Dressed impeccably, as always. Nails painted to match, as always.
“Come into my classroom,” Rokus said, and, pretty soon, Hovey was sobbing every detail to the first-grade teacher.
“Well, I don’t believe that about your child,” Rokus said. “He’s just had tubes put in his ears. He’s just hearing words for the first time correctly.”
Rokus sent Hovey home with a handwriting workbook and a promise: “We’re going to have no problem.”
It was the beginning of a decades-long relationship that saw Rokus tutor every one of Hovey’s four children to academic success. Korbin, now a 21-year-old honor student at George Mason, planned to invite Rokus to his college graduation.
But Rokus, a 73-year-old Loudoun County Public Schools reading tutor, died Wednesday night of novel coronavirus-related health complications, according to the Loudoun County Health Department. She left behind a niece in North Carolina, friends said. It is the first known death from the virus reported in Loudoun County and the first of a Virginia public school educator. Health officials said they notified her contacts that she was sick but didn’t say where she contracted the virus.
Rokus started as a first-grade teacher in 1969 and retired in 2014, staying on part time to tutor struggling readers at two elementary schools. Former students spoke of her lasting influence, friends of her loyalty and love of Italian food, colleagues of her colorful outfits and distinctive decor — especially the leopard-print chair, shaped like a stiletto, that she kept for years at the front of her classroom.
Parent after parent shared the same story: No one could teach my child to read. And then, they said, Ms. Rokus just did it.
“She could teach a rock to read,” said Loudoun County resident Kristin Flora, 50. “And my son is living proof of that.”
Amanda Lynch, whose 7-year-old son attends first grade in Loudoun, credits Rokus with preparing her son to graduate from kindergarten last year. He suffers from ADHD and anxiety, Lynch said, and was terrified of reading until Rokus started tutoring him.
Rokus soon deduced that he loves art, Lynch said. She began asking him to draw pictures about every assigned book, then to caption each picture — all steps toward opening the book itself. If he refused, Lynch said, Rokus wrote captions.
“She had this beautiful handwriting,” Lynch said. “It was almost like calligraphy.”
Hovey can still picture Rokus pulling up to her house in a white BMW, its back seat and trunk stuffed full of children’s books. “If you wanted to ride with her,” Hovey said, “you had to sit up front.”
She can see Rokus sailing into the kitchen, raising a bag of gummy bears or Tic Tacs, which Korbin loved. Or Rokus asked Hovey to leave out a tray of pudding or Jell-O, also Korbin’s favorites, so the boy could practice writing his name, then lick his fingers as a reward.
“For the next hour after that,” Hovey said, “that kitchen was hers. And you didn’t fool around in her kitchen.”
From upstairs, Hovey would sometimes hear a bang: Rokus slapping the table and exclaiming, “Now is that what I taught you?” when Korbin misbehaved. But equally frequent were high-pitched squeals of pleasure, sometimes followed by Rokus running to the stairwell to yell up, “He’s got it! He’s got it!”
“She made students want to work for her,” Hovey said. “She made them want to learn.”
It was the same in the classroom, said former student Jenna Gilliam Libbares, 34.
Libbares was a student in Rokus’s third-grade class at Arcola Elementary School in 1994, one of a handful of years that Rokus taught third instead of first.
Libbares remembers competing with other third-graders for the prize of sitting next to Rokus during reading hour. She remembers Rokus’s desk drawer full of candy. She remembers the fruit-scented hand lotion Rokus kept on a table.
But most of all, she remembers the day Rokus let her guest-teach a lesson about the months of the year.
“She could tell that I wanted to be a teacher so badly,” said Libbares. “She helped me plan it out, she got me all the materials, we figured out how many photocopies I would need.”
“That day,” Libbares said, “showed me teaching was what I really wanted to do.”
Libbares went on to teach kindergarten and second grade in Virginia.
Julie Ciardiello, 51, a Loudoun elementary school teacher, met Rokus 20 years ago, when both were teaching at Little River Elementary. Now, Ciardiello is stuck on the little things.
Like how Rokus got her nails done every other week. How she loved the sound of fingernails tapping on a cellphone screen but hated when people looked at their phones during dinner. How she bought hundreds of pairs of gorgeous shoes but only ever wore a few.
How she adored “Judge Judy.” How she never missed church. How she said, “Oh my gawd — but with a g-a-w-d,” Ciardiello said, “not g-o-d.”
“I’m going to miss all the things she can’t be a part of, now,” said Ciardiello, whose son had promised Rokus a dance at his wedding.
Ciardiello is one of few people who knows the origins of the leopard-print stiletto-shaped chair. In the mid-2000s, Ciardiello looked out her window and saw the chair on the curb. A neighbor planned to throw it out.
Ciardiello loaded the unwieldy heel into her car, drove to school and left it as a morning surprise for Rokus.
“She loved it,” Ciardiello said. “ ‘Oh my gawd, where did this come from? Oh my gawd!’ ”
When Rokus retired, she gifted the chair to another teacher.
So at least, Ciardiello said, it’s still in a classroom.