Ida Shankman gripped the overhead bar on a weight machine as her spotter, Greg Gentry, stood at the ready on a recent morning at Howard High School.
Shankman, 75, worked intently, pulling 60 pounds toward her in an even rhythm. Many of the students in Gentry's class watched with concern and admiration, but all agreed on one thing:
"She's the strongest one here," said Chris Lucas, 16.
Shankman used to do aerobics but said lifting weights is better for her bones. And Gentry, 18, is there for her every Tuesday and Thursday morning that she can come, acting as her personal trainer through a unique partnership between the Ellicott City school and the county hospital.
The program gives teenagers in the school's advanced weightlifting class the responsibility of spotting elderly adults as they pump iron and of motivating them to stay fit. In return, the seniors take the students under their wings, cooking a feast for them twice a year and sharing the life lessons it took many decades to learn.
Though she immigrated to the United States as a teenager, Shankman, a native of Poland, speaks with a heavy accent. She lived through the Holocaust, spending 21/2 years in a concentration camp, and the students say they have never met anyone quite like her.
The approximately two dozen other senior citizens, who show up at Howard High bright and early, dressed in T-shirts and sweat pants, have their own stories -- the elevator inspector, the NASA engineer whom the students have dubbed the Boss, even one of their teacher's fathers.
The students provide an eager audience for their reminiscing as they lift weights together. The class is one of several physical education electives at Howard.
On a recent Tuesday morning, Bernie O'Neill, 71, hopped on a stationary bike and began pedaling. He is a favorite among the students for his loud guffaw and mischievous tales from his youth.
"Did you meet the Elevator Man?" Lucas asked a visitor at the gym on a recent morning. It is one of the nicknames the students have given O'Neill.
His friends quickly chimed in: Did he tell you about how he has visited all 50 states? Did he tell you that he has an elevator in his garage? Did he tell you about how he once trapped a bunch of people in an elevator as part of a psychological experiment?
Rob Priller, 18, shuddered. "Sounds like 'Fear Factor,' " he said.
O'Neill is older than some of the teenagers' grandparents, and his own grandchildren have all grown up. The students are among the few who haven't heard all of his tales.
"They say, 'When are you going to tell us another story?' " O'Neill said. He jokingly responds, "I'm here to be exercising, not my mouth but the machines."
One of the regulars, the man the students call the Boss, was absent. He used to be an engineer at NASA, and the teenagers tease him about buying a red Corvette to drive his wife to church.
Sitting on a stationary bike was Charles Oursler, 70, father of Richard Oursler, a teacher who leads the weights class.
O'Neill said he sees a little bit of himself -- albeit much younger -- in the students who train with him. He rarely misses a chance to rib Lucas about having dated a girl who lives across the street from O'Neill and used to sell him Girl Scout cookies. "It gives him a fit," O'Neill said, chuckling.
Across the room, Shankman leaned against the bicep-curl machine as she waited for Gentry to return with another stack of weights. The brawny high school senior brought her 45 pounds. Shankman used to be able to do 50 pounds, but that was before her back started giving out.
Gentry placed the weights onto the machine, then stepped back as Shankman began to lift. He spotted her closely, his right arm ready to steady the machine should her muscles falter. They counted the last five repetitions together: 11, 12, 13, 14, 15.
"It was heavy," Shankman said, stretching out her arms. "Sometimes it's heavy, sometimes it's light."
Gentry can lift dumbbells as heavy as 80 pounds, but he listened to Shankman sympathetically. He understood.