Daniel Rubin: Miss Odom too busy to be honored at Toby Farms Elementary

Ida Odom says she'd rather skip the ceremony honoring her Friday in Washington. "I'm not looking for any more attention."
Ida Odom says she'd rather skip the ceremony honoring her Friday in Washington. "I'm not looking for any more attention." (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 13, 2011

Ida Odom - a.k.a. Miss Odom or The Granny - has been invited to stand with 25 other seniors at a ceremony Friday in Washington to honor extraordinary volunteerism. Lots of luck getting her there.

"I'm not going," she said quietly one day last week at her desk in the back of a second-grade classroom at Toby Farms Elementary School.

It's not that the trip to pick up her MetLife Foundation "Older Volunteers Enrich America" award is too arduous for the petite, horn-rimmed 89-year-old widow from Chester. Or that she's needed at the Brookhaven school where she's donated her time for the last quarter-century. Classes end Wednesday.

As she explained it to me, a close friend has a daughter who's graduating from something - she's not sure - and Miss Odom didn't want to miss it.

Miss Odom's family has some convincing to do.

"I'm not looking for any more attention," she told me in the darkened, sweltering classroom. The shades were drawn. Three fans whipped still air that registered 90 degrees on teacher Cheryl Alston's wall thermometer.

The Chester Upland district is one of the region's poorest, and budget woes have made officials consider cutting 40 percent of the teacher staff next year, greatly swelling class sizes.

Volunteerism here is not a luxury; it's essential.

Miss Odom was at her desk in the back of the room, helping 7-year-old Jamari Mitchell with multiplication as Jamari's classmates rested after recess. She sported a sticker, a gift from one of the three children she tutors, that read: "100 percent."

"I always wanted to be a teacher," she said as the boy returned to his desk to try again. But her parents didn't have the money to send her to school. "So I got married."

Like her mother, she was a homemaker. In her 50s, she started working in a program for foster children. After spending five years operating a telephone switchboard at Sacred Heart Hospital, she learned in 1986 of the foster grandparent program run by the Delaware County Office of Services for the Aging.

Her sister was a school nurse at Toby Farms then, so the building would feel familiar. Her sister moved on. Miss Odom never left.

Javon Oates was a long-term sub in 1991, fresh out of Widener University, when she was assigned to the first-grade classroom where Miss Odom was already a fixture.

Oates recalls the first lesson she learned from her aide, when the young teacher was having second thoughts about her methods.

"Don't sweat the small stuff."

"I think I benefited from her whole outlook on life," Oates says. "Very positive, very practical. I'd look across the room at her and she'd just nod her head."

Miss Odom's job was to help the strugglers, but she worked with everyone, making flash cards, grading papers, decorating the bulletin board. She'd also deliver life lessons, bringing in snacks for the class, but not sharing them until the children displayed proper manners. When Oates decreed the children were too rowdy for recess, Miss Odom would plead on their behalf:

"Javon, let them out."

It was hard to say no to her. Partly because she was so giving.

When Oates mentioned that her two-bus commute from 56th and Market took two hours, Miss Odom insisted on picking her up by Widener to shave a half-hour off the trip every day.

"She'd never let me pay for gas," says Oates, who after 17 years with Miss Odom now serves as an instructional leader at the school.

I had to apply about 30 years of reporter tricks to get Miss Odom to open up about her work; I should have studied dentistry. She was unfailingly polite, but humble and not wanting to make too much of anything.

Alisha Knight, who runs the foster grandparent program for Delaware County, helped me out by sending along a statement Miss Odom had written about what her work meant to her.

"I started with this group because I love children, and would love the chance to make a good impression in their lives," she wrote. "But little did I realize that I would be fulfilling God's plan for my life by making marks in not only the children's lives, but the staff's as well. . . . It not only means me making a difference in the lives of children, but them making a difference in my life."

Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com.


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