At home in classroom

Recruiter: Former teacher Laura Bush came to Baltimore yesterday to thank recent graduates who have committed themselves to teaching in the city.

October 18, 2001|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Dozens of curious onlookers peeked from street corners and behind yellow police tape in hopes of snapping a picture or getting a handshake, but second-grader R.J. Hargett was unimpressed when he learned the first lady of the United States would be visiting his Brooklyn school yesterday.

"He's 7 years old. People don't excite him," said his father, Robert.

Then, she showed up.

Not only did R.J. and 20 of his classmates at Baltimore's Maree Garnett Farring Elementary hear Laura Bush read a book, teach a vocabulary lesson and introduce a faraway land called Ethiopia. They also made off with some loot of presidential proportions: color photographs of Mrs. Bush, her husband, Air Force One and the Bush's two dogs, Barney and Spot -- R.J.'s favorite.

"She's really nice," he said afterward.

The first lady's stop in Baltimore was part of a five-day nationwide tour in recognition of Teach For America Week, which puts professionals from all disciplines into classrooms to emphasize the importance of education and teacher recruitment.

For about 40 minutes, Bush took over the class of Andrea Sadowski, 23, a member of Teach For America's national corps of recent college graduates who commit to teach for two years in cities and rural areas. (In Baltimore, 38 schools use the program.)

Sadowski's pupils, who wore white tops, blue bottoms and pins with their names, stood and greeted the first lady in unison when she walked in in a blue pant-suit shortly before noon.

"Thanks for standing," she told them in her Texas drawl. "That's very polite. I really appreciate it."

Bush said her stint as a guest teacher let her recognize educators like Sadowski.

"This gives me a chance to go around and thank teachers like your teacher," she said.

Sitting in a kid-sized chair at the front of the cramped classroom, Bush held up and read Faraway Home, Jane Kurtz's book about a father describing to his American daughter what it was like to grow up in his homeland of Ethiopia.

Bush read warmly and with ease, asking questions and referring to a few of the children by name. Save for the Secret Service and the knot of media, it was as if she was again the teacher she used to be.

Bush had prepped the children for the story by asking them what country, state and city they were from -- they got Maryland and Baltimore mixed up -- and helping them locate various places, including Ethiopia, on a globe.

"Most people in America came from other countries," the first lady explained. "In fact, we're a country full of all different nationalities and all different religions."

Using a pointer, she highlighted vocabulary words on a posterboard. Among them: "flamingos," "sugarcane" and "imagine."

After the reading, Bush helped children individually mark Baltimore on a paper map at their desks. "Have y'all found it?" she asked.

The lesson over, the children flipped through "presidential" folders Bush had brought for them.

"I've been by your house," Eric Ferrell, 7, told her. "Is that the living room?" he asked, pointing to a diagram of the rooms inside a magazine about the White House.

"Yeah," she said, "that's called the Blue Room."

John Wyatt, 9, had a tougher question: "Who's going to win the war?"

"We are, I hope," she replied. The first lady's visit went on as planned, despite a nationwide alert over a potential anthrax attack.

"This is kind of a forgotten part of the city," said Thomas Stroschein, Farring's principal. "To have [the first lady] honor us in this way is just remarkable."

Stroschein had been making up stories since Friday to explain to teachers and parents why men in suits -- Secret Service -- were walking around the building.

"I told them that we were having the building analyzed for security purposes," he said.

Robert Hargett, R.J.'s father and a school volunteer, said the only other famous person he had met before yesterday was former Colt Johnny Unitas. He described Bush as "one of our better-looking first ladies."

"I got to shake her hand," he said afterward. "She's cool."

Sadowski, in her second year with Teach For America, said the first thing she thought when she learned Bush would be visiting her classroom was that she needed to go shopping.

Sadowski called Bush's visit "inspiring." "I was really just blown away by the fact that she was visiting," said Sadowski, who said teaching is her calling.

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