That Kid at the Back, First a Scholar, Now Rocket Scientist!

Are you ready for a miracle? Tonight I am thrilled to tell you the most amazing news! Miracles do happen. Here’s one. This is Steffen’s Story!

There is always a kid at the proverbial back, that one kid. The one who needs us most for a variety of reasons, maybe social, emotional, academic or simply human to human.

There’s always one, sometimes more than one. That kid who makes us laugh, maybe shed tears of frustration at the emotional burden. So many to teach, so many needs. How far does love go? Really far.

We are blessed with courage and ability to take on enormous risks and tasks. It comes with our credentials as teachers and parent teachers, and accompanies empathy, caring and continuous learning. The gifts of art and craft of teaching, reaching diverse children, meeting unique needs, maybe starting with food and clothes. First Maslow (basic needs), then Dewey (interests). There are great rewards in meeting our purpose, as servant leaders through drive, determination, tenacity. We can do no less.

Dreams do come true. Never doubt yourself. Stay the course of belief and risk-taking.

When we give of ourselves from our head, heart and soul, we never do it expecting unbridled gratitude. When we see that spark of genius, regardless of outward displays of non-compliance, restless shift of ambivalence to outright anger and hostility, how could we ever imagine a breakthrough, much less a stellar mega-watt talent waiting to be discovered and nourished? Looks are definitely deceiving sometimes, and what we hear may not reflect what’s really going on. Patience. And when we think we have literally done it all, nothing more to do, at wits end, there is always one more thing, and that may make the difference, the aha! and Voila!

Meet Steffen. Teaching a left-behind child to read. Of all the kids, this one.

Recently I was asked at the last minute to draft an article for publication responding to these four questions. At first I declined, then looked closely and realized I had a grand example of hope bearing fruit, this one, Steffen, of course.

Here are the questions. 

  1. How long have you been a teacher?
  2. Tell me about a time when you went above and beyond your role as a teacher to help a student find success academically or socially/emotionally. Please be as descriptive as possible!
  3. What about this moment made you proud to be an educator? Why?
  4. Do you still keep in touch with the student? Where are they now?

Questions one through three, maybe four are probably right at your fingertips. “That Kid at the Back, Scholar-In-Waiting”. Everybody has a story. I know you have yours.

Meet Steffen. I wrote a book about him in 2005 and blogged about him last July, 2019. 

Learning to read together.The little guy in the photo is now 23 years old. Photo is likely from 2004. Currently Steffen is working in a big city, and planning his Masters’ degree next. He hoped to get a position abroad, possibly in Germany; Steffen, the little guy who was so far behind in school is now expert in polymers! Who knew? We did. That’s where humility and faith come in. Grace, too. His mama Margot knew and never gave up. Me, either.

Look closer at the picture. Steffen is reading to me, less than thrilled, likely at frustration level, I think his favorite “Captain Underpants”. Although I’m not close enough to be doing Echo reading by his ear, it looks like I was quietly reading along, not sure, though.

I think all teachers are servant leaders. Purpose, passion, grace and dignity sum up a teacher. How in the world would we pick one child, that one we think we made the most enormous difference with? It’s such a daily thing, teachers just do stuff organically, whatever needs to be done. Teachers figure out a way. Many times we don’t know how the seeds we planted in our gardens of learning love germinate, like the bamboo, suddenly coming up. It always reminds me of ” Leo the Late Bloomer”; there are so many Leos waiting to bloom!

Above and beyond my role as University Teacher. Talk the walk, then walk the talk. 

I required all our Credential course students to tutor one or more kiddos in reading. One of the students, Corinne met Steffen, then a second grader. She knew he needed “more” and asked me to help out. So I met him, and the rest is history. I taught Steffen for a number of years at our historic mountain cabin house and property. The house itself was built in 1858 and of course I filled it with old schoolhouse slates, bells, etc. (Mark Twain and  Bret Harte stayed there when it was a way station). This was an important setting for Steffen. It was informal, we walked by the pond, spotted resident Canadian honkers Edgar and Matilda, took nature walks there and at the nearby trails and lake. The outdoors played a powerful backdrop for lessons. In between maybe a hammock break.

