First grade, first day, first teacher

It was 1980 when I was last enrolled in a formal academic year program, pursuing my M.A. in liturgical studies at the University of Notre Dame.  Thirty-two years later and 65 years old, I still rejoice every September in knowing that I don’t have to go back to school! 

All things considered, I remember these 22 years in school (a third of my life!) as happy and successful but Labor Day’s a happier holiday for me just for knowing it won’t be followed by classes, homework and papers to write.

This time of year always brings to mind my first day of school in September 1952. (Back in the day in Danvers, MA there was no public preschool or kindergarten.) On that day my mother helped me cross Hobart street to the back playground of the Maple Street School where I was about to enter the first grade.

Approaching the schoolyard I remember telling my mother I had “a funny feeling” in my stomach.  She said, “That’s just butterflies in your tummy – nothing to worry about.”  Unfamiliar with that image, I now had more to worry about than just starting school.  I began to wonder if butterflies might fly out of my mouth the first time my teacher asked me my name!  

But now we were at the school’s front door and it was time to go in…

After helping me find my classroom, introducing me to my teacher and leading me to my desk, my mother kissed me goodbye and told me she’d see me after school.   She left me in the care of Mrs. Winn, my first grade teacher. 

It’s amazing how clearly I can picture her face and hear her voice even now.  Within moments of my encounter with this lovely lady, the “butterflies” were gone, not one having escaped my lips. If I remember correctly there were 42 students in my classroom but somehow Mrs. Winn’s soft-spoken words never failed to reach all of her students.  She was a perfect first grade teacher.

Mrs. Winn accomplished a remarkable, much underestimated feat in my first year of school: she taught my classmates and me how to read and write. Not one day of my life has passed since then that I’ve not used the basic skills she taught me in those ten months of first grade.  (She also tried to teach me to add and subtract – but that’s a story for another day!)

My life’s work is immersed in reading, writing about and preaching the scriptures.  As a Catholic pastor my ministry is deeply sacramental but no sacrament is celebrated silently or outside the context of words and prayers read and proclaimed from the bible and ritual books.  My preaching and leading prayer depend on a working knowledge of the same 26 letters Mrs. Winn taught me to read and write and to understand as words and sentences back in the first grade.

Mrs. Winn has a permanent place in my heart and right alongside her is Mr. Silvernail, my sixth grade teacher who, after a very troubling incident at recess on the school playground, had just the right words to comfort me and strengthen me to face again the classmates whose rejection of me had been so painful. 

At Bishop Fenwick High School in Peabody, there was Miss Pariseau, my French teacher, who seemed to understand me far better than I understood my adolescent self at the time.  And there was Sr. Marie Frederica, S.N.D., my glee club director who nurtured and encouraged in me a love of music and singing. 

At Cardinal O’Connell Seminary in Jamaica Plain, Fr. John Farrell, who taught me Latin and Greek, might be surprised to know how much influence he had on me and my call to ministry, simply by his being so genuinely the man and priest he was. 

I’m grateful, too for Robert Taft, SJ from whom I learned more about liturgy and prayer in one semester at Notre Dame than I did in all the rest of my 10 years of studying theology.

I was blessed with many great teachers yet none of these would have had a chance with me had Mrs. Winn not first taught me how to read and write.

This September, join me in remembering the women and men from your school days who taught and shaped and readied you for life in so many different ways.  Be in touch with them if that’s possible and let them know how grateful you are. Certainly, we can all offer a prayer of thanksgiving for those whose teaching and guidance meant so much to us along the way. 

School’s about to open and whether you’re going back or sitting back like me, take some time to remember your teachers and to thank God for them.


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