The windows at St. Stanislaus School rattled as a burly Harley Davidson rumbled up the drive. After the motorcycle came to a stop, a man strode to the doorway and rang the bell.
When the door swung open, the man looked at the Felician Sister standing before him and asked, “Sr. Jeanne! Do you remember me?”
Sr. Jeanne Marie Akalski smiled. “Ronnie, how could I forget you?”
Twenty or so years earlier, the man had been one of Sr. Jeanne’s students — not the kind who’s voted teacher’s pet. “He was one of those who would try your patience and everything else,” Sr. Jeanne remembered with a chuckle. And yet, all those years later, there was Ronnie on her doorstep with his young son waiting on the back of the Harley. “I just came to thank you for everything you taught me,” Ronnie said.
That’s when Sr. Jeanne knew.
“He was a terror of terrors, but we reached him,” Sr. Jeanne said. “That’s why I say that sometimes you don’t realize you’re reaching students, but you are. They’re hungering for love, warmth, sensitivity and the appreciation that they’re just as good as everybody else. Give ’em a chance.”
Sr. Jeanne has stayed true to that approach throughout her teaching career. She continued at St. Stanislaus School in Fall River, MA and has spent the past 18 years instructing fourth graders at St. Joseph School in Webster, MA.
“God put me in the right place,” Sr. Jeanne said. “I love the kids. I’ll reach out to the poorest kids whom everybody says can’t produce anything, and I’ll prove to them that they can. That’s my talent. I cherish it. I will never give up teaching. I want to teach until the day I die.”
Sr. Mary Ann Papiez has worked in classrooms for much of her 49 years as a Felician Sister. Since 1999, she’s taught math and religion to kids in grades five through eight at St. Joseph School. “I find it a joy to teach religion,” she said.
Using an activity in each chapter of her Religion series, Sr. Mary Ann finds ways to connect her lesson plans with the events, challenges and achievements her students encounter in their everyday lives. Each child keeps a prayer journal of their own private chats with Jesus.
“The students might not say it out loud, but you can tell by their expression, by their responses and by their questions in class, they are hungry for religion and they need and want God,” Sr. Mary Ann said. “I hope and pray that the seeds we plant will nourish them throughout their life and help them with whatever they may have to face, always knowing that God loves them.”
When teaching the Baltimore catechism, Sr. Jeanne challenged her fourth graders to work ahead in addition to their regular homework. They surprised her by completing much of the course on their own.
Eager to display her students’ extra effort, Sr. Jeanne invited the bishop and school superintendent into the class for an out-loud quiz. “It was magnificent,” Sr. Jeanne said. “We went through more than 100 questions and they just rattled off the answers like nothing. I’ve never had a class like that.”
As the end of the class session was getting near, Sr. Jeanne skipped one of the questions about the catechism. When she closed her book, one student raised his hand. “You skipped a question and I know what page it’s on,” said the student, who then reopened the book and pointed to the absent question.
“That shows that they knew it from page to page,” Sr. Jeanne said. “They lived it. They really wanted this. They proved to me, ‘Hey, this is possible. We can do this.’”
It’s often not easy. Many of Sr. Jeanne’s and Sr. Mary Ann’s students come from broken homes and single-parent families. Something as commonplace as completing homework can be hindered by extra obstacles.
“They’re going to this house, the grandparents’ house, the stepdad’s house, and they don’t know where their books are,” Sr. Jeanne said. “When they come to school, and I ask where’s your homework and it’s, ‘Well, I left it at this house or that house.’ You have to have compassion, some understanding that it’s not the child’s fault.”
The misery of missing a dad or a mom is rough for any child. Yet, Sr. Jeanne and Sr. Mary Ann say many of their students who are in those situations often handle it with more maturity than one would expect.
“You have to let them know you believe in them and that you care,” Sr. Mary Ann said. “You have to help them in their growth. because it’s not easy for them today. We didn’t have to deal with so many of the things they’re faced with. They want to know that they count and that you accept them for who they are.”
One of Sr. Jeanne’s mantras is, “There are three types of students: great, greater and greatest. You decide which one you want to be.” In other words, no student is unreachable or unteachable.
Sr. Jeanne recalled one student, Caleb, who struggled with reading and had fallen well behind his classmates. Every day during the summer before Caleb began fourth grade, Sr. Jeanne tutored him one-on-one, starting with phonics and building from there.
The progress was slow but steady, and continued into the school year. It paid off when Caleb made the honor roll. At the end of the year, Caleb and his family gave Sr. Jeanne the gift of a framed, antique painting of St. Rita — a patron saint of impossible causes.
Sr. Jeanne took the artwork to a nearby gallery to have it cleaned up before hanging it in the school. Someone who saw the painting in the gallery offered to buy it for $20,000.
“I said, no way,” Sr. Jeanne said. “This is a treasure to the school. It is a reminder that all things are possible if there is faith, hope and trust. St. Rita proved that through Caleb. A little bit of love and tenderness goes a long way.”