Family feels tie to school

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It would feel like an act of disloyalty to teach anywhere else.

Angie Gillespie was part of Baltimore's Lombard Middle School long before she started getting paychecks in 1993.

She tagged along to proms at the east-side school when it was still a junior high and light-blue suits were in style. She attended end-of-year fairs in the field across the street, where she'd eat cotton candy and suck on lemons with peppermint sticks. She trotted through what seemed then like unbearably long corridors, calling a couple of the teachers "Aunt" So-and-So, even though they were no relation.

All because of Lombard's other Gillespie, Ruth, who is Angie's mother. Ruth Gillespie has been at the school longer than her daughter, 32, has been alive.

The Gillespies believe in Lombard in a way that even the school system, until recently, has not. Long looked upon as a dumping ground, Lombard is in its first year of a three-year reform plan.

The Gillespies never gave in to the school's bad reputation. If they had, they wouldn't have spent a collective 42 years in the school's hallways and classrooms. If they had, they wouldn't mean it when they say they don't want to be anywhere else.

"I knew this is where I belonged," says Angie Gillespie. "Not just teaching, but this school."

Lombard's appeal isn't obvious. Kids don't aspire to go there; generally, neither do teachers. One of the first reactions Angie Gillespie says she gets when she tells people where she works is: "You are brave."

That's what earned the school a spot in the new "CEO's district." The designation brings more funding, extra support and higher expectations: Lombard is expected to raise test scores enough to be removed from the state's list of failures by 2004.

That, of course, is what the Gillespies want for the school, and they will be part of the team that determines whether it will happen.

But for them, Lombard is about more than just a new reform program. The Gillespies have insights into Lombard and the community it serves that can't be learned - or taught, for that matter - in a 36-month crash course. Some of Angie's pupils are the sons and daughters of people Angie's mother taught. Angie can usually recognize it in their faces, even before she knows their names.

Ruth, who is 58 and now oversees a team of special education teachers, has committed to stay at Lombard at least for the next two years. Angie intends to be there long after that.

"If I had a choice, I'm going to be there just like my mother. I'm going to be there forever, until I can't go anymore," she says.

Angie will continue to embrace the new literacy program, with its academic journals, shared reading and "word walls." For her, though, what goes on in Room 124, where she teaches language arts, begins with something much more basic.

"These children, the thing that they are fighting for is simply respect," she says.

Growing up with a teacher for a parent, Angie had school on her mind more than other kids. She even conjured up an imaginary teacher, "Miss Claris" - she doesn't know where she got the name - who called on her to read in front of the make-believe classroom. A play schoolhouse complete with a chalkboard and dolls filling in as fellow pupils helped set the scene.

"Good old Miss Claris," Angie says now. "I've been teaching and learning all my life, and now I'm really in that situation for real. I just knew when I started teaching that this is what I'm supposed to do in life."

She didn't know right away. Her mother didn't either.

"I always thought Angie was going to be in the corporate world," says Ruth Gillespie, who joined Lombard as a special education teacher in 1968 and has since held a string of positions. "I think I had some inkling, though. She was always motivating and hollering at our youngest daughter: 'You gotta read!'"

The older of two sisters, Angie was raised in the middle-class Woodmoor section of Baltimore County, just inside the Beltway. She graduated in 1988 from Milford Mill High School, where she was in the honors program and worked on the school newspaper.

She started studying computer science at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland because she thought computers were the "wave of the future" and she'd be assured of getting a job. She ended up going with her gut, getting an English degree at Towson University because that's "what I'm good at."

By some standards, she then did the unthinkable: turned down a job offer from T. Rowe Price and enrolled in cosmetology school.

"I really, really, really thought that I wanted to do hair," she says.

Angie took classes full time at Gordon Phillips Beauty School during the day. At night, she worked at a travel agency.

Before the year was out, she would be working at Lombard.

The school had gotten grant money to open a computer lab, and the logistics of getting it set up fell, as did many jobs around the school, to Ruth Gillespie. With her background in computers, Angie provided her mother with advice. It didn't occur to her that she might work there, but Ruth suggested she apply.

When Angie started work at Lombard, she knew as much about the school as many of the teachers there. A lot of them knew her, too.

"It was like I was 'Little Gillespie,'" she says.

Angie worked in the computer lab until 1999, teaching keyboarding and use of Internet search engines, then more advanced programs such as PowerPoint and Excel. She proposed a curriculum that fused technology and writing. She saw in her kids a range of academic deficiencies but believed that they could flourish. "You know what?" she would say to her mother. "These children can be great writers."

Angie wondered if there were a way she could help them more directly. Ruth and the principal knew there was: She could become a classroom teacher.

"They just thought that I would add something to these kids' lives," says Angie. "I don't even know what I was waiting for all those years."

"I'm just glad Angie is a teacher," says Ruth. "If the system doesn't come through, Angie will."

Angie and Ruth don't see much of each other at school every day. They may pass one another in the hallway, or Angie might hear her mother's voice on the intercom, making announcements.

But their separate lives inside the school converge outside it. The two talk on the phone every evening, sometimes for hours.

They talk about Lombard. They talk about life. Occasionally, it's colleague to colleague. More often, it's mother to daughter.

Sometimes, after an interminably long day, Angie will ask: "Mommy, why is it so long?" And the elder Gillespie will reply: "It was the same amount of time as yesterday."

And Angie laughs.

Not everyone is meant to teach, much less in a public school in an economically distressed area where many of the kids have profound deficiencies, academic and otherwise.

"You know when you're going to be a teacher. You just know," says Ruth, who has worked at Lombard under 10 principals. "Angie fascinates me. She loves what she does with those children."

At Lombard, Angie teaches four eighth-grade language arts classes, sandwiched around a lunch period that might consist of Peanut M&Ms; and a Code Red from the 7-Eleven up the street.

Angie views her subject as the foundation for every other one, as do the reformers who have descended on the school this year.

As a way of preparing pupils for the tests that will help determine whether they make it to high school, she constantly reminds her children to explain their answers fully. She tells them that oxygen can't flow to their brains if they have their heads down on their desks. She is hip to having fun but won't tolerate foolishness or profanity. When kids say they don't care when she catches them acting out, she tells them, "Well, I do."

Sometimes children will walk in and tell her they need a hug, and she'll oblige. Sometimes, they don't even ask.

"I can say that only the strong people survive at Lombard," she says. "You have to love Lombard. You have to understand those kids in order for it to not drive you crazy."

Some days, when it is driving her crazy, Angie ponders the possibility of stuffing envelopes for a living. She suggested this to one of her eighth-graders a few months ago.

The response only reinforced why Angie keeps showing up.

"Well, Miss Gillespie," the girl said, "you do what you have to do to be happy, but can you just wait until after I graduate?"

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