Sometimes we have teachers that touch our lives in ways we only discover once we are well past their class in our lives. Those teachers can be few and far between for some kids, and for others, they may be every teacher at their school. Other times, those lessons don’t come from a teacher, but from a mom, or an older sister standing up to a bully at your bus stop. Being a teacher, I recently discovered one of those “far off” lessons that one of my teachers subtly and unknowingly gave me years ago: choosing joy.
It was my senior year of high school at a small public high school just outside of Dayton, Ohio. I had about 260 classmates, and our town seems much smaller than listed on the census. I was senior class president and was blessed to serve alongside five other incredible leaders in representing our class and planning events like our senior class trip to New York City. Additionally, on our Friday afternoon meetings in the biology lab (almost always accompanied by snacks and excitement for the weekend ahead) we would sneak through the storage room and file up to the roof of the school, where we would just talk and look out over our city. We would use our advisors’ “lost” keys to unlock the necessary doors.
Tom and Wendi Kirsch, our senior class advisors, were two teachers, one biology and one a program director for young and expecting mothers. They were married and often exemplified what love can and should be throughout the halls of our school. They were extraordinary and long-time advocates for our hometown and its kids; they attended all of the sporting events, volunteered at performances and festivals, supported fundraisers, advised clubs, and more. They did it all, and wherever they were, you knew there would be full hearts behind whatever the task at hand may be.
In the months leading up to our graduation, our high school administration informed the Kirsches that we were no longer allowed to go up to the roof using their keys, as it was dangerous and a liability. Our tradition had, understandably, been quashed by compassionate administrators, and the Kirsches followed the guidance, no longer “losing” their keys that unlocked those doors. So, in the burgeoning spring months, we never really made our way up to the community vantage point.
A senior year in Fairborn is filled with so many events, special traditions, gatherings, and more. I remember specifically one instance with Mrs. Kirsch that I have carried with me ever since my graduation night. It was the Wednesday before graduation, and we had finished our final day of classes at school. That night we always have a ceremony in our auditorium called Baccalaureate, where a local pastor or leader gives a motivational and spiritual talk as we begin our journeys beyond high school. Our families file into the auditorium and fill the seats, leaving the front middle section open for the impending prelude of graduates to fill. The graduates, dressed in caps and gowns, line up in our cafeteria upstairs about a half hour beforehand, and then process down the stairs and into the auditorium. The class officers lead the way.
On this night, Mrs. Kirsch asked our team of officers to step aside into the hallway for a moment, about 15 minutes before the procession was to begin…she had the biggest smile on her face. She quietly looked around and said, “Here you go…one last time.” She handed her lanyard with keys to us, and as tears started streaming down our faces, we gave her a hug and sprinted to the attic storage room where we would partake in our final visit as a family.
Months passed and friends slowly started moving away after graduation. One by one, it seemed like everyone was constructing a new path for their life. I was no different, and one steamy day in August found myself moving into the University of Notre Dame.
Fast forward to November of my freshman year, and I received a text from Mr. Kirsch, asking “Are you free today at 6:00?”
I replied that I was indeed free at 6, expecting a phone call that would eventually happen.
To my surprise, the next text changed everything; “Great. Mrs. K and I will be in the rear parking lot of your dorm and will take you out to dinner. See you then!”
I was astonished, especially because they lived four hours away. I called my family to tell them the news, and hurriedly finished my school work for the day. Also, I nervously sprinted around my room making sure it was presentable and put together – a very hard task for a college freshman. At 5:50pm, my phone rang and I found myself letting Mr. and Mrs. Kirsch into my dorm, giving them a tour, and ending in my freshman quad, where I had pictures, posters, and other college stuff adorning the walls and shelves. They commented about how exciting it was and how they loved the history. Then, Mrs. Kirsch asked if she could get a picture with me in front of my desk for her classroom, and I of course said yes.
That night we talked and caught up over dinner at a restaurant on campus; it seemed like nothing had changed - it was a remarkable evening.
In 2017, I would be interning in Washington, D.C. for most of June and July, but I had found some time to come home before then. I was outside mowing the grass on a hot and humid June afternoon, and I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. I stopped the push mower and answered. It was my mom, and she asked me to find a seat somewhere.
“Corey, I have some bad news to tell you.” I stayed silent.
“Mrs. Kirsch passed away today.”
I dropped the phone, turned the mower off, and just went inside and cried. I had only seen her a week before, as happy and joyful as ever.
In the days after that horribly sad and upsetting day, we planned a vigil at my high school and wrote cards to her family. I was heartbroken.
When I was considering what to do after graduating college, I thought about Mrs. Kirsch and her service to young moms in our hometown. She was one of my primary inspirations for joining ACE in serving kids and Catholic schools because she had such a profound impact on my life.
Recently, with the onset of the pandemic, I noticed a shift in the attitudes and mindsets of my students. For what at first seemed like a joyful and exciting new opportunity, later turned to Zoom fatigue, missed birthday parties, and missed end-of-year celebrations. Weeks of uneventful summers passed and my kids were stuck at home…as was I. I was supposed to be at Notre Dame for my final summer of ACE classes, but that plan was derailed and transitioned online. I joined my students in feeling the sadness and frustration of isolation amid a pandemic.
This school year also began online, but as I approached the start of this school year, I tried my best to focus on what my students needed most. When I would talk on the phone with their parents, there would be a consistent message: “Our kids miss their friends and are starting to become sad and tired from being stuck at home.”
Joy. The students needed joy and a reminder that not all was bad. As I started this year and tried my best to put a smile on my kids’ faces, whether it was self-deprecating humor, horror stories that helped teach hyperbole and personal narratives, or just catching up, I often thought to that moment before Baccalaureate with Mrs. Kirsch. She had turned my sad, final night of high school into one of my favorite memories. Now, I am tasked with turning this sad, isolating time of quarantine into some of my students’ favorite memories.
“Choose Joy” is a phrase that Mrs. Kirsch had posted everywhere, whether it was her keychain, kitchen wall, classroom, or even her email signature. At the time, it just seemed like a phrase. However, during this time of worry, stress, and isolation, I have come to understand that phrase differently. We are called to find the joy in our lives, but also to inspire and bring joy to those with us. The world needs more of it, and the people present in our lives are representatives of God gifting us the opportunity to spread joy.
I hope that I am living up to the expectations of Mrs. Kirsch’s lifelong master class on joy. I have much work to do to be the level of educator and mentor she was, but I know that I am on the right path with her life and work as my guide.
Learn more about how you can bring joy to Catholic schools across the country at ace.nd.edu/teach.