Pimlico's VIPs

At one Baltimore elementary school, the volunteer Grandparents' Club helps make sure children get the attention, nurturing and discipline they need.

April 19, 2001|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

In the auditorium of Pimlico Elementary School, the ladies make a circle, grasp hands and pray.

"Ask God to just cover this building with blood and lamb, from the roof to the foundation," suggests one.

Another asks God to help the grandparents help the kids of Pimlico school.

To set a good example.

To help them do their best.

To keep them from the worst.

To the larger world, this Northwest Baltimore school is the little engine that could, the oasis in the roughest of neighborhoods that last year rose to be the top-scoring elementary school in the city on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.

Its high-powered former principal, Sarah Horsey, got much of the credit. But behind the scenes - behind secure front doors that require visitors to buzz in, behind the stars and pictures on the walls that say each student counts - is a group of about 25 volunteers mostly in their 50s and 60s.

In this day of splintered families and work demands, they are raising other people's children as their own. Or performing the vital task of getting the kids down the road, through the doors, into the classroom.

They're the Pimlico Grandparents' Club.

Together, they raise money for the school, and for each other. They huddle in coats and jackets in the cold faculty lounge, enjoying a warm camaraderie. They plan a "Grandparents' Day" to celebrate their grandkids, and themselves.

There is Ruth Lamback, 62, whose great-granddaughter, kindergartner Brianta Malsby, lives with her, and whose grandson, Derrick Murdock, is in the fifth grade. There's Viola Johnson, 54, whose third-grade granddaughter is named Viola Graham. And there is Patrice Roberts, 40, who's not a grandmother at all. She just loves these grandparents like her own family - so when they needed a club secretary, she volunteered.

"A lot of wisdom sits around this table," says Patrice, the mother of a third-grader and a first-grader. "A lot of times, they're my strength."

Then there's the only "grandfather" in the club: Ellsworth Massey, who works in security at the school. He's an uncle to several students, but technically isn't a grandparent, either.

No matter. At Pimlico, grandparents are parents, and parents are grandparents, and grandparents are used to watching over all sorts of children, not necessarily their own.

At Pimlico, being a grandparent is a state of mind.

It's 7:40 a.m. School day begins with breakfast, an event best described as a 20-minute military operation in which the grandparents play the role of captain.

Principal Orrester Shaw takes the microphone to harness a sea of tiny bodies, puffy in down jackets, awkward in oversized backpacks.

Ruth is standing by, as she is virtually every morning. She's joined by club president Rosella Pinkney, Patrice and Donnie Green, a club member who also heads up the school's PTA. The club members hug each other in greeting, as if it hasn't been less than 24 hours since they've seen each other.

"Line up in front of Mrs. Ruth," Shaw tells the younger kids, who will go off to eat in their classrooms. "Pimlico walk, everybody! Straight line."

This is the Pimlico walk: One finger to the lips. No talking.

The older kids tuck into plastic bowls of Golden Grahams cereal, cartons of milk and juice. For 10 minutes, there's good-natured cacophony. Then: "You have two more minutes to talk," says Shaw. "Our grandparents, if you would make sure that they put their trash up."

Ruth wheels a large barrel down the rows. Donnie assumes her post in the hall, where she'll guide the students toward their classrooms.

"I want to see a straight line, Pimlico walk, and no talking."

By 8 a.m., it's all over. But for some of these grandparents, the Pimlico day is just beginning.

"Stand right here," says Staff Sgt. McCain. "Look at me in my eyes and don't bother telling me anything but the truth."

Staff Sgt. McCain is Diana McCain, 55, a Grandparents' Club member when she is not on official duty as a member of Pimlico's unofficial military.

Three years ago, principal Horsey hired her as an "alternative to suspension" officer. The principal began to recognize that suspending kids wasn't a deterrent to bad behavior. In fact, it was the opposite: Some actually looked forward to having the time off from school. Now, they have to go to Sgt. McCain's office. Get yelled at. Do homework as she looms over them. Look her in the eye.

Today, McCain is dealing with one of her favorite students - a weepy fourth-grader named Karnesse Elliott, who has been sent to her office with an incriminating slip of yellow paper.

Karnesse begins her story, a long, breathless tale muffled by sobs, involving food dropped on the floor, some other boy, all of it being unfair, and how she really didn't do anything.

McCain interrupts. "This is the part I'm concerned about," she says, pointing to the yellow paper. "Where it says, `Extremely rude.' "

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