Meet Steffen. Left behind, not a cookie cutter kid. But brilliant! Exploration worked.

My late husband William also participated with projects and outdoor activities, noticeably science experiments, nature walks, showing his extensive stamp album, playing Monopoly  and other games to practice skills, etc. Steffen was already interested in airplanes and rockets, which I nearly forgot. I recall one day sending up rockets we made. Never did I dream Steffen would end up a rocket scientist! At that time he was more into PE., sports, arts. He excelled at spatial activities such as soccer. He told me he could literally see the ball spinning and rotating in the air. (Baseball, bowling, soccer). He frequently told me of his abilities to see things in 3D, and could build interesting structures, paint and draw beautifully. We applied scientific method and Steffen came up with his super book project called “Steffen’s Book About Interesting Facts”. Later his talents shone in verbal skills such as speech and debate.

Weaving arts into our learning. Excellent artist, visual-spatial gift.

When I met Steffen, it looked pretty grim. He was having all sorts of challenges at school, oppositional, disinterested, frequent office visits complaining of headache and stomach ache. On the social, emotional spectrum at school he had six Needs Improvements. Not paying attention, disrupting class, that sort of thing. Steffen told me later he had what he called “monkey chatter” in his brain. Near point tasks, including reading and writing gave him fits. So oppositional behaviors occurred then. On the academic side, Steffen’s grades and test scores were low to the extreme.

It was supposedly impossible to teach him to read, but not so. It just took a lot of patience, outdoor experiences, field trips such as the railroad museum in Sacramento, picking blueberries, visiting San Francisco, etc., then doing language experience type activities, involving arts, reading and writing, etc. We took canoe and boat rides. We did a lot of maker space type activities, made and used reading manipulatives and read lots, classics and current graphic novels, everything of interest at independent and instructional levels, depending. Self-selected reading at that time was mostly “Captain Underpants”.  Then we made it to “Stone Fox”, “Hatchet”, “Call of the Wild”. And that was that. A reader. And writer. Emerging from his cocoon, starting to fly!

We also visited the library often for motivation, where we spent hours selecting and reading favorite stories of varied genres, then reading back at home.  We practiced every reading strategy I could think of including a lot of Echo (me reading along quietly) and Repeated readings to build fluency. I used a metronome or a pencil to tap out beats which helped.

Steffen liked typing upstairs on the loft computer, or at the big table downstairs in the Great Room of the cabin house. Sitting there, he could get up frequently, stretch, do a “Brain Gym” move with me, get water or snack and look out those panoramic windows, glimpsing wildlife, maybe rabbits, or a fox, even!  We used colored overlays, (rudimentary Irlen). Writing, art, science, integrated everything, homework help a couple hours during the week, darn worksheets and spelling lists. It was all love and optimism-based! When I reread the introduction to the book I wrote in 2005 about learning to teach Steffen  (see below, end of article) tears were streaming down my face. Memories like yesterday, field trips to Lake Tahoe, canoeing, boating, always reading and writing.

Immersion in learning life also meant field trips.

Exploratorium, San Francisco


Our big poodle at that time, Andrew, was already pretty old when Steffen joined the action. That dog was always by Steffen, wherever we were. I think now it was comforting, much like therapy dogs gradually being introduced to schools and classrooms. I give our poodle a lot of credit for allowing Steffen to lay on him while he read, wherever we happened to be, pretty much. They were inseparable.


Science experiments. Who knew? Making a fruit clock.

Steffen always needed to hold something, or move. He liked to read and write, working on the floor or couch, table time depending on activities.

