DYKER HEIGHTS — Three days a week, Madeline Scotto walks across the street from her home to St. Ephrem's elementary school, where she was part of the first graduating class.
She climbs the stairs to her classroom, where she works to prepare students for the math bee. She pores over photocopied worksheets with complicated problems, coaching kids on how to stay calm on stage while multiplying and dividing in their head.
She's just like any other teacher at the school — except for one thing: She's 100 years old.
"I think it just happens, you know. You don’t even realize it," said Scotto, who marked her birthday on Thursday.
"Last year I thought, 'This can’t be, that I’m going to be 100.' I sat down and did the math actually. I thought, I could not trust my mind. This I had to put paper to pencil — I couldn’t believe it myself.
"It just kind of happened. I guess I’m very lucky."
Scotto dresses impeccably, always matching her jewelry to her outfit and foregoing a cane.
“I can’t carry my bookcase with a cane and a bookcase is more important,” she said. She's supported on her walk from home by the school's maintenance man.
She's spent most of her life at St. Ephrem’s on Fort Hamilton Parkway, graduating in 1928 then later returning as a teacher and currently as a math bee coach.
She remembers when Dyker Heights was mostly farmland, and watched as it built up around her.
She's taught multiple generations at the school, and "lights up the place" when she walks in, according to the school's principal, Annamarie Bartone.
“She’s amazing,” Bartone said. “When you say Mrs. Scotto, everybody stops.”
On Sunday, her centennial birthday will be celebrated with a special 10 a.m. Mass and, on Oct. 27, the school will throw an assembly so the students — many of them the children of people she taught — can honor her.
Her five children — most of whom are retired, which she said is a "big family joke" since she's still working — planned a dinner at a "fancy" place in the city over the weekend with her nine grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren, she said.
It was her only birthday wish, she said.
"I don’t need anything, really," she explained.
In her free times she reads, but her first love has always been numbers.
She studied French at St. Joseph’s College for Women only because she was enchanted by the language — but said she can’t speak much beyond “bonjour” now.
She became a teacher unintentionally after the sisters from the church's main center in Pennsylvania got in a bus accident on the way down to teach. They were hospitalized, and later recovered, but in the meantime, the pastor asked congregants at Mass if anyone could help teach the students.
Scotto’s mother encouraged her to try.
It was 1954. She was 40 at the time and had just given birth to her fifth child. She and her husband, Francis, lived with her parents, who agreed to watch her kids while she worked.
“I came over and then they wouldn’t let me go,” she said
Scotto started as a classroom teacher, one of only two lay teachers in the school, but a few years later was assigned as the math teacher when they “saw I had something to offer.”
She credits her supportive family for all the help, especially her husband Francis who died in 1999.
He was loving and kind, she said, and they traveled around the world together — even taking their kids on a cross-country road trip before cars had air-conditioning.
She stopped teaching classes 10 years ago when her hearing started to go, and transitioned into the math bee coach, tutoring kids during their lunch time and recess, she said.
"The poor kids give up their lunchtime for a math bee," she said. It's not easy, and while the school made it to the regional bee last year, she said she doesn't like to count her successes.
"I'm happy with you if you’ve just done your best," she said.
"I never think of a child as, ‘He was a winner, he was a loser,’" she said. Her only criteria is, "Did he work hard?"
"I don’t baby anybody — I never babied my own — but I think they know I’m sincerely interested in them doing their best."
She doesn't know many other 100-year-olds, she said, and doesn't belong to any senior clubs since she "doesn't consider myself a senior citizen."
"They’re like a different breed of people," she said, adding that being in the school keeps her young.
And her tips for a long life are simple: Eat well, stay active, be frugal, don't worry too much.
"I pray hard, I really work hard and I’m happy," she said. "That’s not my fault. All the people around me make me happy."