Some people do crazy things when they turn 40. Some buy motorcycles or boats; some get tattoos or lovers. I started contacting my old teachers.
It started with Mrs. Breen.
Shortly after I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that would leave me blind, I landed in a hinge-top desk with a pencil holder and an ink jar hole in Nancy Breen’s third-grade class at a Catholic school in Rochester, N.H. What I remember are the reports I did on seahorses and China, the timed multiplication quizzes on thin strips of lined paper, and standing by the bank of windows in the room while Mrs. Breen administered my daily doses of eye drops. I remember one boy picking his nose behind the shield of his upturned desktop. I remember shouting the Pledge of Allegiance and the Our Father at the top of my lungs. And I remember getting smart.
I was a very average student; that is, until the last marking term of third grade, when I earned all As and one C in penmanship on my report card. Mrs. Breen thought I was smart; whether it is my perception or reality is irrelevant. It was a taste for success that I have never lost. The firm, fair and consistent energy and dedication that Mrs. Breen shared with her class every day that year planted in me a hunger for both learning and achievement. School could actually be fun. And, if you did well enough at it, you could earn 10 tokens for every one of those As at the local arcade!
At a time when my health challenges could have decimated my desire to learn, to try and to feel any sense of self-confidence, Mrs. Breen administered just what the ophthalmologist didn’t order -- faith, compassion and hope. Having become an educator as well, I sometimes find myself, in both dream and consciousness, standing by the bank of windows, facing the raging Cocheco River at 16 Bridge St. I hope that just one of my own students may feel the Spirit-guided warmth that I felt from my teacher that year. And I hope that, someday, (s)he may take the time to tell me that, for all my frustration, heartache, chalk and red-pen-pocked clothing, that I made a difference, too.
Thirty-one years later, I am still learning my way through life. And Mrs. Breen is still teaching at my old school. (She must have been fresh out of college when she taught me!) A parent of two young Catholic-school students today, I frequently reflect on how those first eight years of school shaped my life for the better. I revel in the academically challenging, faith-filled homes my boys have found at their schools, Seton and McQuaid. I rejoice for the Mrs. Breens in their experiences and for the many hundreds of students who had ours.
There are a lot crazier things I could have done this year. I could have gone skydiving. I could have dyed my hair pink. I could have run up a huge credit card debt, treating my girlfriends to a weekend at Mirbeau. This was a cheap and very satisfying alternative. Minimally, I will have provided a handful of very special people some interesting dinner conversation. So, Mrs. Tremblay, beware. You never know who may be calling tomorrow! And thanks again, Mrs. Breen. You really made a difference to me!
Smith is a parishioner of Rochester's Blessed Sacrament Parish.