Liz, Tricia, Nancy, Jenny, Jerry, Gina, Megan, and Chris are still busy, very busy, navigating homework assignments — the bane of many students’ childhoods.
Only this time around, they are not handing in the assignments at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish School in Cuyahoga Falls; they’re the ones doling them out.
That’s because these eight former students have chosen to return to their beloved elementary school as teachers.
Principal Robert Hardesty said former students currently account for 32 percent of the faculty and staff. Susan (Brady) Stefan, another former student, is one of the school’s cafeteria managers.
Marty Meadows, a retired teacher, brought this uncanny piece of school history to my attention. “I taught at Immaculate for 30 years and had Nancy (Brunn) Gardella, Liz (Faris) Suber, Tricia (Hamlin) Dirker (and her husband), Jenny (Beatty) Hoversten, Megan Bickett and Gina Donangelo as fifth-graders,” Meadows said.
“I remember what bright students and kind children they were … I think it’s just remarkable that nine former students of one school chose to return to their roots.”
Turns out there’s a singularly good reason for their return.
“We feel very blessed that we have this opportunity to ‘come back home’ and teach,” was how 44-year-old first-grade teacher Nancy Gardella summed up the feelings of the group.
“I teach next door to kindergarten teacher Ann Nowac, who was my third-grade teacher,” Gardella announced with a how-cool-is-that tone in her voice.
“I still call her Mrs. Nowac,” she joked, reasoning that old habits are hard to break.
Similar stories peppered the conversation with 63-year-old Jerry Large, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade science; 59-year-old Susan Stefan, cafeteria manager; 25-year-old Jennifer Hoversten, fifth grade; 32-year-old Liz Suber, second grade; 41-year-old Tricia Dirker, fifth grade; 48-year-old Chris Comeriato, art; 30-year-old Megan Bickett, seventh- and eighth-grade English and reading; and 27-year-old Gina Donangelo, sixth grade.
“This is the place that prepared me for my future. And I’ve always felt very prepared,” a grateful Donangelo declared.
“And I always knew that I wanted to teach sixth grade,” she continued. “I even told my sixth-grade teacher,” the recently retired Lynn Hardesty, wife of the principal and sister of Jerry Large.
As the senior member of the group, Large is the keeper of the oldest memories of the school, recalling the time when there were as many as 130 students in the eighth grade class alone. “We have 46 this year,” he said.
But all agreed the commitment remains to providing students with the best education.
That was the draw for Dirker: “I wanted to teach here because I wanted my kids to go here, and I wanted to be part of their education.” She certainly succeeded, as she has her son in her class this year.
Close-knit friendships of old were the magnet for Jennifer Hoversten: “Somehow I associate myself most with the kids I was in grade school with … When my mom died it was the friends and families from grade school, not high school or college, who were there for me.”
Susan Stefan recalled the huge sacrifice her parents made to pay tuition for eight children at Immaculate Heart of Mary. She’s since followed in their footsteps, sending her children there as well.
Comeriato — happy, like the others, to take that stroll down memory lane — said the school’s strong values that fed her as a student are still present. Yet, she noted a discernible newness about the place too: “When I was a student here we didn’t have a gym, so we took gym in the all-purpose room … We didn’t have a cafeteria back then either; we packed our lunches and ate in the classroom.”
“And it was the eighth-graders who watched us during lunch,” Dirker chimed in, recalling the time when the nuns ruled the school.
That childhood attachment to Immaculate Heart of Mary is a strong one for Bickett as well. “I was at my sister’s bridal shower when I found out there was an opening (for a teacher) here,” she said, finding it hard to contain her enthusiasm.
College of Wooster graduate Suber called teaching at Immaculate Heart of Mary “a real labor of love.”
“It’s much more than just a shared belief system,”she explained. “I’ve taught at other schools and other Catholic schools. But this is different.”
One of the added bonuses of being back at Immaculate Heart of Mary, say the nine former students, is that they regularly see parents they went to school with, and now they’re teaching or serving their children.
Priceless too is that this faculty and staff don’t have to wait for school reunions to reconnect. It’s practically an everyday occurrence.
Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or firstname.lastname@example.org.