As we begin the 2009 celebration of Catholic Schools’ Week, I realized that this year marks a rather historic anniversary for me personally. While I will be 59 years old in April (certainly not a milestone birthday), 2009 will mark my 50th year in Catholic education. Fifty of my 59 years have been spent in the Catholic-school system of Geneva. Some might consider that the ultimate life “rut.” I, on the other hand, consider it a blessed way of life.
I began my “career” as a first-grader in Sister Grace Noel’s class at St. Stephen’s School. Fifty-six first-graders sat in straight rows in tidy plaid uniforms, all under the authority of Sister Noel — no teacher’s aide, no technology, no “hands-on” learning — just Sister Noel and 56 ragged textbooks with stories of Dick, Jane and Spot. I ended the first portion of that Catholic-school career as a 1968 graduate of DeSales High School in a class of 146 students, marching into the school’s gym on graduation day with college plans in place and a whole world to conquer.
I can name every teacher I had from my start in ‘56 to graduation day in ‘68, but the memories of specific events during those years are hazy. They are hazy with exception to those events which involved my faith and my church.
The very first memory I have is being placed in “time out” for distracting a student during our first Communion practice. Time out was behind the piano in the first-grade classroom. Practice for first Communion was very important. I remember several Sunday mornings being asked to remain 10 minutes after the 8:30 school liturgy, usually because I gave in to distractions around me. My whole family would dutifully sit and wait for me to “think” about my behavior. I remember Stations of the Cross on Fridays during Lent, practicing for the Forty Hour Processional, an honor for fourth-graders only, and preparing for confirmation in Grade 5. I remember cleaning the church on Saturday mornings and praying that no bats would greet us when we opened the storage-closet doors. The most lasting memory from St. Stephen’s, however, is that of the Sisters of St. Joseph and the way they moved through the halls gliding on feet we could not see and hearing the rattle of the giant rosary beads that hung at their sides. Life was quiet then.
Again, in high school the memories most vivid are of things not typical for most high-school graduates. I remember confessions in Father Richard Hart’s office, held regularly after a movie arrived in Geneva that was questionable on the Catholic rating list. I remember Masses in the gym with 600 and more students all singing “Dona nobis pacem” and closing with our alma mater (“Oh faithful gold, oh loyal blue”). I remember Father Hart driving through town after dances and ball games to make sure that everyone went straight home and no one was left “roaming” the streets. And I remember both Father Hart and Sister St. Andrew in doorways at either end of the main hall, just waiting to express their disapproval for any misbehaviors during the change of classes. I remember retreat days, especially senior retreat at Canandaigua’s Notre Dame Retreat House when our graduating class spent three days in prayer and laughter.
With memories like those, it seemed a natural step upon graduation from Ithaca College to return to my roots. St. Stephen’s offered me a teaching position in 1972, and because there were not a lot of positions available, I accepted. It seemed like a good place to start, to get some experience. The following year, 1973, I had two public-school offers at Marcus Whitman and Penn Yan, with other offers to follow in later years. But, after one year at St. Stephen’s, I felt I had come home. I was now one of the staff that planned the Stations of the Cross, and I now taught Grade 8 religion and prepared my students for their own confirmations. The Sisters of St. Joseph were nearly all gone, but in their place had arrived a dedicated group of lay teachers (many my own DeSales schoolmates), eager to share their faith with this beautiful school family.
Thirty-seven years after my first teaching position, I still feel fortunate and honored to be a part of this wonderful Catholic tradition. As principal I now joyfully get to know the children of my former students and meet new families. I continue to work with other dedicated veteran teachers (nearly all Catholic-school graduates).
Things have changed. We now have only one Sister of St. Joseph on our teaching staff. Classes now average 15 students to one teacher, a far cry from 56 to one. There are speech therapists, special-education teachers and teachers’ aides working with our students in our building. The building is filled with technology in classrooms and our multimedia lab. The sacramental programs such as confirmation and first Eucharist are held as family programs outside of the classroom. School Masses are held during the school week and no longer on Sunday mornings.
But the important things remain the same. “Time out” is still an excellent deterrent for students who distract others. Faith is still an integral part of every day, with daily prayer, penance services, Stations of the Cross, eucharistic liturgies and community-service opportunities. Rosaries are still part of our school supplies, although ours are not as large or noisy as those that clattered in the halls so long ago. God’s love is shared every day, and the best question to ask any of our children on just about any social issue is, “What would Jesus do?”
And so as I approach Catholic Schools’ Week this year, I am reminded that God has given me so many gifts in beautiful family and friends. He has, however, given me a rather unique gift — a 50-year way of life provided in his Catholic schools.
Morrow is principal of St. Francis-St. Stephen School in Geneva.