'He's 91, but he's really 19'
It's not every day you hear about a 91-year-old public school teacher, a man who left retirement to hurl himself into the often raucous world of rambunctious teens. So I went to Suitland High School to meet Robert Beale Sr. Beale, I'm told, likes to keep things simple. He watches "Jeopardy!" most weeknights, and falls asleep at 9. He rises at 5 a.m., without an alarm clock, and drives himself to school. At 8:45, the Glenarden resident with three degrees in chemistry starts teaching the first of five earth science classes. Now in his 13th year at Suitland, he isn't pining for a second retirement. He just finished leading the annual college tour he arranges, a five-day bus trip carrying more than 40 students to eight institutions of higher learning in the South.
Here's one of the least noticed trends in education: As a group, teachers are getting older, according to the National Education Association. Beale, however, is extraordinary. "I can't imagine there are more than a dozen teachers in the United States who are over 90," says NEA spokeswoman Kathleen Lyons.
His pupils barely notice. "He's 91," says Suitland senior DeLourdes Crawley, "but he's really 19. He acts like us." Meaning he's often laughing, fooling around, cracking jokes about other teachers. "He helps you with everything -- family, life, school. He's all about the kids."
Waiting for Beale in the bustling hallway by the front entrance, I didn't even notice him round the corner and stroll over. I mean, the guy looks like he could be 25 years younger than his age. He speaks slowly and clearly, and has a rather kingly bearing.
"I've never paid any attention to the age thing," says Beale, who serves, in his spare time, as a commissioner of the Glenarden Housing Authority. "All along, I've been the young one among my associates."
His 57-year-old daughter, Joy Beale Mitchell, is a library media specialist at the school.
We all sit down for a chat, and something about that evokes the atmosphere of a front-porch get-together. "You're going to pour the lemonade, right?" Beale quips to his daughter. Then he settles into his story, beginning in 1935, when he got his first full-time teaching gig at what is now Huston-Tillotson College in Austin, Tex. "I was the chemistry department," he says.
His oral resume takes quite a while to deliver, and he's in no hurry. He has taught or been an administrator at 11 colleges,
including Virginia Union, North Carolina A&T and the University of Maryland. He took a year off from teaching to study anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania, and once spent a year operating his brother-in-law's service station in Philadelphia, where Beale grew up.
In 1986, he retired and spent his free time doing civic work and playing the organ at his church. Then in 1990, a friend said the Prince George's County public schools were in desperate need of more black male teachers. Beale thought he'd offer his services.
After all, how many retired college professors with doctorates in chemistry do you suppose are teaching science in the P.G. public school system? But it took many months and a few pulled political strings before Beale got a job offer. The process frustrated him immensely. The not-so-subtle message: He was too old to teach kids of this generation. "It was stupid," he says.
Once at Suitland, however, Beale fit right in.
Students today are "similar to the students of 40-50 years ago," he says. "They are human beings. It's the circumstances under which they are growing up that are quite different."
He recalls going to a student's home at 7 p.m. to talk to his parents about the college tour. The father was in the back somewhere, "and the mother staggered to the door blowing me down with alcohol, and here's a student I'm trying to encourage to go to college. I think we have more of that today than we had 40-50 years ago."
When it is suggested that students themselves are more disrespectful than they were half a century ago, Beale agrees. "But I don't blame them," he says. "We have to ask why."
Beale asked one student about discussions at the family dinner table, and the kid replied: "Dr. Beale, we don't sit around the dinner table. We pick up our food and go on."
Another student confided that his father regularly beats him and his mother. "So when the poor fella gets out of hand, I have to consider his background."
Beale wonders: How can we fault kids who don't have models of good behavior at home?
I'm wondering how long we can keep Robert Beale in the classroom.
"Well, I don't know," he says. If he stops teaching, he speculates, "then what will I do? I'll do more civic work. Maybe I'll paint the house . . ."
And then a light seems to go on in his head. "I haven't done any preaching yet. Maybe I'll be a preacher."
I can see it now: the Rev. Dr. Robert Beale Sr., novice pastor at age 100.
Kevin Merida's e-mail address is email@example.com.