Since way back in first grade, from the end of September through mid-May, Alexandria (Alex) Brewer, now 18, spent her formative years in the Austin neighborhood, commuting to a far-away Chicago magnet school and later a UIC lab high school. And one evening a week, she would take her mother’s hand and hike down the street to Pine Avenue United Church to experience 90 minutes of learning, latitude and love with Marjorie (Marge) Lyon, her volunteer tutor.
Over time, her Tuesdays with Lyon widened each other’s world, all the while readying the hard-working and precocious student for future acceptance into a four-year university, which has always been Brewer’s goal.
This fall, the high school graduate will be a freshman at the University of Illinois-Chicago Honors College. She received a President’s Award scholarship that covers tuition, room and board, and a new laptop computer.
In the future, Brewer hopes to become a child psychologist. Through this next phase in her pupil’s life, Lyon, no doubt, will vicariously “tag along” – with cards, calls, fresh baked cookies and occasional visits.
On a recent Tuesday morning Brewer was back where it all began, sitting in a room at a tutoring table with the senior citizen who, with compassion and wisdom, changed Brewer’s outlook on life.
“I was assigned this cute and very smart little first-grader by the name of Alexandria,” recalls Lyon, a widow, world traveler, and mother of two daughters and a son. “The moment we saw each other, we just clicked and have stayed together all these years.
“Each time she would always ask me if I was coming back the following year. I would say yes, and ask her if she was coming back. She would say yes, as long as I was coming back. What she didn’t know is that she would be coming back anyway because her mother insisted she be in the program,” Lyon says, laughing.
“She was a very perceptive girl, so I would have her read to me, and I would end up reading a story to her, and she always looked forward to that.”
The Cluster Tutoring Program has been providing free academic help to Austin students for more than 20 years. Lyon is also a longtime member of the nonprofit’s board of directors.
She and Brewer enjoy catching up on each other’s doings – Lyon’s latest travels to Egypt, Africa, Fiji and beyond, and in Brewer’s world, what happened at senior prom and how her job at Walgreens is going. They also reminisce about how Lyon helped Brewer navigate and manage the anger that shadowed her adolescent years.
“In the sixth and seventh grade we had problems, because all little girls have problems at that point, and we worked through them,” Lyon recalls. “I kept telling her those things just weren’t that important, and she should put the anger away, shelve it, and get on with things because it takes too much energy to be angry. I think at some point Alex realized that because now she is in retailing, selling and dealing with people every day, and she’s good at it.”
Brewer’s mom, Jewel, recalls first reading about the Cluster Tutoring Program years ago in a local newspaper and enrolled both her daughters for homework assistance and mentoring.
Brewer and Lyon clicked right away. “Marge is way calmer than me,” she told her mom. “It’s like I have never seen her mad or upset or anything like that. Marge has helped me take a step back to see how I can draw on that to be a calmer person, a more level-headed person myself, thinking before I react. From Marge I learned how to be patient with people, not catching attitudes, because people can be really stubborn, and now I realize that, yeah, I’m stubborn, too.”
“Alex seldom missed tutoring,” Jewel recalled. “Her days started really early. We would leave home at 6:30 a.m. to go to school, and her school had an extended day, so she wouldn’t get out until 4 p.m., and then sometimes she would have to stay longer. But she still would always come to tutoring. I think it was more because she wanted to see Marge.”
During their casual catching up period, Lyon, turning toward Brewer, leaned in and spoke: “When she asked me how much money I was getting paid to do this program and I said my services were free, and all of us were doing it for the love of it, she just couldn’t believe that people came in and did things for nothing…so you also found out that there are people out there who do give of their time, services and everything else, and it was an awakening for you…that all of us tutors came here of our own free will.”
In 1989, on Tuesday evenings for about 90 minutes, the Cluster Tutoring Program launched at Pine Avenue United Church, 1015 N. Pine. Free-of-charge, the one-on-one tutoring program continues to serve kindergartens-through-high school seniors from Austin and greater West Side. Several years later, a second tutoring hub was added at First United Church of Oak Park, 848 Lake St., according to Kathryn McCabe, executive director of the Cluster program.
Twice a week at both sites, the program pairs adults from suburban Oak Park and River Forest with students of varying levels and needs.
Program success, says McCabe, is measured primarily by the long-term relationships established between students and volunteers. Last season, there were 105 student-tutor pairs, compared to 33 pairs 10 years ago, says Lyon.
“I was a tutor for a long time before this, adds McCabe, “so it’s a little more personal. For me, tutoring was how I found who I was and found contentment in life, more than in what many people would consider a whole lot of ‘fancier’ activities. I would like each tutor to have an experience like I’ve had.
“I dreamed of having a kid and being with them, seeing them go off to college,” McCabe said. “It never happened for me. So [Marge and Alex are] really special and what we strive for as a tutoring program. It doesn’t always work out like this, so we celebrate it a lot when it does.”
Meanwhile, back at Pine Avenue United Church, Lyon has already begun tutoring and mentoring her next precocious kindergartener, who will enter the first grade in the fall. As backup, she asked Brewer to co-tutor the little girl and fill in for her when she was gone.
Jewel Brewer concurred.
“I’m hoping that when Alex gets older, maybe after graduating from college, she will make time in her life to be a tutor,” Jewel said. “When they were younger, I used to make my daughters do volunteer things because I think that is important. I’m hoping they will want to continue giving back because everybody can learn something from everyone else. It doesn’t matter how old you are. You’re never too old, or too young, to give back. I’m hoping that they got that from this program.”
For her daughter, the teen did have a seminal moment when she discovered what it means to be a tutor.
“Sometimes I really got irritated with that little girl, and she knows it,” Brewer confessed, laughing.
One morning this spring, on the day of her scheduled tutoring session, Brewer was unexpectedly taken to the emergency room. So when she walked through the door that evening, everyone was surprised.
“That little girl ran up to me, and was so happy to see me. She had made me a card,” Brewer said, becoming emotional. “You don’t know the impact you have on someone. Just seeing that, and knowing that I’m not always the nicest person to her, but she cares about me and thinks I’m OK. That was something that was really, really special to me. I still have the card.”