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Archives YCV:For the little people: a tribute

June 20, 2012
By Mary Catherine Pietropaoli
Contributing Writer

Mary CatherineTime and again students have written of the dramatic effect that teachers have had on their lives, how Mr. Smith or Ms. Jones changed the course of their earthly journeys.  These stories are both heart-warming and inspiring—especially for those of us who teach! However, I would like to present something rather different in this little piece; I would like to thank my students for the many joys and gifts they have brought into my life this past year, for the endless laughter, for the silliness, for the innocence—in essence, for being exactly as they are: children. 

Please allow a quick flash-back to May, 2011.  I was a new college graduate with a BA in English from Providence College, and I did not have a job or a plan beyond summer employment at an Adirondack great camp.  I did have some vague inkling that I wanted to teach, a thought that had occurred to me before, but had caused such internal anger that I quickly cast it aside.  You must understand: I come from a family of teachers.  No, it is not just my mother and father who entered this vocation before me.  Seven of the nine children in my mother’s family are or have been teachers, as is my father’s sister.  Add to that two of my four siblings (with a third pursuing a PhD to…you guessed it, teach), and several cousins, and you have an over whelming number of teachers, making my contrary nature balk at the very thought of entering the educational field.  But I finally concluded that, for some reason far beyond my comprehension, this was what God wanted, and I set about finding a teaching position.  Given my education, my thought was that I would be well suited to teach high school literature, and I sent out numerous applications.  And as usual, when I finally got around to setting my mind to something, God sent that plan spinning into oblivion.  I did not hear back from a single high school.  In fact, the only school I heard back from was a small, classical school near Rochester, New York which I had applied to simply because a dear college friend had offered to let me live with her in that area.  Of course, I deemed myself too much, too educated, too “intellectual”, to teach in a mere primary school…But, thankfully for me, Providence had other plans, plans far more beautiful and fulfilling than anything I could spin in my little mind.  As I recently told my students, thank God He knew what I wanted far better than I did. 

After whirlwind interviews, I was hired, in the first week of August, as the fourth grade teacher at St. John Bosco Schools.  August remains something of a blur, including a wedding of college friends in Pennsylvania, finishing my summer job, a teacher training week, buying a car, and somehow managing to actually move to Rochester and set up my classroom.  Somehow, September 7th 2011 arrived…and I think I was more nervous than I have ever been in my life.  The principal at my school had been wonderful in her support and help, but I found myself alone in a room with a bunch of fourth grade students.  I distinctly remember doing exactly what I should NOT have, and looking to the students for cues about what to do next.  At some point, I asked a silly question about what they wanted to do next, and one of the girls in the front row looked right at me and said “You’re the teacher; you tell US”.  It is rather sad that it took a nine year old to get me into gear, but needless to say, that was the kick I needed.  Although the reality that I, at 22 and with NO experience, was in charge terrified me, I realized that, for better or worse, this was my room for the year, and I had to step up to the challenge or I would lose that group of kids forever.  Of course, I would love to say that I instantaneously morphed into Robin Williams from “Dead Poets Society” or Anne Shirley from Avonlea.  The truth is somewhat less flattering, but far more believable and human.

I muddled my way through those first weeks, learning as I went…and learning mainly what NOT to do.  Fresh from classes on Milton, Chaucer, Dante, Modern American Fiction, and a seminar on friendship and love in Medieval and Renaissance literature, I was a bit slow to catch onto the fact that the little people in front of me were just that; they were little people, not college English students.  Thanks to concerned parents, I quickly learned that a fourth grader cannot rationally be expected to learn a poem in a week, nor to read an un-abridged version of Robin Hood on his or her own.  Of course, the parents were absolutely right, and I had been wrong.  Although I quickly made modifications, I was, and am a work in progress.  And I am extremely grateful to the parents who stood by supportively as I read their children “Beowulf”, assigned the memorization of Shakespearean sonnets and Aquinas’ Pange Lingua, directed an adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and orchestrated a Reformation debate between the Protestants and the Jesuits, and most recently a hands-on Nerf Gun demonstration of the effects of WWI guns on modern warfare. 

Charles Dickens wrote “I love these little people; and it is not a slight thing when they, who are so fresh from God, love us.” I have had much time to reflect upon these words, as they are, thanks to my sister, beautifully embroidered, framed, and now adorning my classroom.  Being Irish, I generally assume those around me are happy or good despite my presence.  And while I can hardly take full credit for the wonders of my fourth grade class, I know that, through the grace of God, I have brought some beauty into their lives this year—hopefully at least a pittance of what they have brought to mine.   To my students: Thank you for un-wittingly helping me pull myself together into some semblance of a teacher, merely by your existence.  Thank you for bringing so much joy into my life, and for the first time helping me to know that I am exactly where I am meant to be—I am where God has put me.  Thank you for innumerable hand drawn pictures, cards, and little gifts.  Thank you for lighting up when you see me—and please know that the feeling is mutual, even if I am less able to express it.  Thank you for teaching me that Math really does matter, and that it is as important to nurture the emerging engineer or mathematician as it is the budding literati and historians.  Thank you for a wonderful surprise birthday party, the thought of which still brings a smile to my face.  Thank you for the gift of seeing your beautiful faces nearly every day for the past ten months, and for giving me your wonderful minds to help along this pilgrimage of life.

Thank you, for these and a million more memories.  I am forever grateful for the joy and laughter you have brought into my life, and I pray that your love for life and delight in the truth will only grow with the coming years, and that you may each someday see the wonderful reflection of God’s face in your own lives as I am blessed to see it today in you.  

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