An Ode to Miss Theresa

Courtesy+of+SCH+Communications

Courtesy of SCH Communications

Whimsy Mark-Ockerbloom, Reporter

Theresa Stewart, known by all as Ms. Theresa, stands at the hot bar in the Middle School Cherokee cafeteria five minutes before the students rush in. She turns the menu towards herself, trying to solidify the names of the entrees in her mind. She adjusts the serving utensils, wipes the counter down with a towel, and sits on the painted stool made by students in art class. In a couple of seconds, she will have to pull herself back up to standing in order to serve the teachers that have managed to precede the child stampede. But for now, she sits in relative peace, surrounded by the sounds of the kitchen.

Stewart has worked for Springside Chestnut Hill Academy for nearly thirty years, starting when the Cherokee campus was an individual school, Springside. She has watched students come and go from preschool to graduation, and has made the effort to talk to them each day and take an interest in what they’re doing. The students, she says, are what make her the happiest.

“You guys have made my life,” says Stewart. “Going to the plays, and seeing you all act, I think of you guys as family. You keep me going.”

For Stewart, family is one of the most important things in her life. Budd Cohen, head chef at SCH, remarks that Stewart always asks about how his daughter is, and makes a big fuss over her any time she comes to visit. Stewart’s own daughter, Missy, used to work in the same cafeteria as Stewart for a time before she graduated from Chestnut Hill College. When she speaks about her daughter, Stewart’s face lights up, a smile inching over her face even as she continues to scrub at the food processor she is cleaning. Her daughter is a teacher now, she says, having learned her love for taking care of children from working the cafeteria register line.

A young boy cuts in line at the hot bar, and Stewart stops him.

“Oh,” he says, as if just noticing the line of people chatting and getting just a bit rowdy beside him.

“Yeah, ‘Oh’.” Stewart repeats, and heaps curly fries onto another boy’s plate.

No matter how loud the line becomes, or how crowded the small alleyway for children to bustle through, Stewart remains polite, conversational, and generous with the serving sizes. She likes to care for people, she says, and that’s what keeps her attentive and present for anyone that passes through her line. It doesn’t matter that she’s ‘just’ a cafeteria worker, she wants to be there for kids.

“I was never really smart in school,” Stewart says. “and I’ve always been a caretaker, and that’s what I did well. I took care of my grandmother, my father, my mom. I really looked up to my grandmother. She was a licensed nurse, and took care of babies.”

Stewart’s care oriented personality does not go unnoticed, either. Stewart’s long-time coworker, Hope Parker, told of the emotional and mental support that Stewart has provided for her over the years. She found her job at Springside because she was taking care of the grandmother of one of the art teachers, Hannah Cole. In the early years of her time here, she took care of the retired Food Services Director Karen McDonald, who had developed Parkinson’s disease, commuting to her house and helping her not just physically but emotionally as well. Parker dabbed at her eyes with the towel beside her as she spoke. Outside, leaves swept across the patio of stone. The sounds of the kitchen and the rustling of the leaves made her silences more poignant, her pauses for thought or to collect herself more profound. 

“[Stewart] has a lot of empathy for anyone who crosses her life and that comes out as being thoughtful and kind and being a terrific listener,” Parker said. “I lost my dad last May, after a good nine months of the long process of his death. She was there when I needed a shoulder to cry on or someone to just listen.”

“You guys have made my life,” says Stewart. “Going to the plays, and seeing you all act, I think of you guys as family. You keep me going.””

— Miss Theresa

The lines of children thin intermittently, but the lunch rush refuses to let up for the entirety of the hour. Two teachers sneak in among the students, carrying special SCH lunchboxes. One exclaims at the generous helping of food that Stewart lays in the other’s box. The second teacher just laughs, sharing a conspiratorial look with Stewart.

“That’s how it is,” the teacher says, “she takes care of me.”