WHEN THE YOUNGEST children at St. Joseph School in Fullerton checked out their first libraty books of the year Thursday, the man doing the stamping was a 70-year-old grandfather wearing a Mickey Mouse watch.
For many of the kindergartners, dressed in gray and burgundy uniforms, it was a new experience. Some had yet, to grasp the concept of borrowing. "I think I'm going to buy this one," said one child as he surveyed an array of picture books along one wall of the Baltimore County school's library.
Mel Bandell, a retired accountant and grandfather of two at St. Joseph, helped explain the difference between buying and borrowing. A volunteer for nine years at St. Joseph and Perry Hall Elementary before that, Bandell is one of a growing army of grandparent volunteers, as schools across the country find they can depend less on busy, working parents.
At St. Joseph, where Bandell's work is a way of staying close to his grandchildren and "refreshing my body and mind," things are done the old-fashioned way. No computerized checkout here. Bandell patiently stamps the due date inside the cover of each book as the borrower politely observes.
Even if he doesn't encounter his granddaughters Michelle, 8, or Valerie, 10. during the day, "I always make sure I see them before I go home," he says.
Rose Celozzi has similar motives but more grandkids to check on. Five of the six children of her daughter, Veronica Quattrini, and son, Dominic Celozzi, are at St. Joseph. Two are in kindergarten.
"Their parents read to them every single evening, no matter how late," says Celozzi, 59, "and I do, too, whenever I get a chance. They get a double whammy."
That's only one reason grandparents are so valuable in the education enterprise. "They're golden to us," says S. Joyce Thaler, St. Joseph principal, "and it's easy to understand why."
There's an old saying that grandparents and their grandchildren are so bonded because they have a common enemy. The truth is that grandparents can reach over the heads of the generation behind and experience the uncomplicated pleasures of grandchildren. "It's no chore at all. It's nothing but joy," says Celozzi.
Being once removed from their grandkids, grandparents can be more understanding, less demanding, less anxious about academic performance, says Thaler.
"Grandparents, because they've been around and have seen much more than their children, have a sense of kindness and a sense of humor that's much different from mothers and fathers."
Grandparents tend to be more patient than parents, says Thaler, because they have more time. "Two working parents is now the norm, not the exception, so getting either parent to the school during the school day is becoming more difficult. And Mel has the added advantage of being a role model."
St. Joseph typically draws 700 to its annual "Grandparents! Special Friends Day," so titled to accommodate children who don't have grandparents. Such affairs aren't unusual. Grandparents' days and nights are common across America as public and private schools compensate for the hectic and stressful lives of parents. (Thaler says it's not uncommon, in an era of divorce and remarriage, for children to have six or even eight "grandparents.")
Celozzi, a retired manager of a home-accessory firm who grew up in Highlandtown, marvels at the variety of reading materials, print and electronic, available to her grandchildren. "I think they do more reading than my children did," she says. But some books, she says, span the generations, like 'Black Beauty" and "Little Women."
Sometimes she'll read with three or four grandchildren on her lap at once. "I can hardly turn the pages of the book, but they have terrific memories, and they love to hear stories again and again. If I skip a word, they'll fill it in."
Bandell, who grew up in Northeast Baltimore no longer reads that often to his grandchildren but he clearly remembers the day Michelle, now a third-grader, first read to him. "I got a book out. She said 'Grandpop I'm going to read to you this time. 'And she did."
As a male Bandell is still well in the minority among school Volunteers - parents or grandparents.
"Where are the other retired grandfathers?" he asks, glancing around the library "Are they playing golf or watching TV? Well they're missing something. Psychologically, it keeps me young."