It should be hard to dominate your surroundings from a child-sized table, but Lovie McCathern has it down.
As a volunteer with FiftyForward’s FLIP (Friends Learning In Pairs) program, McCathern works with students in South Nashville’s Una Elementary School who are in danger of falling behind in their reading and math skills. But where most FLIP volunteers are on hand for a few hours two days a week, McCathern is a fixture at Una Elementary every day. “Nana,” as the students know her, is everywhere.
In addition to “her” table in the school’s library, there’s a service award and a book-distribution area named for her and marked with plaques, so her presence is felt even when she’s unseen.
“A few weeks ago, there were some boys out in the hall carrying on, and I heard one of them tell the others, ‘Nana is sitting around there somewhere, and you better slow down,’” McCathern says.
“I started crying, because even when I think they’re not listening, I get to them somehow.”
Parenting her own three daughters or the children of others comes naturally to McCathern. The soft-spoken Nashville native knows when to take the soft approach, and when to gently but firmly crack down.
“There are a lot of challenges for children; things are different in this school than they were in my day,” says McCathern, who turned 85 in 2017. “Here we have 26 different nationalities, and sometimes they clash. But they don’t do that at my table — I don’t let them. I tell them we are here to learn, not play, and to sit up straight. If they don’t, I tell them to go back to the classroom and have that teacher send me somebody who wants to learn. That stops any clowning going on.”
Love of children, love of learning
McCathern began her tutoring career nine years ago, several years after retiring from Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where she was involved in surgical prep work. She worked in mental health for 22 years, and throughout a life working in healthcare, she says she did a “little bit of everything.” Tutoring was something very different, but she’d been working with children in one way or another her whole life, so it made sense.
“I had been keeping a neighbor’s child — she’s 16 now — and she was the one who began calling me ‘Nana.’ When I got involved in the tutoring program she was in school here, and she let everyone know that I was to be called that no matter what. So, it’s been Nana this whole time, and it will keep on, I suppose.”
That intuitive approach to honoring children’s wishes and also setting firm boundaries meant that she has been a friend to youngsters throughout her life, so working at a school made sense. Soon, however, she was at Una Elementary far above and beyond the FLIP program’s requirements. Now she’s literally there when the doors open.
“I get here around 6:15 a.m., as soon as there’s someone to let me in,” she says. “I never leave before 1 p.m., though — there’s too much for me to do.”
Her day consists of working with students one-on-one as they are sent to her from different grades. She originally worked with older students, but now she primarily works with kindergarten and first-grade children. She gets a heads-up from the teacher regarding what areas need work, and she selects books or worksheets tailored to that child. The last thing she wants to see is a child who’s not ready feeling the pressure to advance.
“I want to see them do well, and if they are having trouble, others might call them dumb.”
“That gets fights going, and that hurts me,” she says. “I don’t want to see or hear that, and so they sure won’t do it when I’m around. The little ones can learn quicker, and I get them where they need to go. I have gotten them to achieve at a higher level when the teachers and principals didn’t think they would.”
She’s also not above using her age and position to bend the wills of an errant third-grader or two.
“I had a couple of boys cutting up so bad, I told them ‘Look, you are going to get me fired. I won’t have anywhere to live, or food to eat. I’ll be out the street,’” she says, laughing.
“They straightened right up! And I looked up and said, ‘Lord, forgive me that little white lie.’ It’s all in how you talk to them; they know if you love them or not, and they know I love them all.”
Putting her money where her passion is
McCathern does a lot more for Una Elementary than serve as its unofficial grandmother. A few years ago, she won a community volunteer award presented by Bank of America. She wasted no time: her $5,000 prize went straight to the school, starting what’s now known as “Nana’s Book Nook,” a supplemental reading resource center for student and teachers.
“We didn’t have the money to purchase what we would need for a center, and she invested her prize money with us, just like she does with her time,” says Deborah Green, assistant principal. “The center has books that kids can use, as well as materials teachers use. It is a wonderful resource for us to have.”
She also routinely buys teaching materials for use at her command center in the library, Green adds, as well as small treats for the children.
“She goes out on her own if she sees a need,” Green says. “She sponsors classroom pizza parties, even. It all comes out of her own pocket.”
Her contributions were officially honored a few years back when the faculty created the “Lovie Award,” an annual recognition of a standout volunteer. It’s given during the school’s annual friends and family luncheon in the spring, and the winner’s name goes on the front-hall plaque that bears McCathern’s name.
““Lovie reads each nomination herself and beams with pride knowing her legacy of volunteering is helping to inspire others,” Green says.
A new career, a new lease on life
The various honors that come McCathern’s way are all well and good, but like every teacher in the profession, she says it’s the “lightbulb moments” that keep her coming back.
“You see when they get that comprehension, when a word they are seeing on the page makes sense in their head,” she says. “I love it when that happens. If it’s a letter, we will sound it out and then use it in words. When they get one, and then they get another, we move on to words, and sentences.”
She’s also bilingual … a little bit.
“I am helping them with their English, so if they say a word in Spanish I make them tell me what it is,” she explains. “Then I get it wrong, and they get to correct me.”
“We laugh, and we learn each other’s language. They need to learn English, and I try to help them get there. But I like learning their language a little bit, too. It’s good for all of us.”
That eagerness is why the school hopes McCathern keeps coming back for a very, very long time, Green says.
“The FLIP program is very valuable to us, but Lovie has become so much more than a volunteer tutor,” Green says. “A lot of kids don’t have grandparents, and don’t have someone who can sit with them and read. Their parents are both working two jobs. Nana provides that guided instruction, that one-on-one opportunity that they might not have. She means so much to them because she’s a consistent and caring presence in their lives.”
McCathern says they don’t have to worry about her leaving any time soon. Whether it’s a dancing day (“I may have my feet going the wrong way, but I get out there with them”) or pajama day or Halloween, McCathern is going to be right in the thick of it.
“I’m going to keep coming as long as the good Lord lets me move around,” McCathern says. “I don’t live too far, so as long as I can get out, I’m going to come here.
“Besides, I’m everybody’s unpaid boss, so I need to keep an eye on them.”