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Pat Mahoney taught in the English Department at Glen Rock High School for over three decades. In that time, she taught almost every English course in every grade and at every academic level. Her career ended rather unceremoniously and anti-climactically, teaching from her dining room during the lockdown phase of the early days of the global pandemic.
“Is there anyone who did not go to Mass yesterday? Did anyone miss Sunday Mass?” The question, which was asked one particular Monday by my second-grade teacher Sister Cruella Maleficent (name changed to protect the guilty), changed my life. In preparing our class for First Confession and First Holy Communion, she was instructing on the various types of sins — venial and mortal — that we could commit. Venial sins, we were instructed, could be forgiven in confession. Mortal sins, however, would ensure our eternal damnation.
Missing Mass on Sunday was a mortal sin that could never be forgiven, proclaimed Sister, an elderly nun who wasn’t taking kindly to the changes brought on by Vatican II in the early 1960’s and who did not like children—which she told us regularly. Next, she scarred me for life and asked that fateful question.
I had been sick the day before and missed Mass on Sunday. My mother had stayed home with me, and my father took my older brothers to Mass. Now I understood that I had committed an unforgivable mortal sin. I was a very serious little girl. I understood, or thought I did, the gravity of my sin, but if truth be told, I think I feared the wrath of Sister Cruella even more than I feared her tales of hellfire and damnation.
I tried to figure out what I should do. If I admitted to the sin of missing Mass, surely I would be in bigger trouble than anything I had ever imagined before. No one would be so foolish as to admit to such a grievous error. But if I lied about missing Mass, wouldn’t I be compounding my problem and making it only that much worse? After all, even if Sister Cruella didn’t know, certainly God would. Back and forth I weighed my options, and finally, I decided I would come clean. I would confess. Maybe God would show mercy on me for my honesty. And so, in answer to Sister’s awful question, I raised my hand and admitted to God and Sister and the entire second grade that I had not gone to Mass the previous Sunday.
Too ashamed to look up at first, I did not immediately notice that no one else had raised their hand, but then, I raised my eyes to see only my small, lone hand in the air. Surely, I could not have been the only second grader who did not go to church the previous Sunday! Now, looking back with the perspective of close to 60 years, I know that it is more likely that the other kids were just savvier and knew to keep these personal matters to themselves.
Sister Cruella did not say anything. Instead, she strode to the front of the room with an energy I had not seen from her all year, her long black veils whipping around behind her, and picked up a piece of chalk. She turned and wrote in huge letters across the board for all to see, “PATRICIA MAHONEY IS A BAD CHRISTIAN.” My cheeks burned in humiliation, and I felt my eyes fill with hot tears. My telltale lower lip began to quiver, and I felt the tears begin to stream down my face.
Although I did not tell my mother of this humiliation until I was about 35, she certainly knew that something horrible was happening to me in that class. At the end of that school year, she insisted to my father that we were finished with that school, and we were all enrolled in the local public schools. I would have many wonderful teachers after that awful year, including several incredible English teachers whom I wanted to emulate. They are probably the reason I majored in English and decided that I wanted to become a high school English teacher.
I met the most magnificent teacher I have ever known, Harriet Marcus, at an independent Catholic school – a magical place that bore no resemblance to the parochial school of my early childhood. Harriet took a chance and hired me right out of college. She took me under her wing and cultivated and nurtured my talents. She was brilliant and scholarly and the most well-read person I have ever met. But her greatest strength was that she truly loved the kids, and she loved me too.
I was only 21 and closer in age to the seniors than I was to any faculty member when Harriet gave me the key to being a good teacher: “Never forget,” she said, “that every teenager in your classroom is someone’s precious, beloved little child — even if they aren’t acting like it. Especially when they aren’t acting like it! If you always remember this, you will be fine.”
Nothing that anyone has ever taught me about teaching has had a more powerful effect. Yes, I pursued advanced degrees and always had five times the requisite number of professional development hours, but the real art of teaching, I learned early on, is bringing kindness and care and compassion into the classroom — every single day.
It is creating a little community in every class – where kids feel that they belong. It is showing your kids over and over, day in and day out, that you see them, you hear them, that you value their presence and their ideas, and that you miss them when they’re not present. It’s about love.
This is what I tried to do in every class that I taught at Glen Rock High School and also in the English Department that I led for more than 25 years. I mentored many a young teacher, and this is what I wanted them to experience as well — being seen, heard, and valued.
The lockdown and the early months of the pandemic were very difficult for all of us, and for my seniors most of all. In the final days of their 2020 senior year and my career, seniors told me over and over that they appreciated that we were able to maintain our little classroom communities. One class even called AP English their “Period 2 Family.”
From the GRHS Class of 2020 yearbook - "QUARANED-TEENS" (click for a full image)
Kids told me that they looked forward to coming into my Zoom and chatting at the beginning of every class, where I would just check in with everyone and see how they were doing. Some lovely seniors made a “Video Hug” for me and said that they loved that I had kept them all connected every single day. That, I think, is the real art of teaching: making connections and fostering them, nurturing them. All kinds of learning can take place in such an atmosphere.
It’s my fervent prayer that my former students aren’t writing stories or talking to therapists about how I scarred them for life! I pray that some will remember that I lived by my mentor’s rule: “Never forget that every teenager in your classroom is someone’s precious, beloved child. Remember that, and you’ll be fine.” 🧑🏫