Wednesday, May 8, 2013

With Gratitude: Teacher Appreciation Week

Photo: Camden Catholic High School
Yearbook  - ©1983
This is teacher appreciation week and I have been lucky enough to have so many wonderful teachers in my life who I would love to thank:

Ms. Dietenback, (K) Mrs. Mayer (1st)- Mrs. McCloy (2nd) - Mrs Murray (3rd)- Miss Drew (4th) - Mrs Whitworth (5th) - Miss Cavenaugh (6th)- Mr Lake (7th) - [ Apologies to my 8th Grade Teacher-I am drawing a blank!]

There have been so many others as well-art and music teachers as well as sport coaches - but I thought today it would  be fitting to tell you about a teacher who has educated, supported & influenced me the most on so many levels-personally, professionally and spiritually.

That person is Sr. Mary Philomena Gini.  (But I usually just call her "Aunt Ellie." )

In June, she will be retiring from 40 years at Camden Catholic High School (Cherry Hill, NJ), but  she has touched so many students and families in the nearly 20 years prior to that, not only as an educator, but also as a registrar, guidance counselor, as my paternal aunt, and as a Sister of Mercy.

In September, this amazing woman will also be honored for her sixty years of service to the Sisters of Mercy.  As one of my former classmates wrote, " I can barely commit to what I'm having for lunch-let alone 60 years to one mission!". I concur with his sentiment!

Camden Catholic was founded by the Sisters of Mercy in Camden in 1887, making it 125 years old-the oldest Catholic School in South Jersey. My aunt has been *volunteering in the guidance department all these years, and  is the last Sister out of a 125 year tradition to serve there.  

*(That is right-volunteering. Sisters do not get personal financial compensation for their work-their paychecks go to support the community of sisters and each Sister receives a monthly allowance.)

As a teenager, (and a student of Camden Catholic) it seemed as if I couldn't get away from her watchful eye-and believe me, I tried! She used to tell me that I was closest she would ever have to a daughter-and so I was stuck with her-and she meant it. It was amazing that every formal dance I went to, (about 8 of them between my class's events & those of my then, boyfriend's who was a year ahead of me)  the chaperon's table was always the one RIGHT next to whatever one I was seated at! In front of my friends I would express angst & irritation,  But what I never told anyone is that it also made me feel like someone sincerely cared about me & was really looking out for me. She wanted to be involved in my life and this was her way of doing that.

My aunt is a 5 foot tall delicate balance of loving compassion and dynamic kick-ass. You never have to guess or wonder where you stand with her, she says exactly what is on her mind. She laughs as easily as she expresses displeasure. Nuns have a legendary reputation for getting wicked with rulers, but not my aunt. One look of disapproval from her is enough. She expected the best from us-especially me-but was also patient when we-and I- fell short of those high expectations. 

Her office was always crowded-and still is-with mostly football and basketball players-people just saying hello, people with something to share and people with heavy hearts. Her office was a sanctuary-a safe haven where you shared news, supported each other through rough spots and got told what you were doing right as well as what you were doing wrong. I watched her for four years, as she embraced each one of us as one of her own, and I took mental notes on how to really support people-even those who are irritating you at the moment. She has a gift-does not have any children, yet has keen insight into what a child or teen needs at any given moment, and has shown me, by her example, how to still love someone even if you don't like what they have said/done.

She never pushed religion on me-but always set a good example and answered my questions when they would come up. I think she was secretly hoping that some 'good' would rub off on me when I would spend Saturdays with her at the convent with ALL of the nuns. One of my fondest memories of high school was the environment of Peace and tranquility there among the Sisters-and although I never had a desire to enter a religious order, those early, pleasant experiences helped to shape my understanding of spirituality, inner peace-how to live simply-taking only what you need and how to focus on and stay in the moment. 

My aunt was also the first one who I went to, at 18 and in my first year of college, when I found out I was pregnant. I made some bad choices-(and some good ones) and had many challenges - some self-imposed and some not- to overcome, and  no matter how long I have gone in between phone calls, she always has a smile in her voice and good insight when I talk with her.  She knows things about me that my own parents, brother and those closest to me do not know. She has given me simple guidance, and has always believed in me even through those days when I no longer believed in myself.

The thing that inspires and impresses me most about her is that she has dedicated her entire life to something that she is passionate about and truly believes in. (And when I say her entire life, I mean it. You know how kids play "doctor" or "teacher"? Well, my aunt used to play "Nun in the convent" from the time she was about 5 years old. There are no other nuns/priests in the family who may have influenced this-so I can only conclude that it was truly a Divine Calling.)

So as we celebrate teachers this week, I want to thank her- Aunt Ellie- Sister Philomena for her love, dedication,  inspiration, & passion- for teaching, supporting and inspiring youth - and families from all over the state NJ- for sharing so much of her time, knowledge, experience, charity, unconditional love, and years of her life with all of us. 

Further Reading:

Its About the Little Things

Sisters of Mercy

Teachers: 99 Reasons to Love Them



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