Recently, I had the opportunity to speak at a Cardinal Gibbons High School event. Below is the story I shared about how the power of a relationship with my high school theology teacher transformed me and how her love for me guided me to teaching, Cardinal Gibbons, and school administration.
I know with 100 percent certainty that I stand here as a direct result of my high school religion teacher, Mary Lou Merrit. When I think of her, I think of her smile, her warmth, and, most importantly, her unconditional love for her students. In the spring of my senior year, I planned on attending Boston College. It had been my dream for years, but I got waitlisted. That same day I was accepted to Providence College (PC).
When I went to my high school classes that day, Mrs. Merritt knew something was off and asked me what was wrong. I shared how the news about Boston College broke my heart and shattered the picture I had imagined for myself the next year.
She said, “Providence, really?” My nephew goes to PC. He loves it. You need to go and visit.”
I listened, I visited, and I loved it.
While earning a degree in English, one of my professors asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. “A lawyer,” I responded.
She said, “I think you should be a teacher.”
I mostly ignored her advice until I saw Mrs. Merritt. I shared what the professor had said. She smiled and said, “Nancy, I agree. Don’t discount what resonates in you - especially when someone who has just met you sees a gift or a talent you may not realize.” I returned to college and added education to my major.
After graduation. I applied for teaching jobs in New Jersey. At my first interview, St. Mary High School, the principal, Sr. Jackie, asked, “I see that you went to St. John Vianney. Do you know Mary Lou Merritt?”
Trying to contain my excitement, I answered, “Why yes, I do.”
I went home after the interview, called Mrs. Merritt and told her about the job. She asked, “Do you want this job, Nancy?”
“Yes, Yes I do,” I said.
“Perfect,” Mrs. Merritt said, “I am going to call Jackie and tell her all about you and your potential.” And so my teaching career began.
Several years later, I had moved to NC, was teaching at a local public high school, and began to question my calling as a teacher. Something was off, and I felt lost. A colleague brought me a newspaper ad for a position teaching English at Cardinal Gibbons. I called Mary Lou; (I was old enough to call her by her first name.) I shared how I was struggling and that this opportunity was a calling.
Mary Lou reminded me of the power of the Holy Spirit - that there are times in our lives when we receive a beautiful gift - a sign or a message pointing us in a direction. Her words were clear, “Return to what brings you joy Nancy, teach at a Catholic school, it will become your home.”
I reached out one more time. I was discerning a move from a classroom educator to an assistant principal. I loved teaching. I really loved it.
She said, “What you love is the relationships you have with students and how it can impact them. In this new role, there will be ways for you to help other teachers do the same. The impact will be exponential.”
“The impact will be exponential.” Mrs. Merritt knew it 30 years ago, we know it, you know it, anyone who has invested in Catholic education knows it. The relationships we form with our students, our colleagues, and our families are transformational because we believe in the mission of Jesus Christ.
The love of Jesus embraces us. It is unconditional and without judgment. With this love, we are called to be formed in faith, service, and leadership in church and community. We believe if you embrace this mission – to love one another as God loves us unconditionally, we will make the world a better place because of our acts of faith, our call to serve, and our ability to lead others to His love.
Whether it is today or 30 years ago, Catholic education yields dividends in the relationships we form: relationships that are transformational and that pay off in exponential ways. Such relationships transform us in ways we cannot always predict or recognize at the moment. Those of us a little wiser or grayer, understand, such moments are worthy of engagement. They earn dividends in our mission, which is our call to be formed in love through faith, service, and leadership.