The Place Matters: from Michael McCarthy’s Blog
The Place Matters
It’s funny how things happen. After 17½ years working in a primarily administrative position directing a youth and young adult ministry office for the Rockville Centre Diocese, I was now seeking new employment. Since I liked what I did and felt good about the work I did for the diocese, it was quite natural for me to now be looking into a number of similar management positions in the non-profit world. I flooded the market with my resume. Then one day my wife, Toni, asked me if I would consider returning to the teaching field (I had taught at the Mary Louis Academy previous to my position with the diocese). At first, I was reluctant. Why would I return to teaching? I have “advanced” to management. Plus management positions pay more. Perhaps my wife was aware of something in me that I was unaware of myself. Given that I was unemployed and could not be overly choosey, I knew I needed to keep my options opened.
It was the spring of 2006 and I was now also exploring teaching positions in a number of Catholic high schools in proximity to my home. I had thought of the Mary Louis Academy, but I now lived 50 miles from the school. This would be a major commute each day. I held fond memories of Mary Louis and was curious. So I perused their website. To my surprise and delight, I noticed that Sr. Patricia O’Keefe was still the co-chairperson of the Religion Department (she was the chairperson when I taught at Mary Louis from 1984-1988). I had not been in contact with her for years, but I always held Sr. Pat in high esteem. I decided to send her a simple note letting her know that I was exploring a return to teaching. A few days later, while walking on a busy street in Manhattan to interview with a non-profit agency, my cell phone goes off. I barely knew how to use this new device. I fumbled a few moments trying to answer my phone; it was Sr. Pat. She was so warm and excited that I had sent this note to her. We exchanged pleasantries; she then stated that a teaching position has in fact just opened up in the department for the fall 2006. Good timing, I thought. She invited me to come in to the school to discuss possibilities with her.
I started to ponder: Maybe teaching wouldn’t be so bad. Okay, it’s a long commute, but you have summers off and lots of holidays. It does not pay as much, but teaching can be deeply rewarding. Plus, I now have a wealth of lived experience that I could bring to teaching. I would no longer be a novice. I could possibly be the (not so) old wise man. It was the late morning of March 29, 2006 and I was heading out on the Northern State Parkway west to meet with Sr. Pat at 1:00 pm. I was feeling an inner exhilaration, with a few butterflies in my stomach. It’s not possible that I am returning to the place of what seemed like a place of a previous life? Yes, the commute on this sunny Wednesday was long. Finding a parking spot in the street was a challenge. And, I had to go to the bathroom (one too many cups of coffee this particular morning). As I walked up to the school, it looked strangely familiar. I was hearing the echoes of a time past. The excitement in my whole being was intensifying, as were the butterflies in my stomach. I turned onto Wexford Terrace and headed to the front doors.
I rang the doorbell and was buzzed in by the front office (as they were expecting me). Upon entering the front foyer on the lower level of the school, I was by chance greeted by a smiling young woman – – a student of Mary Louis. Our eyes met; we said hello to each other. I felt welcomed with my first step back into Mary Louis. Before proceeding upstairs to the main office, I ask this young woman where the men’s room on this level is located (after almost 18 years I couldn’t remember where it was). She pointed me in the right direction – – in maybe more ways than she would ever know. Feeling relieved after my bathroom detour, I was now ready to proceed to the front office and meet with Sr. Pat. I walk up the majestic two-level stairway leading to the main floor and front office. Here I am again in the same place for the first time.
I reach the top of the stairs and approach the front office ahead. I see Sr. Filippa Luciano, longtime assistant principal of Mary Louis. She looks my way, does a double take, and then rushes over giving me a gregarious and friendly greeting. We have not seen each other for close to 18 years, yet Sr. Flip (as she is known) makes me feel right at home. Things are looking up. Almost immediately after meeting Sr. Flip, I see Sr. Pat. Without hesitation, we embrace each other. Like old friends, we pick up where we left off. I am feeling really good at this point. She jokingly comments, “I usually don’t hug the person I am about to interview.”
Sr. Pat and I proceed to her office. She introduces me to Jean Lynch, co-chair of the religion department. The three of us talk. The conversation is flowing. It feels right. Things seem to be fitting together. I think it’s going to work out. I think the teaching position is available and that they are interested in me. And I am becoming more and more interested in becoming a teacher again – – and in teaching here in this particular place. Yes, I am ready to teach again and to teach in new ways! Wow, there’s been a conversion of sorts. My inner enthusiasm is bubbling over into a profound glee. I am not physically jumping up and down, but my radiant smile could not be hidden. After our “interview”, Sr. Pat brings me to the faculty room and introduces (in some cases, re-introduces) me to some of the teachers. In my imagination, I already see them as colleagues. I’ll need only to be offered the job and then work out my salary with the principal of Mary Louis, Sr. Kathleen McKinney. I am not worried; I trust we will reach agreement. I believe this place, Mary Louis, is meant for me.
Not all Catholic schools are the same. Somewhere in the hallways and classrooms of each school is the spirit of a place. Listen closely and you’ll hear the whispers of this spirit. Mary Louis gives off its own unique aura. This aura is the “air of the school” and it permeates throughout – – it’s the underlying attitudes and stance on which a school actually operates from. While individual students, faculty, and staff undeniably contribute to this aura, it’s bigger than any one person. The aura is greater than the sum of its parts. You can not help but breathe it in. The air of a place will either be sweet smelling or unpleasant, purifying or toxic, invigorating or depleting. The Mary Louis Academy, with all its human flaws, still exudes a spirit ofhospitality. And this spirit, like a gentle, steady, and calming summer wind, continues to move me today.
On the morning of April 6, 2009, I met and interviewed with Sr. Kathleen for the open teaching position. What struck me most in our conversation was Sr. Kathleen’s passionate focus on the vision and mission of the Sisters of St. Joseph. She said the reason TMLA exists is rooted in our mission as Josephite Sisters, which is a mission to heal, redeem, and liberate all people. They are indeed “the good sisters.” Sr. Kathleen continued by quoting from the actual mission statement of TMLA: “We strive to reflect this by being a reconciling and non-violent community, fostering unity and all-inclusive love.” She went on to add, this mission statement is the foundation on which we strive to educate and foster academic excellence. I was sold! Sr. Kathleen offered me the position, with a fair salary. This particular place has made all the difference.