Teacher finds not just lunch in brown bag

Wednesday, October 7, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

For a crash course in the power of a talented, caring teacher, go see Mrs. O in Room 108.

Mrs. O, as students call Weslie Ostendorf, is a special-education teacher at Milford Main Middle School who encourages everyone to give his or her brain a complete workout. She's one of those great teachers, the kind scattered through every school in every town, who are public education at its best.

Mrs. O invited me to join her for a "Lunch With Cliff." She wanted to talk about the bad rap public schools often get in the public arena. And she wanted to show me the good job Milford Main is doing for its students and the community.

I found her in Room 108 at her desk, blue Leatherette gradebook by her side, salad bowl in front and students all around. Mrs. O was trying to get a bite in edgewise while seven fifth-graders peppered her with questions.

"Mrs. O, how do I do this paragraph?"

"Can you help me, Mrs. O, with this question about the lima bean?"

"Are these math problems right, Mrs. O?"

Every question caught Mrs. O with her fork poised in midair. Each time, she stopped eating and patiently answered. A teacher for 22 years, Mrs. O made time for the students' concerns as well as their homework.

One boy was all upset about a homework assignment he forgot. As he told Mrs. O his story, he rubbed his nose with the back of his hand.

"Take care of your nose first," she said, pointing him toward a Kleenex box. The boy grabbed a tissue and gave a big honk. Mrs. O lowered her voice and slowly told him to go back to his teacher, find out exactly what he had to do "and don't be afraid to ask questions. We want to do a good job."

Next, Mrs. O had to persuade a girl to reread a paragraph she had just written.

"Ohhhhhh, I love how it begins with "a girl and her brother went into a spooky old house,' " the teacher said. "But you might want to check your spelling. And make sure you don't have any missing words."

Mrs. O stood up and walked around to the front of her desk.

"Remember," she said softly as she looked into the girl's eyes, "I want you to do your very best."

Taking her seat once more, Mrs. O finally got to open her can of root beer. Before she could take a sip, she had another interruption. This time, it was from a big kid wearing a tie and holding a reporter's notebook. I wondered why she brown-bags her midday meal and gives up lunch talk with other teachers to help students do homework.

"These kids," she whispered to me softly, "need some motivation. They need a guide, someone to show them how important homework is, how much it helps you, how good it feels when it's done."

Mrs. O sees herself as the students' education coach. "I want to have a winning team. And homework is like practice," she said. "You have to practice to win. You have to give these kids opportunities to do things the right way."

She had to hold that thought. The lima bean girl stood once more at her desk.

One more answer later, Mrs. O ate a few quick forkfuls of lettuce. The noise of hustling sneakers crept into Room 108. Classes were changing. Lunch was over. Mrs. O had made only a small dent in her salad. Her root beer was warm. And she had yet to catch her breath. "Lunch is not a time to relax," she said. "But it's never boring. I have a low threshold for boring."

She told me she's not alone. Other teachers at her school and schools all over the country give up their lunches to help kids learn more, learn faster, learn better.

"Remember, we're like coaches," she said. Only, Mrs. O isn't coaching her students just to win a game.

"I want them to win at being a success in life," she said.

For that victory, she'll gladly eat at her desk forever.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.