Zach Guy folded his tall frame into the tiny blue elementary school chair and began to read the book Miss Nelson is Missing. The students in Karen Lenois’ third- and fourth-grade Learning Lab leaned in close to listen.
In the children’s book, a rowdy class with a case of the fidgets suddenly finds their soft-spoken teacher missing, replaced by a tough substitute who teaches them to behave. A’Monte Frost, a fourth grader who was following along intently, said his class was not like that one. He wanted Guy, a junior offensive lineman on the football, to know that his class was very good.
Guy listened, asked the students questions and answered theirs. When he finished, Frost and several of his classmates gathered around Guy for a picture that Mrs. Lenois would later put into their class photo books.
Guy was one of 33 football players who volunteered to be part of Reading Day at Alma E. Pagels School in West Haven earlier this month. The day was part of a UNH-Pagels partnership, now in its sixth year.
In the fall, the players read to the students, encourage them to do their homework and to begin to dream about college. In the spring the players return to the school every Friday. They are each assigned a classroom and they mentor students, quiz them on spelling words or math facts or get a big game of kickball going at recess.
“In our special education classrooms, they’ll play games with the students, talk with them and work with them on socialization skills,” said Kristen Morin, a second-grade teacher who helps coordinate the program.
“Our guys love to come here and read to the kids and work with them in the spring,” said Head Coach Pete Rossomando. “The older guys, who have been coming here for years, recruit the younger guys to participate. From the first day, it was an instant partnership.”
Morin said it’s exciting for the elementary school students to see Jared Orazio ’15, a 6’, 6” offensive lineman, and his teammate, Chris Biondi ’14, a fellow 6’, 6” offensive lineman, step into their classrooms, read aloud and then talk about the books they loved to read when they were little.
“Our kids have been talking about this for weeks,” Morin said. “To them the UNH football players are like NFL players. They idolize them. If they say to the kids `be sure to do your homework,’ the students really listen.”
When the players, dressed in UNH jerseys or football sweatshirts, pulled up to the school and got out of their cars, “some of the kids ran to the window,” said Biondi. “They couldn’t wait to see us, and that was nice.”
“It’s celebrity status at Pagels School,” Morin said.
Brent MacLeod, a senior co-captain, said, “This is my third year. It’s nice helping out younger kids, being a role model and trying to inspire them,” MacLoud said.
Pagels Principal Gary Palermo said it has been an extremely positive experience. “Our boys and girls love having positive mentors, and the football players enjoy being here,” he said. “It is beneficial to academics and school climate. It gets our students very excited about reading.”
That Friday morning, a long table in the front entrance was full of children’s books, and the players crowded around choosing their books. Anthony Greenfield, a junior punter, decided on Miss Malarkey Doesn’t Live in Room 10. “It looked cute,” he said. “So I picked it up skimmed through it and I liked it. I thought the kids would like it.”
In Debbie Dunleavy’s fourth-grade class, Jordan Dunn, a first-year safety, and Luis Mercer, a first year cornerback, fielded questions after they finished reading.
“What do you have to do to get into college?” Dunleavy asked.
“Get good grades,” Dunn said.
“Stay in school!” Mercer said.
The students had dozen more questions: What kind of classes they could take? What is college like? Do they miss being home? Dunn said he did miss home-cooked food sometimes, but he liked it when his family came to visit.
Eveleen Jiang pointed out that she’s been the shortest student in her classes so far in elementary school. Dunn told her not to worry, that he was small back then, too, and now he plays college football.
“Who’s stronger?” another student asked.
Mercer pointed to Dunn. “He is,” he said.
“They’re wonderful,” said Dunleavy. “They relate so well to the students. They encourage them to try hard in school.”
Colin Hill, a first-year defensive back, read Green Eggs and Ham to a kindergarten class. “They really interacted,” he said. “They said, `Ewww green eggs and ham!’ I told them I read that book when I was in kindergarten, and we ate green eggs and ham after reading it. They were really interested, and it’s nice to be looked up to like that.”
Guy and Orazio, who volunteered last year in Pam Lutsky’s second-grade class, stopped by after to say hello and to find out how her former students were doing. She took them to each third- grade class so they could say a quick hello.
“Remember our friends?” Lutsky asked.
The students leaped up and said hi!
“Who had the coolest costume for Halloween?” Guy asked, and all the students raised their hands. “You all did? That’s awesome.”
As the players left, the students held up their hands for fist pumps, and the players held their fists up too. “See you in the spring,” Guy said.