Lessons of grade school don’t lessen over time

by Father Mark Goldasich

“And you, too, Mark?”

Those words — spoken by Sister Decolata, my seventh-grade teacher at St. John the Baptist School in Kansas City, Kansas — still sting almost 50 years later.

There was a student in my class back then named Bob (the names have been changed to protect the innocent!) and he was on the mischievous side. Sister Decolata put his desk immediately to the right of hers so she could keep a sharper eye on the little miscreant.

One day, poor Bob fell asleep during class. Sister noticed it in the middle of a lesson and whacked the top of his desk with her wooden pointer. Because I sat in the front row, I had a bird’s-eye view of all this. When that pointer smacked the desk, Bob shot up like a rocket launched from Cape Canaveral.

I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen and burst out laughing. Sister Decolata wheeled around, caught me and uttered those devastating words: “And you, too, Mark?” The implication was that I’d gone over to the dark side.

Of course, my laughter stopped abruptly, but my punishment was to write, “I will not laugh in class” 1000 times. And it was due the next day.

I tried to quickly write as much as I could of my “punishment” at home, hoping my folks wouldn’t notice. (This was one of those times that I was happy to be an only child, as no sibling could rat out my bad behavior to my parents!)

Although I pretended it was my usual homework, my mom soon caught on and asked, “Did you get in trouble in school today?” I explained what happened and she immediately went to the phone to call Sister Decolata. I put down my pen, stretched out my aching fingers and smiled that Mom was going to set Sister straight. I heard her talking for a bit and then she said, “Mark, come over here right now and apologize to Sister Decolata for your behavior today!” Mom then reminded me that she and Dad always told my teachers that they had permission to do whatever was necessary to keep me in line because “they’re right there watching you; we aren’t.”

After I hung up the phone, I took pen to paper again. A bit passive- aggressively, I admit, I began to creatively number the sentences: 156, 157, 163, 171, 175, 190, 216, 333, etc. I turned it in the next day, not factoring in that, if Sister Decolata were truly a stickler, she would have counted my pages and busted me. At 26 lines per page, I should have given her over 38 pages of punishment. Mine wasn’t even close . . . but she never said a word, as the lesson was learned.

It was a lesson to respect not only Sister Decolata and my parents, but my classmate Bob as well. It was a lesson that I’ve never forgotten. And I’ve never had to write out another “punishment.” (By the way, my hand finally uncramped during my junior year of high school!)

We’ve devoted a number of pages in this issue to veteran Catholic educators. I’ll always be grateful, especially to those who taught me in grade school, for forming me in the faith, in my study habits and in my behavior.

I’ll end with a little story about a young man named David, who was raised by his aunt and uncle after the deaths of his parents. David was preparing to leave for college and was at the train station.

He looked at his aunt, whose hands were battered from selling fruits and vegetables in all kinds of inclement weather. Her smiling face was ruddy, her hair white. David’s uncle was wiry, but bent over from lifting too many fruit and vegetable crates for too many years. The childless couple took him in when he was 7.

As the train approached, David grabbed their hands and said, “How can I ever repay you for all you’ve done for me?” His uncle spoke gently, “David, there’s a saying: ‘The love of parents goes to their children, but the love of these children goes to their children.’”

“That’s not so!” said David. “I’ll always be trying to . . .”

His aunt interrupted saying, “David, what your uncle means is that a parent’s love isn’t to be paid back. It can only be passed on.” (Adapted from “The Nephew” in William J. Bausch’s “A World of Stories for Preachers and Teachers.”)

The same, I think, is true for the wonderful teachers that we’ve all had in our school years. They don’t look for repayment — only that we pass on what they taught us to future generations.

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