As I said, Andrew was always with Steffen, (and joined outdoor activities, too). Usually Steffen used him as a pillow when reading, and there were a lot of stuffies. Steffen always needed to hold something, or move. Very hands- on-minds- on learner. Steffen had a number of “labels”, all screaming “failing”. He had a love-hate relationship with school, favoring PE, art and science activities. His gifts were obvious, he was just not calm enough to flourish in a traditional compliance-seeking, pre-STEAM classroom. Even with meds. The only way was up. Those are my favorite kids to teach. It unleashes my creativity and calls for real action research and metacognition about art and craft of teaching. In our safe, comforting environment, with freedom to move and explore, learning became joy, but not at first. Things take the gift of time.

Andrew, Steffen’s constant companion. Writing on floor, preferred spot.


Santa’s elves! Steffen and Andrew, Besties.

Defining Moments. Skipping ahead. Steffen’s mom’s letters. Graduation.

Steffen eventually figured out how to use his learning challenges as gifts. Seeing things in 3D was such a gift. His mom, Margot, wrote me a beautiful letter in October 2004, when she was sure Steffen was going to be ok in school and life. Periodically, after moving to Oregon, I still heard from Margot and sometimes Steffen too. Until recently he was on Facebook, so I was pretty up on things. Margot and her wonderful husband Jeff live in Mexico now. We are all spread so far apart. But our village of support for Steffen never wavered.

I thought receiving the graduation invitation from Margot for U.C. Santa Cruz was the ultimate bravo moment for me. I was bursting! That little guy, all grown up recently graduated from a top notch University with Honors, in Chemistry. He tutored students! He wrote academic science papers for publication! This young man who couldn’t read or write! Astonishing. A brilliant mind. This scholar-in-waiting became a true scholar!

Graduated with Honors! Scholar-in-waiting became a scholar, and now a rocket scientist!

Of the stacks of teaching pictures I found yesterday and today while I worked on this article, I quickly found my favorite. It’s the picture of his book cover at end of this blog, signed “Thank You Rita For Teaching Me To Read! Love, Steffen.” And he typed it, when he so very little yet.

Field trip to Lake Tahoe with William, and our big poodle was there, of course!

Meet Steffen. From non-reader to rocket scientist!

As Margot and I chatted recently about Steffen’s journey from anxious little boy to successful young man of 23, what stood out was their gratitude. I never expected that. For someone to tell me after all these years that Steffen had just told her “It was Rita.” Then Margot added, “It was finding you, Rita.” What do I say to that? No words are adequate. Just thank you for the opportunity to make a difference.

In the next month, Steffen leaves for Texas to begin a new career in his dream job, as a rocket scientist! Here’s what mom Margot Delfino wrote me the other night: “I wanted you to know firsthand that Steffen just got the job of his dreams working as a propulsion rocket scientist engineer on the craft being built to go to Mars with SpaceX…. working directly with Elon Musk….. Can you believe it? Together we produced a rocket scientist.”

Better Together. All kiddos are potential geniuses. Optimism shines through.

If that doesn’t give you shivers of joy, I’d be surprised. And you make miracles happen every day. Give it time. Steffens are out there waiting for us to discover them. The young man I used to call “little Einstein”, is really as brilliant as I always knew. His mother’s faith ignited the flame of belief, I was simply along for the ride. When I read Steffen’s big news, I thanked the higher power for opportunity to lift this child up, and sparing my life to bear witness. I looked upward and told William about Steffen. I know he has always been an angel for Steffen, and I believe he heard me, and my prayers of thanks.

Thank you, Steffen. For giving us hope.

Bravo to you and may all your dreams come true. You deserve your success. Now go out and make this world a better place.

To you, Steffen, your bravery, patience, hard work and belief in yourself are inspiring countless educators and families tonight. Thank you for the opportunity to tell your story. Best wishes to you, I know the world is already a better place because you are in it. Always, your teacher.

Leaving footprints on your reading hearts, Rita

I’d love to hear from you:

Here is a link to my website:

Facebook Page:

Twitter Page: 

Instagram: @ritamwirtz

Books: Stories From a Teacher’s Heart, Reading Champs

As always, thanks to BAM! for support of my writing


Steffen’s Story. 2005. (out of print)

Leave a comment

Related Articles
Trending Topics
Latest EDwords Articles

© Copyright 2019 Accretive Media