A half hour on the playground with the Watsessing Five

BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Five women who serve as school lunchroom aides have been in the job for a combined 166 years, 161 of them at Watsessing Elementary School. And asked if men had ever filled the job, they said there was once a sighting, a substitute who didn’t last very long, so it appears to be a women’s world.

The job’s not just about watching kids in kindergarten to sixth grade dine. After lunch, the aides are out on the playground to deal with with jump ropes and scuffs, ball games and bruises, running, pushing, laughing, crying, requests for advice and rules to be enforced. How many hats is that already? The Independent Press caught up with these ladies, we’ll call them the Watessing Five, for a few minutes earlier this week after lunch on the playground.

Rosanne Mulhearn’s son attended Watsessing, so she figured she’d work there for a while 36 years ago. Being a lunch aide suited for her because she liked children and didn’t want to be away from the house all day. Her husband worked two jobs.

All the time Mulhearn was speaking, she held the hand of a first-grade boy who was holding the string of a balloon. It was his first day at Watsessing and he was standing beside the lunchtime lifeguard before wading into the playground pool. He was alert and before long, he’d be swimming, too.
“The job just worked out and I stayed,” Muhearn said.

Kids haven’t changed much over the years, she said. Sometimes, every once in a while, a student gets a little disrespectful.
“But to me, they’re the same,” she said. “Some of the children call me Mrs. M, but some can say Mulhearn. When I see them later, they wonder if I am still at the school.”

Lunch aide Jean Gomes’ family moved a lot. She said doesn’t know why, but even lived in Maine as a child.
“My husband worked nights and I took the job for extra money,” she said.

Gomes, who was a substitute lunch aide at Fairview, Carteret and Watsessing, has been an aide for 35 years.
“All my kids went to Fairview,” she said, before being interrupted by two little girls who ran up to her. One wanted to go near the basketball court where a wild game is being played by some older kids. Gomes told the girl not to go near the basketball court and the girl became quiet. Her friend tugged her sleeve. No response. The friend tugged again and the two ran off.

“We don’t allow them to go all over the playground,” Gomes said.
Another girl arrived crying and holding her hand beneath her blouse as if it hurt. Gomes told her to go to Mrs. Killian at the playground door, to let her in to see the nurse.

Aide Anita Killian has been at Watsessing for 35 years and before that, was at Fairview for five years. She said her job has changed a little over the years.

“They gave us more money and an extra half hour of work,” she said.
The attitude of the children has also changed a little, too.

“They’re basically good kids,” she said. “But they’re getting a little more snippy.”
That was understandable to Killian. After a while, an aide gets to know the kids, some of whom come from single-parent homes. She said she was a single mom and raised two sons alone.

“I don’t have any spare time,” she said. “I work at K-Mart in Belleville before and after this. This is my lunch hour. I like to bowl and play Bingo, but there’s not much spare time.”

One of her sons, Joe Teseo, was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2001, she said. The skate park on JFK Parkway is named after him and there will be a ceremony there Sunday, Oct. 20. Killian’s other son, Jimmy, is an Essex County corrections officer.

“The fifth- and sixth-graders listen more to you,” she said. “The kindergarteners are learning how to get around.”
Cynthia Cofone has been at Watsessing for 34 years. She was holding a kickball with a gaggle of sixth-grade boys around her at midfield. A sixth-grade girl on the periphery was listening in. Cofone picked two captains, who then picked their teams, including the girl. Cofone handed off the ball and the players took the field.

“I’ve had the sixth-graders for 34 years,” she said. “I started out as a sub and liked it. I replaced someone who took a crossing guard job.”
The kids aren’t perfect, she said, and they keep you going.

“We have little incidents, once in a blue moon, a fight,” she said. “You break it up and they shake hands and everything’s alright after the little kerfuffle. They get over it very fast and I’m grateful for that. But I haven’t had any fights this year.”
A difference between the older boys and girls on the playground, she said, is that boys play ball and girls socialize.

Of the Watsessing Five, Yvelise Mirabal has worked as a lunch aide for the least amount of time — 18 years. Her daughter was a second-grader at the school who asked her mother to become a lunch aide. Mirabal applied and was hired. She started out with the first-graders, but for the last 10 years, the kindergarteners have been her charge. They were playing in the area on the side of the school, where the playground equipment is located.

“They don’t know where they are,” she said about the children. “It’s like they’re looking at the stars. I have to show them where the bathroom is, the nurse, the kitchen.”
A boy ran up to her to complain that another boy, the one in the blue shirt, punched him. Mirabal knes the boy by name, called him over and told him not to punch anyone.

“I have to learn their names fast,” she said. “I take notes the first day. Something is happening every second. I love the kids; they listen.”
Two girls came up to Mirabal and one girl spoke to the other in Spanish. Mirabal later said the girl didn’t speak a word of English yet.

According to Principal Gina Rosemilia, the lunch aides are part of the Watsessing family, and come to the school concerts and sporting events, watching the kids grow up before them.
And that’s that, about 30 minutes, no more, with the Watsessing Five.