A Touch of Grace: A Mother’s Testimony
Every student who learns how to read and every parent who watches that “miracle” unfold knows that it is takes a mixture of effort, instruction and no small amount of inspiration. It is a process facilitated by teachers, who work with God, one young mind at a time. It is a realization that Sr. Mary Anne, O.P., Dean of the School of Education, sees on a regular basis in the work of her students seeking certification at Aquinas College and the teachers who instruct them. Many of them are Dominican Sisters.
“Our students are prepared to be teachers of truth,” noted Sister Mary Anne. “Having studied philosophy and theology in addition to the core subjects of math, science, history, and literature, our students develop an understanding of education that goes beyond a mere collection of information and facts. It extends to the greater questions of what bearing education has on the lives and immortal souls of the students they will teach, as well as on their own.”
As the following letter shows, the “Aquinas Touch” is about more than academics. It is about making a one-on-one connection with each student through which the real Teacher can work His miracles.
A Mother’s Testimony
My seven-year old son Frank is the second of four children, all ‘stair-stepped’ in age between nine and two. He is a gentle-natured fellow who loves animals—his bird, most of all. He studies at St. Henry School in Nashville; and in 2009-2010, he was in first grade with a wonderfully gifted teacher, Mrs. Bradley, who also taught our eldest son Joseph two years ago. Frank wants to be a priest one day. When asked why, he responds that he wants to work for Sister Anne Hyacinth, O.P. (the principal at St. Henry’s)!
Frank did well in kindergarten. He learned his ABCs and colors. He learned shapes and numbers and seemed to be entering into academia without a ripple, just as his older brother had. When he found out that he would have Mrs. Bradley in first grade like Joseph, he was so happy and joyful—you never saw a kid more excited about the opportunity to go to school than Frank!
So one can only guess how surprised we were when Frank had trouble learning to read. Even though Mrs. Bradley tried to help by re-assigning him to assisted reading classes during the first semester, by December, five months into the school year, Frank was still struggling with reading. Even worse, he was becoming frustrated and losing confidence. He would often come home complaining of headaches and pain in his eyes. Even his appetite decreased. He would pick at his lunch, hardly eating anything. School became a misery to him. He would come home and literally say, “I am a dumb little boy.” And he would weep and beg me not to make him go to school.
We took him to see an eye doctor, who told us that his eyesight was perfect. We took him to see his pediatrician, who found him to be in nothing short of perfect health. And we worked with him—my goodness, we worked with him until we were sure that we were probably doing more damage than good. We strategically placed index cards with “high frequency words” all over the house. We spoke to him using these words with “enhanced voices,” spelling them out after usage. We even made up games and ways to recall and remember. For instance, when Frank was given the word “what” to pronounce, I would say, “WHAT HAT… WHAT” as a way for him to remember the word. It was becoming a very unpleasant process, mostly for Frank, who labored and tried so hard to unlock the reading door. He seemed to get close to opening it at times, but then it would slam in his face.
It is not to say that this child didn’t try—he did. He tried. We tried. His teachers tried. But the struggle continued; and for small children, these continued unsuccessful attempts seem to wear down their little spirits. Frank was reaching the end of his rope, and it was heartbreaking—for him, for us, and for all involved.
One night in December, the telephone rang. It was Frank’s teacher Mrs. Bradley. First she reassured us and made it clear that Frank was very bright and was trying very hard. Still, since he was continuing to struggle with reading and high frequency words, Mrs. Bradley suggested that we take advantage of the opportunity for a certain “grace” that had become available.
Dominican Sister to the Rescue
Enter Sister Mara Grace, O.P., one of the students in your Teacher Education program, who was assigned to St. Henry’s as part of her field experience. Mrs. Bradley proposed that she would work with Frank twice a week, one-on-one, to try to help him break through his “reader’s block.” Who knew that this “Grace” would change everything—and almost overnight!
In the morning, we told Frank that one of the sisters would be spending time with him to help him with reading. He was sort of lukewarm on the whole idea at first…even though he had trouble learning to read, the child is smart—smart enough to sense that the efforts by us and his teachers were continuing unsuccessfully, and also smart enough to realize that he was starting to stand out in the class as the “kid who can’t read.”
The very first day Sister Mara Grace worked with Frank, he came home with his determination renewed—almost as if someone had literally recharged his battery. He began to get up extra early on the days that she was scheduled to visit him and be literally waiting to go to school. His appetite came back, and his lunch pail returned home nearly empty every day. He called out high frequency words whenever he saw them. He began to read anything and everything, sounding out words. If I asked to see a word as if to tell him, he would stop me and say, “Mom, let me try it first…I think I can do this. Sister says I can, and I believe I really can!”
Not too long after Sister Mara Grace started working with Frank, I was in Publix with my daughter Stella in the child seat and Frank sitting “Indian style” in the basket of the grocery cart. I tossed a box of breakfast cereal into the cart and was continuing down the aisle when Frank suddenly stopped me in my tracks. The “kid who can’t read” had the box of Honey Nut Cheerios in his hand, reading the back of the box to me! He was focused on the nutrient chart, of all things, sounding out every word and getting them! “Iron…four zero,” he said, reading the percentage. “Calcium…one zero zero…oh that’s one hundred. I know that,” he added.
I went over to the side of the cart, crouched down, and said, “Francis… you’re doing it!” And my little man, all of six years old, peered back from behind the bars of the grocery cart, no longer a prisoner of the inability to read, and responded simply, “Why are you so surprised? I told you that Sister said I could do it, and she loves God like I do. And Mom, you know in Jesus, everything is possible.” I still tear up when I recall it.
Before I close this letter, I want to tell you of one other providential encounter. Once again, it was at Publix on a lovely Saturday afternoon just before we took the children to Rome for our family holiday. With me this time were my daughters, Veronica and Stella, who at age five insists that she wants to be a sister when she grows up.
Anyway, Stella spotted a Dominican sister in the parking lot, and holding my hand, she somehow managed to steer our little group over to her. You would have to know how timid this child is in order to fully appreciate this, but Stella just started talking to the sister and her companion, bold as brass, as if she’d know them all five years of her life.
She told them that she wants to be a sister and that her brother Frankie has a few friends who are sisters. Stella then told them all about how Frank used to fake being sick because he didn’t want to go to school, how Sister Mara Grace taught him to read when no one else could (not even Mommy), and most important, how Frank was himself again and how thankful she was to Sister Mara Grace and… well, maybe they know her, Stella wondered.
You can imagine Stella’s delight when Sister Justin, O.P., informed her that not only did she know Sister Mara Grace, but that, in fact, she was Sister Mara Grace’s teacher! The fact that the woman sitting beside Sister Justin in the car was her mother also gave Stella immense joy, and she later told me, “See Mom, when I become a sister, we can still go to the market together!”
I am writing to express the gratitude that our entire family feels to this young holy sister and to all the sisters whose prayers and work are having such an impact in our schools and in the lives of our children. Thanks to Sister Mara Grace and her teachers, who know how to cultivate the grace given by The Teacher, Frank is now a happy second-grader making straight “E”s (equivalent to a grade of “A”) and has renewed confidence that he will one day be a priest working for Sister Anne Hyacinth!