Today marks the start of National Catholic Schools Week. Catholic elementary and secondary students and faculty across the country will celebrate their schools with Masses, Open Houses, pancake breakfasts, and other activities. Parents considering a Catholic education for their child have an opportunity to learn more about their local parochial school.
I attended Catholic schools for sixteen years. I am a proud graduate of Saint Augustine’s Elementary School, Albertus Magnus High School, and the University of Notre Dame. I had excellent teachers from start to finish. The Dominican Sisters of Sparkill operated Saint Augustine and Albertus while Notre Dame has been led by the Holy Cross order since her founding in 1842.
This annual celebration always makes me nostalgic for my school days. I had terrific teachers throughout my academic career. At Saint Augustine’s, Mrs. Guarino taught us the prepositions by setting the list to the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” I can still perform it on demand, much to the chagrin of my family. Mrs. Miller, my seventh and eighth-grade English teacher, nurtured my imagination with her fiction writing assignments. She kindly never questioned the plausibility of my stories.
In high school, English teacher Miss McLinskey introduced me to stream-of-consciousness writing and gave me my first (and thankfully last) poetry writing assignment. She also sparked my appreciation of Emily Dickinson’s poetry by requiring her tenth-grade students to learn a poem and recite it in class. I selected Dickinson’s “Success Is Counted Sweetest.” Just as I can sing the preposition song, I can still recite the poem, whose lines ring true.
Mrs. Gasparrini, my eleventh-grade English teacher, was tasked with preparing her students for the New York State English Regents exam. She was so diligent in her work, for months I had nightmares of failing the test. Mrs. Gasparrini taught us how to write an essay: introductory lines, supporting paragraphs, summarizing conclusion. I often think of her lessons when I am writing.
Sister Miriam Joseph taught me Latin. She was a stickler for neatness. One time she told us to take out a piece of paper for a surprise quiz. One of the guys in the class ripped a page from his spiral notebook. Sister Miriam gave him the stink eye for a moment, took a pair of scissors from her drawer, handed them to him, and coolly said, “Cut those ragged edges from that paper.” Her fastidiousness extended to her teaching. We repeated declensions, conjugations, and vocabulary words over and over and over again, to the point that I would decline a noun or conjugate a verb while descending the stairs in my house on a Saturday afternoon. Sister Miriam’s lessons had a hand in developing my writing skills. I also give credit to her for my ability to focus on details and concentrate on a task for a long period of time.
At Notre Dame, I had the great fortune of taking two of Father David Burrell’s classes: a seminar required of all liberal arts sophomores and a theology class. With respect to my many teachers, Father Burrell was the best. He was known for his homework assignments: a one page paper (the front and back of single sheet of college-ruled loose leaf – this was the mid-80’s) answering whatever question he posed based on our current reading. The assignment always directed my focus on the important points in the many pages I had to read and taught me to succinctly make my statement in my one-page paper. For the seminar Father asked us to write our autobiography. I covered the basic details of my bio in the first paragraph and then wrote what I was feeling and experiencing at that moment in my life. Father Burrell responded with encouraging written comments. I think he was my first reader, in a way, for that was the paper in which I started to “express myself.” I read some amazing books in those two courses (I encourage you to read Etty Hillesum’s diary) and was constantly inspired by Father Burrell’s lectures.
I could go on about all my great teachers, like Mr. Shepard, my very cool geometry teacher, and sociology professors Joan Aldous and Eugene Halton. Everyone has at least one favorite from their school days. Who is yours? Who inspired you, made learning an exciting thing or helped you see the light on algebra?
I hope you have a great week! If you are in the middle of this polar vortex (can’t we just say it’s freezing?), stay warm and safe.