise a snowball recess for the upper grades as long as they obeyed the safety rules. Cheers were heard from the playground when Ms. Esther, wearing galoshes, a cheerful knitted hat and a mischievous grin, came stomping through the drifted snow and zipped a snowball through the air that hit the principal — below the neck as specified.
For three years, she graced my classroom with her presence, her only pay being my heartfelt gratitude and smiles, notes, hugs and small gifts from “her” children.
Then came the August day when I learned from her daughter that Ms. Esther wouldn’t be returning for the coming year. As the children who thrived under her care shopped for back-to-school clothes, she died surrounded by her large family.
I attended her crowded funeral and reflected on her patience, her sense of fun, her generosity and her will to be of service: to help children and to make my classroom a place of increased learning opportunities.
The many students sprinkled among the mourners proved the value of her efforts as they, their parents and I said good-bye to Ms. Esther.
Janet Sheridan’s book, “A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns,” is available in Craig at Downtown Books and Steamboat Springs at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore. She also blogs at http://www.auntbeulah.com on the 1st and 15th of every month.