Gene Pope, a volunteer teaching assistant in the special needs class at General Shanks Elementary School in Portland, helps student Ridge Balle color during a pre-Easter event at the school. Pope, a retired teacher, says, “as long as I can think halfway straight and walk halfway straight, I’ll just keep going.” (The Commercial Review/Ray Cooney)
Gene Pope, a volunteer teaching assistant in the special needs class at General Shanks Elementary School in Portland, helps student Ridge Balle color during a pre-Easter event at the school. Pope, a retired teacher, says, “as long as I can think halfway straight and walk halfway straight, I’ll just keep going.” (The Commercial Review/Ray Cooney)
It’s recess at General Shanks Elementary, and amid students running and playing on the playground stands 78-year-old Gene Pope.
While the kids are dressed in jeans and T-shirts, Pope is wearing a suit and tie, much like he does every day.
One of the students prepares to go down a slide, but Pope stops him at the top. It was raining the night before and the bottom of the slide is wet. Pope bends down and starts wiping the water onto the ground with his hand.
Pope, a full-time instructional assistant for the special needs class at General Shanks, takes advantage of the teachable moment. He tells the student if he goes down he’ll have wet pants, asking whether the boy thinks it is a good choice to do so.
The student does go, but jumps over the bottom of the slide to avoid getting his pants wet.
Pope gets a big hug from a girl — who is clearly showing off for the camera — then stops to play tetherball with a boy with Down syndrome. He spent time one-on-one tutoring this boy earlier in the morning, working on some identification exercises.
He’s not the typical assistant. Teachers Susan Williams and Holly Tonak admit that when he first started they thought the kids would run him over.
But not only has he kept step with the youngsters in the classroom and on the playground, they both now say that they won’t let him leave.
Pope seems more than happy to oblige.
“The big joke in my life is ‘Are you ever going to retire?’” he said. “Every year I think yes, but then I get involved. So as long as I can think halfway straight and walk halfway straight, I’ll just keep going.”

When Pope retired from full-time teaching, he didn’t leave the classroom. He took on substitute teaching and, every now and then, would be placed into a special needs class.
“The way I got into it was I subbed a lot with those groups,” he said. “I liked working with that age group, I like working with the alternative school.”
When the alternative school for middle and high school started, he took a position helping with the program for two years. From there, he moved to work in the alternative school in Pennville until January this year, when he started at General Shanks.
It’s the latest stop in a long career in education. Pope taught four years in a small parochial school before taking a full-time job at Judge Haynes Elementary in Portland in 1965. He spent 33 and 1/2 years teaching sixth grade before retirement.
New challenges arose in teaching in a special needs class, requiring Pope to adapt his teaching methods.
“I guess the big thing that I have to overcome inside of me is that I have to keep remembering that from the mental standpoint, they’re not close to the mental capacity of what we would call an average sixth grader,” he said. “But I have to keep telling myself they do have the ability to learn.
“I know they can learn with their limitations.”

From simple exercises like reviewing shapes and colors to more complex problems, instruction is tailored to student capabilities on a case-by-case basis.
“You have to learn to adapt to what they can handle,” Pope said. “It gives me a satisfaction inside that I’m helping somebody who really needs help and we’re starting on a level where their minds can be formed.”
Adaptation is key in all aspects of the classroom, where sometimes just maintaining order and encouraging good behavior can be a struggle.
Pope, according to Williams and Tonak, is a master.
“He has such a calming influence on the class, even on us occasionally,” Williams said. “He has this way, some of the kids will respond to him that won’t respond to anyone else. He just has this effect on the kids. They just do anything he asks of them.”“It just comes so naturally for him,” she said. “He modifies on the fly, he finds a way to get through to each child, and he’s almost like a grandfather figure to them. He just coaches them along and loves them and they love him and they’ll do anything for him.”
Pope has the natural connection but also understands how to identify personalities and reach students in different ways.
“We have one student that really resists — let’s say he throws himself on the floor — he really resists someone going over there and saying ‘Get up,’” Pope said.
“There’s little things that I’ve learned, this one student, he likes to walk, so instead of using that force, you say, ‘let’s take a walk.’ Most of the time that works.”
Pope, the teachers and the other aides stress encouraging good decision-making and trying to make connections between choices and results.
“When I was getting the water off the slide, I said, ‘You’re going to have to choose not to go down it because you’re going to have a wet bottom.’ And they, to their level, they understand. We tell them when they finally have to suffer the consequences, ‘What choices did you make to get here?’”
While students rely on Pope for some one-on-one instruction, he has taken a fair amount of lessons from the students. From the adaptations of instruction to learning sign language in order to communicate with a deaf student in class, teaching and learning have become a two-way street in the classroom.

In the special needs class, the word “awesome” is a magic word.
For the students, it’s a word that signals their good behavior and effort in class, resulting in climbing steps on the class’ Awesome Chart — eventually leading to rewards.
So it seemed a fitting way to describe Pope’s presence in the classroom.
“Awesome,” Tonak said of Pope. “He exceeds all expectations.”
Expectations can be deceiving. Both Williams and Tonak said that when Pope first started, they were afraid that the kids would wear him down or worse, injure him, in the classroom because of his age.
Both teachers said he’s shattered those initial perceptions.
“When I think of Gene,” Tonak said. “We were doing ‘The Twist’ during a language program that we do on Thursdays. He twisted all the way down to the floor and back up. Like, crazy.
“One of our students thinks he’s 9 years old and he acts like a 9-year-old,” she added.
“There’s nothing he refuses to do,” Williams said. “There is not one single role that any of our aides do that he asks for special treatment on, ever. He does recess duty. He does special classes. He changes diapers. He feeds.”
“No is not in his vocabulary,” Tonak chimed in.
“Can’t is not in his vocabulary,” Williams added. “And I don’t think he allows the children to use that word.”
When asked about the possibility of Pope retiring for good, Williams’ response was “never, ever, ever.”
“He’s already asking us, ‘Are you going to bring me back next year?’” she said. “It’s like, uh, yeah.
“Never, ever retire,” Williams said. “He has to continue working. We don’t want to be without him. He is such an integral part of that room. … You do not get to leave us.”

Not going anywhere
For now, Pope said he can’t see retirement sticking.
“As long as my health and mental ability stays fairly sharp, right now I don’t see it,” he said.
Williams and Tonak won’t try to convince him otherwise.
“He taught when I started teaching 32 years ago … he was old then,” Williams said.
“And he’s still in here kicking and working.”
The reasons for staying, to Pope, were captured perfectly in April when The Commercial Review shot photos of the class working on Easter decorations.
“One of those pictures showed me working with one of those kids,” he said. “I was working with him on coloring and he had his hand over mine and somebody asked me about two weeks ago, ‘Why do you keep doing this?’
“I said, ‘If I had that picture, I’d show you why.’”