During my recent retreat at one of the pristine beaches of the Florida panhandle, I was reflecting on my two-year milestone at Sacred Heart. As though reviewing a movie of my time here, I asked God to speak to my heart about this mission to which He has called me. As I began to listen, early memories of being at Sacred Heart as a student started returning to me with gentle persistence, as though syncing with the waves coming into shore.
These precious memories are “pearls of great price.” They reveal something about what God sees as important, meaningful and having value about our “life here at Sacred Heart”—whether we are administrators, faculty, parents, alumna or students.
My first memory was a slide show of the faces of my many teachers: my English teacher who introduced me to Camus, Sartre, Heidegger, Hegel, Descartes and Dostoevsky, to name a few; my Social Studies teacher, Mrs. Rivet, who introduced me to the great ancient civilizations of the world; my Biology teacher, Ms. Keifer, who introduced me to the smell of formaldehyde and the parts of a frog; and my Headmistress, Sr. Betsy Hartson, RSCJ who did not actually teach me in a class, but introduced me to the virtues of a sense of humor, patience, and humility.
Among these persons, there was one teacher that really stood out to me: my 8th grade Religion teacher. (I guess you are not surprised!). Sr. Jane Shaberg, RSCJ presented herself as a rather introverted academic on her way to getting a Ph.D. in Theology. To all of us, it was utterly incongruent for her to work in Middle School, but, somehow, we understood her presence in our Middle school as some probable act of religious obedience. Each day, she telegraphed the highest of expectations of us as students. Readings of the original texts of Vatican II were assigned along with reflection papers to interpret these texts against their relevance in our lives. The Social Encyclicals, were another challenge: no excerpting or cliff notes! Essays with copious red-inked responses in the margin were promptly returned. I kept a scrapbook through my high school years at Sacred Heart, and I actually still have some of those papers—a testament to their value to me. This is a precious memory of a caring and committed educator—one who truly believed in the inherent intelligence of her students and who set the bar high enough so that we could “reach up.” I loved that about her class: she was causing me to reach by moving the bar higher and higher.
Our Foundress, St. Madeleine Sophie Barat counseled the religious sisters who taught in schools with these words:
Let us respect childhood; let us honor the soul of that small creature of God who can already make choices of the best if we take the time to awaken her reason and make her use her judgment.”
Sr. Shaberg set the bar high, and, she kept raising the bar of expectation for her students. In this way, she communicated her confidence in me as a learner and her respect for me as a person. Those qualities of an educator have formed me in my own educational practice even to this day.
The second memory was of my sitting in the open window on the 2nd floor in the classroom that faces St. Charles Avenue. It was a senior room in those days, and I loved to sit in that window to think things over. There, I sorted out so many of the things that adolescents ruminate about—boyfriends, friendships at school, college, grades, Friday night and the like. Time given to sitting in that window gave me time to breathe, decompress, and to process my growth issues. It gave me the space I needed for solitude and silence, opening in me an interior place for becoming a reflective practitioner and a discerning person. In retrospect, I think that I knew, even then, how important—even sacred–this space was for my journey.
Along with the new knowledge of our “inner space” where feelings of love and hate, tenderness and pain, forgiveness and greed are separated, strengthened or reformed, there emerges the mastery of the gentle hand. This is the hand of the gardener who carefully makes space for a new plant to grow and who doesn’t pull weeds too rashly, but only uproots those which threaten it to choke the young life. Under his gentle regime, a (wo)man once again becomes master over his own house. Not only over his day, but over his night as well. Not only when he is awake, but also when he sleeps. For (s)he who has the day, will gain the night as well.” (Nouwen, Henri J.M. With Open Hands, Ave Maria Press, 1972)
My parents really loved Sacred Heart. They form the third memory that returned to me as a “pearl of great value.” Besides, sending their six daughters to ASH from Pre-K through 12th grade, my Dad was President of the Father’s Club, and my Mom spent many hours at the school shuttling children, neighbors and friends to and from school. The beautiful chapel at Sacred Heart was my Mom’s special place. She spent many hours praying in front of Mary’s altar, a fact not lost on me as her daughter or as a student. On a recent visit to the chapel, my Mom was overcome with emotion kneeling there once again as the 92-year-old Mom of 10 children; and one of them now the schools’ Headmistress!
In those days, my parents dropped us off at school, and, waving “goodbye,” we knew that they had complete confidence in the religious sisters, the administrators and the teachers of the school. They trusted and admired their work, valued their contribution, and supported them as educators. Collectively, they seemed to collude to make me a better person. I suspect that the high regard that my parents had of these educators formed in me an early passion to become one.
Emerging from these memories, I see a distinctive educational philosophy at work at Sacred Heart—one that underscores rigor and excellence, a respect for each child, a sensitivity to how girls learn, a recognition of each one’s gifts and talents, an affirmation of balance in life, a value on reflection and times of solitude, collaboration with parents in a partnership, and—not coercing and suffocating a child, but opening up spaces for them to grow into to people of faith and as people with a lifelong love for learning.
What a blessing and call it is to accompany students on this lifelong journey!