An elementary school teacher gives a student a lesson in what it means to be Irish, from the classroom to the grave, and beyond. We toast her today.
I’m in the fifth grade. Bored and fidgety. Restless is not a state of grace at St. Paul’s Catholic School. As a matter of fact, it can be downright dangerous.
My world is filled with nuns and priests and church and kneeling and rules. There is also a healthy amount of fear. The good Sisters of St. Paul’s Catholic School wield unquestioned power. They do not suffer well the goof-offs and dolts who defiantly threaten classroom order. Their discipline is swift –THWACK! – with ruler or chalkboard pointer in hand. The Sisters are adept in both disciplinary artforms.
For good reason.
The student-to-teacher ratio is something like 40-to-1. Catholic families abide by the “go-forth-and-multiply” philosophy. And in my blue-collared, god-fearing, small town, Catholic families send their hordes of children to Catholic school. The Priest says it is the right thing to do, unless, of course, you are a heathen and desire eternal damnation.
My parents are not heathens.
Which is why I am sitting here right now. In fifth grade. Antsy. Typically, in a world populated with nuns who move as swiftly as ninjas at the slightest sign of disinterest, such an unfocused condition is cause for concern.
My saving grace is that my fifth-grader teacher is not a nun. No. In fifth grade, my teacher is Mrs. Kitzhaber, who adores me. And I her.
She is the first person, other than a sibling, to call me a pig. And when I understand why she likens me to a farm animal, well, I am smitten.
It starts with an innocent question, as most life-altering things do.
Mrs. Kitzhaber is telling us about Ireland, what with St. Patrick’s Day right around the corner. Before she was married – in St. Patrick’s Church, no less – Mrs. Kitzhaber was a Condon, a surname that originated in Ireland. She wears her Irish pride on her sleeve. No one need encourage her to talk about the importance of St. Patrick’s Day, it comes as natural as breathing. On this eventful day, Mrs. Kitzhaber is in fine form, even slipping into a lilting Irish accent.
Caught up in all the greenery, and without raising my hand first – an act so disorderly as to warrant immediate ruler attention – I blurt out, “Am I Irish?”
There is no ruler TWHACK! No shush! There is not even a reminder of the importance of raising your hand and being called upon before speaking. Instead, Mrs. Kitzhaber stands in front of my desk, smiling, and says, “Oh Paul, you’re as Irish as Paddy’s pig.”
It is all a bit confusing. At first. I have no idea who Paddy is, let alone that he has a pig, but from that moment begins a lifelong love of Ireland and my teacher.
In my Irish eyes, both were beautiful.
A little more than ten years ago, right before my father’s funeral service was to start, Mrs. Kitzhaber approached me and, noticing I wasn’t wearing anything Irish, undid the shamrock-shaped pin from her blazer and gave it to me. “Wear this today, Paul,” she said. “Your father would be proud.”
I keep the pin on a nightstand next to my bed, in a small jewelry container that once belonged to my mother, looking at it every day. Remembering. Often with big Irish tears running down my face.
A year or so after the funeral, I visited Mrs. Kitzhaber at her home. Her husband of nearly 65 years had passed. Age was catching up to the woman who for decades marched briskly to daily mass and then onto the classroom. She had slowed. And yet, the sparkle in her eyes, the one that brightened that classroom, remained. She greeted me like a summer’s day.
After a brief chat at the dining room table, she brought out a bottle of Irish whiskey. It tasted like liquid sunshine. I’m not sure how much we drank that day, but I’m sure our ancestors would have been proud of the effort.
In 2017, at the age of 95, Mrs. Kitzhaber died. But the truth is, she has never really passed. I think of her often, and often with a smile. She moved through my world determined and taught with passion. She ran her classroom tightly, efficiently, and with purpose. And yet, there was a big Irish heart to soften all edges.
On the day that we toasted our blessings with Irish whiskey, Mrs. Kitzhaber shared an old Irish toast. Today, I share it with you:
“Here’s to those who love us. May they always love us. Here’s to those who don’t love us. May God turn their minds. And if He doesn’t turn their minds, may He turn their ankles, so we’ll know them by their limp.”
I’ll drink to that, and to you, Mrs. Kitzhaber.
Erin go Bragh.
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