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The final reel for Mr. B

The Baltimore Sun

It's 4 p.m. on a sunny day, and most of the students and staff at Clemens Crossing Elementary School are long gone.

Not Tom Brzezinski, who is busy preparing for the afternoon's main event -- a showing of the Robin Williams film Jumanji. After carting a 16 mm projector to the back of the school's cafetorium, he carefully closes the velvety, baby-blue curtains and lowers the large screen. He then draws an "X" on the bottom of several cups of popcorn, which will designate student prize-winners.

Just as he marks the last cup for the last time -- the veteran Howard County teacher will retire at the end of the school year -- the sound of 80 eager students begins to build outside of the closed double doors. The kids are here and ready for an afternoon of movie watching. Brzezinski heads to the door and greets the excited bunch of youngsters.

"Anyone ready to play the game of ..." Brzezinski baits the group.

"Jumanji!" the kids scream in unison, as they file into the room and either plop down on the floor or on cafeteria stools.

Brzezinski, who is affectionately called "Mr. B," usually goes above and beyond the call of duty. He is not required to show the after-school movies that have become a tradition at Clemens Crossing. He has not been obligated to recruit the dozens of national children's book authors that he has attracted to the school for the past decade. He doesn't even have to read with the passion and signature funny voices his students have come to love over the years. But he does it so that his students know that they are receiving a top-notch education.

"Every child should think that they are at the best school in the country," Brzezinski said. "Every kid should think that way."

After 42 years working for the Howard County school system -- the past 28 years at Clemens Crossing -- the 66-year-old media specialist is calling it quits because he "thought it was about time."

He said, "Someone asked me about it last year. I started thinking about it."

It has been a long, memorable journey for Brzezinski, who was the school system's first media specialist when he was hired in 1968.

He fondly remembers when two supervisors recruited him for the new job because they noticed he had fun as a teacher doing a variety of activities, including showing short films.

"They were looking for someone who was not the gray-haired lady with the bun in the back," Brzezinski said.

Brzezinski excelled in his role. He was able to incorporate his love of film into his love of storytelling.

For the past 20 years, Brzezinski has shown about 15 films each school year during the after-school movie gatherings.

"I show anything as long as it's PG ... and not a strong PG," he said. "It provides something that is clean and wholesome."

The film watching includes at least one 3-D film a year, Brzezinski said. This year's offering was Spy Kids 3-D.

"We got glasses for the kids," Brzezinski said.

He has even organized a special viewing of a Harry Potter movie and Because of Winn-Dixie at the AMC Columbia 14 movie theater.

On a recent morning in the school library, Brzezinski combined his two loves for an exciting lesson for a group made up of two fifth-grade classes.

The 40 students were silent and enthralled with each word he spoke, and each image -- a collection of movie trailers -- he showed on a television.

Ellen Morse, Brzezinski's assistant for four years, does not know how the school will replace him.

"He doesn't just read the story, he becomes a part of the story," Morse said. "He gives the children such a love for literature, unlike anyone I've ever met. He is an icon in the school and the community. He will be sorely missed."

Maxwell Godwin, an 11-year-old fifth-grader, said Mr. B is successful in connecting with students because of his enthusiasm.

"I'm going to miss his enthusiasm and what he does for the school," Maxwell said. "I don't think I'll have a media specialist like him again."

Wengiel Gugssa, an 11-year-old fifth-grader who has attended 10 different schools because of her father's work as a pastor, said she has never had a teacher as good as Mr. B.

"He does extraordinary things to make us happy and to make sure we like reading," she said. "I've been to a lot of schools and had a lot of teachers, and none of them were as exciting about reading as him."

When Brzezinski is not entertaining the students with his animated reading style, he is recruiting top children's book authors to visit the school.

This year, the school's visiting author series attracted James Howe, author of the Bunnicula series; and Steven Kellogg, author of the Pinkerton series.

Born in Baltimore and raised in Catonsville, Brzezinski attended Catonsville Community College before finishing his undergraduate degree in elementary education at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon. After graduation, he took a job as a teacher in Howard County at Waterloo Elementary School. After three years, he went to the newly opened Bryant Woods Elementary School, where he got his start as a media specialist. Ten years later, he went to Clemens Crossing, where he has remained.

Brzezinski got the teaching bug at a young age as a Sunday school teacher and a baby-sitter.

"I always liked literature and kids," he said. "It seemed to be a fit."

Louise Hayward, a parent of a second- and fifth-grader at the school, said Brzezinski has a gift when it comes to children.

"He tells lots of stories and makes books come to life," she said. "He's a lovely guy."

Peggy Dumler, principal of Clemens Crossing, said Brzezinski inspires the entire school community. "He has instilled a love of literature and learning for a lifetime with our children. Tom will be very missed. He's become a positive influence on so many lives."

After he retires, Brzezinski plans to help out with the visiting-authors series and the after-school movies at the school, and he will remain as a fixture at the Columbia Association's Lakefront Summer Festival, where he has shown movies since 1971.

Other than that, Brzezinski has a date with his garden.

"Our lawn looks a mess," Brzezinski said. "My daffodils don't know what to do."

He plans to do some substitute teaching, maybe for his daughter, Kelly Brzezinski, a science teacher at Glenwood Middle School, or his wife, Carol, a gifted-and-talented resource teacher at Triadelphia Ridge Elementary.

But don't expect him to make a habit of spending too much time in the classroom.

"I'll be there to wave to them [wife and daughter] as they go to work," he said with a laugh. "And to cook a good meal when they come home."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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