Today, I’m reflecting on my elementary school teachers in my 60 days of Gratitude to celebrate my 60th birthday. Each of these women brought certain qualities that help shape and form my journey as a spiritual being having a human experience. There was Sister Joanna Mary in first grade who I just remember as being very kind. She encouraged me to use a box to support my feet at my desk. I was so short that my feet would not touch the floor when I sat on the seat. I always sat in the first or second desk in the row. I remember making a page with “what I wanted to be when I grow up”. I want to be a teacher so I can teach others about God.”
My job, I believed, was to do whatever my teacher said. It wasn’t about being the best of all my classmates. That hierarchy was well-established even by second grade. Marty O’Connell, John Spinnato, and Frances Waldron were always the smartest. I was second or third, but not highest. It didn’t bother me, either. I was just not first, or best, or smartest. But, that’s another story!
Miss Eilerman was my second grade teacher. She was nice too. And she was beautiful. What I remember mainly about second grade was doing Math Facts races. It was thrilling to tie with Marty or John or Cindy or Tom. It was a thrill to feel the energy of getting those answers and stepping forward to the next desk. Sometimes, we would go pretty fast, saying the answers so quickly we were almost running up the row, breathless when we reached Miss Eilerman at the front.
Third grade brought self-consciousness and some doubts about my worthiness. That year, I was excited to get a seat at the back of the classroom. I am grateful to Sister Francis Damien for alerting my mom that I had to walk all the way to the front of the classroom to clearly read what was written on the board. A week later, I came to class with glasses on. I could see the board, but I also saw myself as ugly.
Sister Francis Damien didn’t see my ugliness. She saw my eagerness to master whatever she taught, just exactly how she taught it. That’s why she chose me to be the first to learn the act she wanted to enter into the school’s variety show. I was surprised one Saturday to get a call from my teacher requesting me to come see her at the classroom! Whew! I wasn’t in trouble, I was happy to know. She needed my help! (Helping a teacher was my biggest honor of all!!!). What she wanted me to do was learn a ball-bouncing routine she had set to a short classical tune. I can still hum and bounce it to this day. I’m grateful that she picked me to demonstrate it to my class.
Fourth grade brought Miss Schmidt and my growing awareness that not everyone wanted to please the teacher. Miss Schmidt did her best to manage her students, and I tried my best to never get into trouble. I have to hand it to her for sticking with teaching for a long time. To my surprise, she turned up again about 15 years later! This time, she was bringing her class, from a different school now, to the outdoor education center I was directing. She was still the same edgy and somewhat frazzled disciplinarian whom students tormented, but I could support her from my own place of authority not as a powerless classmate.
Mrs. Clark, my fifth grade teacher, somehow encouraged me to be a leader. I was elected class president by my classmates that year, although I can’t remember doing anything presidential. I do recall heading up a committee to make and deliver a baby bib to her house when she left to have a baby. When she left, she gave each of us a card. Mine said, “To Regina: Always remember your qualities of true leadership.”
Sixth grade saw Sister Ann Stephen and Miss George taking the lead. Sister Ann Stephen chose me to make a May crown for the Virgin Mary statue in our classroom. I made it with shiny silver cardboard, sparkling with a single blue rhinestone jewel. I sure was pleased to have made that crown!
What stands out about Miss George is that she always dressed impeccably, which was very noticeable to me since I wore the same uniform every day. She sure had a lot of outfits! The other thing I remember about her was that she changed her name. At the beginning of the year, she was “Mrs. O’Connell.” One day, she told us that from that day on, we would call her, “Miss George”. I don’t remember how I found out, but there was something about her marriage being “anulled”, which meant it was like she had never been married. Well, that always baffled me and I wondered what could have happened to Mr. O’Connell, but I knew it wasn’t my business to ask! I just learned to call her by her new name and continued to like her just the same. Now, as a divorcee myself, I can look back and honor her for making her own choice at a time when divorce was not supported by the Catholic Church. And, I can thank her for being a model of self-love and integrity in my life.
Seventh grade brought Sister Marie Patrice into my life! What Miss Schmidt lacked in swift and uncertain control of unruly students, Sister Marie Patrice possessed as super-powers! We knew to tow a taut, straight line with her and behave with strict discipline. I credit her, as well, with the possible onset of a limiting belief that I’m still transforming!
That year, we studied American History. She had assigned us a project to build something that showed American industry. I came to class on the day it was due beaming from ear to ear and feeling radiantly proud of what I had to show. The weeks leading up to that day had been some of the happiest in my life because every evening I got to work with my dad in his workshop building a model of a waterwheel. It was about a foot tall, fashioned with plywood, and stained the same deep brown as our house. The wheel had been meticulously fashioned with two pieces of wood and metal fins inserted into narrow slits. I had learned how to use his tools and put together a neat little building. And the best part, that I demonstrated with a flourish of drama, is that this waterwheel worked! My dad had supplied a tiny recirculating pump that we hid inside. It whirred quietly while my classmates sat mesmerized as the water cascaded over the wheel, filled the fins, then turned the wheel! Sister Marie Patrice, however, sat with a stone face. She said, “I’m giving you a ‘B’, Regina. You obviously did not do that yourself. Someone else must have done your project.”
I was crestfallen. My delight was crushed. At that moment, I said to myself, “I guess getting help to make something really awesome is a bad thing to do. I should do everything myself, even if it means making things that are inferior. It’s better to make crummy things myself than to make spectacular things with help.”
It’s only recently that asking for help is getting easier for me. I have Sister Marie Patrice to thank for introducing that “I have to do everything on my own” belief and for giving me something to transform!
I honestly cannot remember my eighth grade teachers! I think that by that time I was more focused on interacting with my classmates and enduring the turmoils of puberty than on forming lasting impressions of my teachers. Peer relationships brought me a whole new chapter of incidents to build my lexicon of Victim Stories and Limiting Beliefs, which I will share in my next posts.