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Tutoring Sessions Are Lessons in Love and Acceptance : A 93-year-old instructor finds joy in helping an epileptic boy discover the world of reading. Her 10-year-old student finds understanding, patience.

June 24, 1993|ROBYN LOEWENTHAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A teacher affects eternity; no one can tell where her influence stops .

--Henry Adams

Living in a Meiners Oaks residential care home is a woman of saintly aura. And as she completes 93 years on Earth, retired teacher Beth Brown still lives to give to others.

Three times a week, 10-year-old Christopher Balderas, who suffers from epilepsy, visits Brown to be tutored in reading and spelling. But for both generations, the time shared transcends language mechanics. It is also a lesson in patience, acceptance and love.

"It keeps you young," said Brown, awaiting her protege's arrival.

The 90-minute sessions are informal and resemble a visit to Grandma. Brown sits in an upholstered wing-back chair while Christopher perches on an arm of the chair and reads aloud. Brown works from a spiral composition book, her lap serving as a desk.

"I'm teaching Christopher to read," Brown said. "I help him to break up words into syllables. And I pronounce words for him to spell. For instance, he gets the sounds of short 'e' and 'i' confused. So I give him many words as practice. Sometimes he teases me and tries to peak at the paper. So I tell him his name is spelled 'p-e-s-t,' " she said warmly while patting his hand.

Brown was introduced to Christopher by her friend, Gerald Garofalo, a retired choir director at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ojai.

"Goodness just exudes from Beth," Garofalo said in a phone conversation later. Garofalo has known Brown since the early 1960s. "When Beth called me looking for a child to tutor, little Christopher came to mind right off. He's an altar boy. And his mother was a soprano in my choir."

During the tutoring session, I spoke with Christopher's mother, Gloria, who has been educating him and three siblings, ages 17, 15 and 5, at home since St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School closed two years ago.

"She loves children and tutors another child besides Christopher," Balderas said. "Beth lives for 'her children.' She tells me if she can't continue to tutor, she wants to be in heaven."

Balderas is a mother of eight children, ages 5 through 28.

"It's so nice of her to do this without pay because I wouldn't be able to afford it," she said.

Most of her son's epileptic symptoms are controlled by medication, "but sometimes he has small seizures. His eyes will go up, his mouth moves. But he won't hear you. He won't remember and has to be told what he was doing," his mother said.

This has affected her son's memory and ability to read. But Balderas said Brown's patience and personal interest over the last six months have made a huge difference in Christopher's confidence and progress.

"He reads at home with me. But accepting encouragement from someone else makes him feel good about himself. After a session, Beth will say, 'He did wonderful today,' and you can see the gleam in his eye," Balderas said.

"And not only does Christopher get lessons," she added, "but Beth tells him about her life. She was born in 1900. He is curious and asks her questions about her life."

One of 12 children, Brown grew up on a farm on the Nebraska prairie.

"I was a natural-born teacher because I was the official baby-sitter for three little brothers," she said. After completing a two-year course at Kearney Teachers College, Brown taught elementary school for 12 years in Nebraska, Colorado, Nevada and Oregon. She also taught English to Spanish-speaking people.

Married at 26, Brown retired from public-school teaching a few years later and, after a divorce in the late '30s, raised her two sons. Then in 1950, she began working with the Laubach World-Wide Literacy program.

"I had a co-worker, Bertha Ray Ellis, I lived with for 39 years in Ojai. We tried working in Mexico, but I couldn't take the warm climate," she said. Brown ended her literacy work after Ellis' death in 1979.

There is little doubt that the intergenerational contact has been as good for Brown as it has for Christopher. Ray (Bud) Berard, owner-director of Lomita Lodge residential care home, described Brown's transformation as a miracle.

"When Beth came to us in March, 1990, she could barely walk and was hardly eating. She couldn't cook for herself any more. And she depended on Meals on Wheels," he said. Brown was referred to Lomita Lodge by local social service agencies because she has no family able to assist her--one son died when he was 19, Brown said, and the other, now 64, lies permanently disabled in a Los Angeles hospital.

Despite the circumstances, Brown, a deeply religious woman, keeps her spirits high by tutoring, writing poetry and weekly phone conversations with Garofalo.

As the tutoring session came to an end, I rejoined Brown and her student. "He has a very fine mind and he does his very best," Brown said.

"I like Beth and how she teaches," the boy said softly as he held her hand. "When I grow up and have a daughter, I'm going to name her Beth."

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