Tuesday, February 02, 1999

Steve's lesson can't be found in schoolbook

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The child, clearly worried, glances up at the clock again, light glinting off his round, wire-rimmed glasses.

        “He's late,” the little boy says to no one in particular.

        The children in the classroom are very busy — engaged, you might say. They are making their computers beep. Some are studying the old-fashioned way, reading, writing in journals, drawing. There's an occasional outbreak of giggles.

        Joy, apparently, is permitted.

        No matter what they are doing, the kids have at least half an eye on the door. They are waiting for Steve. He is usually on time.

        “It's him,” shouts a little girl in faded jeans.

        A slight young man ducks his head into the room. A cheer erupts. He is surrounded briefly, then he peels a boy from the group and goes out to the hallway.

        Steve Bybee, a Harrison High School senior, is a tutor at Harrison Elementary. He's taking proficiency tests this week, which robs him of 20 minutes with the kids. So, he gets right to it, reading a bit, prodding gently.

Beyond books
        He takes this job seriously, is absolutely faithful about showing up every day. Even though he is not paid to do it. Even though it costs him a study hall he could probably use. Even though he doesn't plan to be a teacher.

        Originally, he was supposed to work with kids having trouble reading. But then, “everybody wanted to spend time with him, so he reads with all of them,” teacher Joann Bernecker said. Sometimes the kids need something else. He supplies that, too.

        “If somebody is having a bad day, I don't have to say much to him,” Joann says. “Maybe just a wink or something, and he knows what to do.” Maybe he'll put the book aside and pick up a basketball.

        Joann trusts Steve to know.

        One little boy runs a hand through his dark hair, struggling. But succeeding. “At the beginning of the year, I was worried about him,” Steve says later. “But just the week before Christmas, there was a dramatic change.”

        The boy's mother thinks Steve is the reason.

        This handsome boy — who is at the top of his class scholastically, who plays two varsity sports, who is an officer in every school organization he belongs to — thought of extra ways to help this child, tried to make him feel special.

        And didn't give up.

        “He's a role model for a lot of these kids,” Joann says.

The Big Guy
        I paw through a stack of papers written by the kids. Steve has taught them Spanish. Steve has made Rice Krispie treats for them. Steve made them feel better when they were sad. Steve helped them make ornaments for their Christmas trees. Steve helped them find their way on the Internet.

        Steve. Steve. Steve.

        A week ago, the school principal wrote a note to parents explaining some building maintenance, and asked teachers to send it home with their students. “Be sure to take it home,” Joann warned, joking, “because it's from The Big Guy.”

        They all assumed she meant Steve.

        The next time you wonder about the future of this country, picture a young man with his legs scrunched underneath a little table, reading to a child. Remember this 18-year-old who “worries” about a little boy struggling with schoolwork and a fractured family.

        A role model? Of course he is.

        But not just for second-graders.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.