“People always tell me I look like somebody’s aunt, somebody’s mother or grandmother.”
If you think you recognize Myriam Hernandez, you’re not alone. Myriam is known for having a “familiar face,” especially to students at the Rafael Hernández School in Roxbury, where she’s been a mentor for the last three years. It’s a phenomenon she can’t explain, but one she credits for her success developing relationships with the students.
On Wednesdays, Myriam visits the Hernández School to work with Zachery, a third-grader in Ms. Rodriguez’s class. She’s been matched with him since she began mentoring with Boston Partners in 2017.
Initially, Zachery was nominated for a mentor as part of our Accelerate ELA program because he needed extra support understanding Spanish. After a year of working together, it became clear that Zachary would continue to benefit from the bond that they formed.
“The teacher told me I am a stable figure in Zachery’s life and they’re really happy that I came back,” recalls Myriam.
Thanks to her familiar presence, Myriam has not only developed a relationship with Zachery but with many of his classmates as well. Other students will join their reading time or sit with her in the classroom. Often, Myriam will accompany the students to lunch, and she’s always greeted by a collection of animated waves and shouts of acknowledgment as she makes her way through the halls. Within moments of arriving at an empty lunch table, a group of students from the other end of the room will pick up their trays and join her.
“I don’t have any grandchildren so maybe I’m like a surrogate grandmother,” Myriam suggests. “I know they’re not my grandchildren, but I love them. Maybe I’m too easy on them,” she says with a smile.
The wonderful relationship she has with Zachery is three years in the making. Despite how comfortable he and the other students feel around Myriam, building their trust took time.
When Myriam met Zachery, he was a first-grader at the Hernández. Shy and unresponsive during their mentoring sessions, Myriam explains, “he would not look at me or talk to me so it was really challenging.” However, she remained consistent in her mentoring style – arriving on time every week with an encouraging demeanor and calm persistence.
“The first year, when he didn’t want to talk to me, I started offering books I thought would interest boys – like cars, trucks, and snakes. To me, that was important – bringing something he liked or wanted to read.” In time, Zachery grew accustomed to Myriam’s presence in the school. “When I came back to mentor him in 2nd-grade, he ran over to hug me.”
Myriam brings familiarity to her mentees with language as well. The Rafael Hernández is a Two-Way Bilingual School, which means one of the school’s goals is for students to succeed while using English and Spanish. The collection of books that Myriam reads with the students is a mixture of both languages.
“From day one I wanted them to love books and I wanted them to love reading,” Myriam explains. If a story is in English, they look at the vocabulary and find the word in Spanish. If they are reading a book written in Spanish, she encourages them to find the words in English. “I think it’s good that they can speak Spanish and not feel that they’re going to be penalized or not feel bad if they don’t understand.”
Prior to her commitment to the classroom, Myriam worked for State Street Corporation for 31 years before retiring almost four years ago. Myriam believes the students have given her a new perspective and enriched her life after retirement. She even finds herself wishing she had been a schoolteacher. “People tell me, ‘Oh Myriam, your experience is just a few hours a day.’”
But Myriam actually spends more than just a few hours volunteering. When she’s not mentoring at the Hernandez, she volunteers as a tour guide at the local arboretum, assisting with groups of children who arrive for events like school trips. “I talk to some of the kids in Spanish in case they don’t understand because the guide will speak in English. I want them to feel comfortable speaking in Spanish if they need to.”
At the Hernández, students will often ask Myriam questions about language, too. She encourages them to find the answers and models the behavior herself. “Sometimes they ask me what something means in Spanish and I say, ‘I don’t know – let’s find out!’”
It’s important to Myriam that her mentees understand the value in trial and error. “When they fail at something I always say to them, ‘It’s okay if you forgot – maybe next time you’ll remember. If you don’t know the answer it’s okay.’ I don’t want them to feel like they need to know the answer all the time.”
Recently, Myriam and Zachery were working on an exercise about moments that make them happy and things that they love. “Zachery uses the word ‘kindness’ a lot,” says Myriam. “He tells me, ‘Don’t worry, I was kind today,’ because he knows that I’m going to be asking that. I think that’s very sweet that he knows I use that word a lot.
“I was trying to get him to look at things that make him feel good regardless of his situation when he told me, ‘I love Wednesdays because I get to see you.’”
“I love working with kids. I hope that I am able to do this for a very long time.”