At 90, classroom assistant's love of reading still alive

  • Article by: AMANDA DYSLIN , Mankato Free Press
  • Updated: November 17, 2012 - 6:58 PM

Classroom "grammy" thrives on hugs and watching her kids learn.

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From left, Taylin Metcalfe, Lily Mead, Pranav Kalava, John Stokesbary, Virginia “Grammy Mac” McNear and Daniel Lozano.

Photo: Amanda Dyslin, Associated Press

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MANKATO - Abdinakim Omar had all the words down pat but one.

Reading aloud a sentence about a boy riding a bike, he was having a bit of trouble with the last word. That's where Virginia "Grammy Mac" McNear came in.

"How does he ride his bike?" she asked. "What's the sound of the first letter?"

That's when it clicked. The boy rode his bike "fast," Abdinakim said. He smiled.

It's that moment that McNear has treasured for the past seven years.

Every year, she is the foster grandparent assigned to Jo Cornell's first-grade room at Kennedy Elementary School in Mankato. And every year she gets to see the progress her young readers make from the start of fall to beginning of summer vacation.

"I get here quarter of 8, and I leave quarter of 3 after I've sharpened everybody's pencils," said McNear, who recently turned 90. "It's wonderful."

Sponsored by Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, the Foster Grandparent program provides a small stipend to people ages 60 and older to volunteer in schools and Head Start programs, among other educational places. More than 460 foster grandparents have been involved in the program statewide this year. Four grandparents work at Kennedy, and two are full time -- "Grandma Bobbie" Seberson and "Grammy Mac."

McNear, who moved to the Mankato area with her family in March 1954, was a nurse at what's now the Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato from 1967 to 1987, serving part of that time as the department head for obstetrics and the emergency room. After retirement, she began volunteering, first at Lincoln Community Center.

McNear also volunteered in the records department at the Law Enforcement Center and with fifth-graders at Washington Elementary School. She later switched to Kennedy to work with first-graders, "and I just loved it," she said.

This is the seventh year McNear has worked in Cornell's classroom, and as Cornell put it, they both are steadfast members of the "mutual admiration society."

"She is able to give students extra time that I am not," Cornell said. "Students from past years are often stopping her in the hall and giving her a big hug telling her how much they miss her."

McNear works individually with students to practice reading skills, and she also helps them with math and writing.

"In addition to providing academic support, she dries tears, applies Band-Aids, and gives hugs, too," Cornell said. "For all, the opportunity to spend quality time with another caring adult -- and, in this case, a 90-year-old at that -- the 'Grammy' experience is really special."

On one recent day, as she often does, McNear took a small group out into the foyer to practice a readers' theater program. The students read through the play "Tag Sale Today," by Katherine Scraper, with McNear giving direction when needed.

"Louder," she said. "Carlos, you didn't come in on time."

All the practice of skills such as fluency and expression are important because of the fun that comes at the end.

"We're going to perform this for the whole class," said narrator John Stokesbary.

McNear loves watching her students learn. But she loves another aspect of her job more.

"A number of the kids come over and give me, and get, hugs," she said.

When Grammy Mac turned 90 last month, she received a ton of them.

Cornell's room was decorated with birthday banners, and McNear was given flowers and a corsage and numerous birthday cards. Three special education teachers came into the room to sing "Happy Birthday to You," and she got visits and cards and hugs from former students, too.

"I had this wonderful all-day [celebration]," she said.

Cornell said all the attention was well deserved.

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