The sandy-haired boy counted his plastic bricks. His classmates had 8 or 9 apiece, but he announced that he had 17.
"Seventeen?" his teacher asked. "You the man!" The boy nodded in grave agreement.
Steve Geter, left, gets a giggle out of Carter Rutherford during a card game. Also playing is Frank Vassallo.
(Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
A girl with a blond bob piped up. "Mr. Steve, I counted, and I got 13."
The teacher held out a large fist. The girl smiled, made a tiny fist and connected with his.
To the 3-to-5-year-old set at the Abracadabra Child Development Center in Alexandria, Mr. Steve -- aka associate teacher Steve Geter -- is, literally, the man. The only male employee at the preschool, he leads his students in painting, charades, bingo, "math Jeopardy" and blackjack, though without the gambling.
The children throw themselves into his arms when they arrive each morning, climb on his back during playtime, and let him comfort and distract them when they are blue.
So it is with heavy hearts that the preschool's director and many of the parents have concocted a plan that could mean no more Mr. Steve.
After four years of working at the school and attending community college part time to earn his two-year associate's degree, Geter, 22, wants to get a bachelor's degree in education with a minor in history. Three weeks ago, he asked the preschool's director, Kathy Wilson, for a letter of recommendation for his applications to the University of Virginia, University of Mary Washington and James Madison University.
She agreed but took it a step further. Last week, she asked parents to write their own letters of support, which she plans to compile into a "Mr. Steve Yearbook," with pictures of him at work and excerpts from the letters, to submit to the schools' admissions offices.
"It's sort of bittersweet," said parent Dan Pattarini, one of the letter writers.
In part because early childhood education is a traditionally female enterprise and in part because the salaries are relatively low for a job in which many people have bachelor's and master's degrees, Wilson said, having a man on staff is an anomaly. Abracadabra's other teachers include an economist, two former accountants and a communications major from the University of London.
Geter grew up with an older sister and a mother who worked two or three jobs to support them. He never knew his father. The absence "inspired me to make sure I'm there for my kids, and for at-risk kids, and for kids in general," he said.
At T.C. Williams High School, Geter was the only male in the Early Childhood Development program, which offers a certificate in child development. When Geter's supervisor touted him as her star student, Wilson decided to hire him.
At first, he seemed too good to be true. "I kept thinking, okay, when is this balloon going to come down? When is the other shoe going to drop?" she said.
Nothing dropped. Geter is just "what we need in education today," Wilson said. "I think he's quite a mature person, but needless to say he can access the child within."
Although he didn't have young children in his family, Geter said he knew he liked them. "They're honest, that's for sure. If you do something silly, if you smell bad, they'll tell you," he said. "And they're full of energy. It really brings you up."
Preschoolers, who can be mercurial and insecure as they learn to get along with each other, feel safe around Geter, Wilson said. They like his wide-open face and his jokes. Former Alexandria City Council member Lonnie Rich, whose children attended the school, said they still recite a prayer Geter taught them, which ends, "Thank you, God, for the birds and bees. Thank you, God, for Mr. Steve."
"He's like a pied piper," Rich said. "All little kids will flock to him."
So do parents, who seem to simultaneously want to parent him and be babied by him.
"I take an interest in the parents -- 'Hey, how you doing, how was your day?' " Geter said. "I know some dads who come in here real shy -- we talk about sports. Maybe it's different seeing a different face, a guy. And I'm young. If they need help moving or something like that, I'm around. I am accessible."
He often runs into them in Old Town, and many invite him to basketball games and home-cooked dinners, even after their children have moved on. "I just got a couch from one of them," he noted.
Of course, no man is perfect. "Steve has a tendency to get a lot of things out for the children, and he's not very good at putting things back," Wilson said. "He said to me, 'Kathy, please don't ask me to put a lot of beads back into boxes -- let me haul something instead,' " she said. So Geter does the heavy lifting and snow shoveling and leaves the beads to others.
The Mr. Steve Yearbook came as a surprise to him. "I asked for one letter of recommendation from [Wilson], and I think one of the parents overheard, and they got together and conspired," he said.
Assuming the yearbook does the trick, Geter said, after he earns his degree he may join the Peace Corps and will then seek a teaching job at a middle or high school. He is attracted to secondary education because of "the mentoring part," he said, adding, "It'll be so great to give the kids the kind of things that I was left in the dark about. Things like paying your bills. And collegewise, it's taken me so long."
It may be some consolation to the letter writers to know that they may not have seen the last of Mr. Steve.
Marsha Oshima, whose daughters Olivia, 5, and Lilian, 2, attend the school, is one of them. "He said to Olivia, 'One day, you're going to walk into your junior high class and I'm going to be there.' So I hope that happens."