On a recent wintry Monday afternoon, Agnes Lafferty sat in a corner of the Brown Memorial Tutoring Program classroom in Bolton Hill putting 11-year-old Janya Simms through her paces. They worked on building vocabulary.
“What does comet mean?” Agnes asked. Next she quizzed the girl on story sequence, “What happens first? What happens next?”
Agnes worked with the ease and confidence of someone familiar with the routine. She should be. She has been doing this work, tutoring Baltimore students in reading and writing, for 51 years.
It started back in 1967 when an acquaintance in her Towson neighborhood told her about the Brown Memorial Tutoring Program, a program that pairs adult volunteers with struggling students from four Baltimore elementary schools.
“I was fascinated with phonics,” she recalled. “I had no idea how I learned to read, I just did.”
After attending an orientation session conducted by experienced tutors, she thought she “would give it a try.”
So began what would become more than a half century of tutoring at Brown Memorial. At first she sandwiched her tutoring sessions around her part-time job as a lab technician at University Hospital. When children—Kathleen, Mark and Jenny—arrived in the Lafferty household she improvised. When her children were preschoolers she took them with her to Bolton Hill, handing them off to a babysitter at the church. Later when the children were school-age, she scheduled tutoring sessions in the mornings so she could be home in the afternoons.
Now a 78-year-old grandmother of four, she tutors one afternoon a week, driving down from Towson, parking her Volvo on the street, and climbing the 40 steps to the third floor of the Church House, the temporary residence of the tutoring program while space in the neighboring Fellowship Building is being renovated.
A tall woman with a slight hitch in her gait, a result Agnes said of two knee and one hip replacement surgeries, she demurs from sitting down on the floor cross-legged with students at the beginning and end of each tutoring session. “I can’t kneel,” she said, with a note of irritation in her voice. Her spirit, however, is strong.
As Agnes sat next to Janya, a 5th grader at Baltimore’s Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary School, the twosome, one with graying hair, the other with dreadlocks, worked at a steady pace, taking turns reading passages from selected workbooks designed to build fluency. As Agnes read she placed her finger on each word, a technique that helped Janya focus on the printed material. When they encountered a word, such as “probe” that Janya was unfamiliar with, Agnes explained, “it means to explore.” When a story they were reading mentioned Japan, Agnes paused and had her charge find Japan on a map taped to the wall above them.
“Kids like to learn,” Agnes said. “The big thing here is to be able to work one-on-one with a student. The classroom teacher has, what, 35 kids in the room and can’t possibly address every child’s learning problems. But with one-on-one and with help from Martha and Amy [program directors Martha Socolar and Amy Munds] and when you have been doing this for years and years, you figure things out.”
The benefits of the work she said are twofold, some for the students some for the tutors.
“The only way kids are going to get a job and be self- sufficient is if you can read and understand things.” She added “I get a lot out of it. I feel good that hopefully I can help somebody make progress.”
Over the years Agnes has experienced changes in the tutoring program. Gone, felled by logistics, are the Saturday outings that tutors once arranged to take students to the post office, Cylburn Arboretum and Fort McHenry. Gone as well is the baby-sitting arrangement that tutoring mothers once needed.
“The materials we use now are much nicer than when I started, but it is all phonics“ and all based on the Orton- Gillingham instructional approach, Agnes said.
On the horizon she is looking forward next year to working in the renovated Fellowship Building. “It is going to have an elevator,” she said, adding that she plans to take it rather than battle the steps, all “34 of them.”
When pressed to estimate how many students she has tutored in the past 51 years, Agnes declined to guess. She has worked with some students for multiple years, she explained, others for a year or two.
She acknowledged occasional disappointments. For example, over the years she has worked with a few promising students only to have them drop out of the tutoring program when their families suddenly moved.
But she has success stories as well. There was the little girl who came to Agnes as a home-schooled third grader virtually unable to read. Now a graduate of the tutoring program and an accomplished eighth grader, the girl has penned notes to Agnes, among them the girl’s goal to eventually land a job at the Central Intelligence Agency.
Then there is Larry Rice, a man who, while making a delivery to Brown Memorial, paused to ask a question.
Larry said that as a boy he used to come to Brown Memorial for tutoring and wondered if “Mrs. Lafferty was still here.”
Indeed she was, and is.