Monday, December 27, 2010

Mrs. Walsh

It was about 8 Am that morning.  As was my routine, I had attended the 7 AM Mass and was in the schoolyard waiting for the students to arrive. The children seemed happy, and as usual, some of them were playing and running.  The teacher on yard duty could be heard telling students to take the gum out of their mouths or to stop running.  I would often thank God that we as teachers in this Catholic school had only to deal with such minor offenses.  One of the male teachers who taught the sixth grade had recently told me that he came from a public school where some of the students would try to trip him on the stairs, a few would throw books at him when he turned to write on the blackboard, and that some even were caught carrying weapons to class. 

The school principal was walking toward me that morning, and the expression on his face was serious.  He looked that way once when he was to inform me that one of my students had been accused by the parent of a second grader of stealing the younger boy's Game Boy from his book bag.  But what happened this time was different and could have been a tragedy.  He said that yesterday afternoon a group of boys in my class were playing ball in the schoolyard.  An elderly parishioner, Mrs. Walsh, had been walking through the schoolyard to go into church when the boys, apparently focused on their game and not seeing her, knocked her to the ground.  She was in the hospital undergoing surgery for a fractured hip. I knew this was an accident, and the boys didn't mean to hurt her, but I also knew the seriousness of a hip fracture in the frail and elderly, and I felt terrible.  

We started the day with routine morning prayers, and I asked that we pray for a special intention for an elderly lady from the parish who needed to have an operation because she had fallen and broken her hip. When they were seated, I asked them, and the boys involved told me what happened.  I said that Mrs. Walsh would not have fallen in the schoolyard if they had not been there playing ball.  They had been told that they were not to play in the school yard after school.  I was disappointed that they did not seem at all remorseful.  One even said in an offhand manner,  "It was only an accident."  "Yeah," said another.  I proceeded to tell them the implications of a broken hip, and quite frankly, that as a result the woman they had caused to fall could even die.  "This elderly woman could have been your grandmother," I said.  Gradually, I saw they were starting to understand, and a few of the boys even began to cry.  They said they were sorry and that they hoped she would be OK.  I asked them what they thought we could do now to help Mrs. Walsh.  "Pray for her."  "Buy her flowers."  "We can make her Get Well cards."  I said we would do all three things.

We spent the entire Religion period making Get Well cards for Mrs. Walsh.  The children took out their art boxes and I passed out colorful construction paper for them to make the nicest possible cards for her.  They took out markers, crayons, scissors, scotch tape, and paste, and also special materials such as, ribbons, glitter glue, stickers, foil stars in various colors, ink stamps of Disney characters and little animals, and holy cards. One of the girls shared white paper doilies with other girls, and someone passed around a hole puncher that would make heart and star-shaped holes in their one-of-a-kind Get Well cards.  I saw one boy attach to his card his own brown scapular that he had worn around his neck under his shirt.  (The Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel consists of two small rectangular pieces of brown woolen cloth attached by a cord to be worn around the neck.  On the cloth is an image of Our Lady holding the Baby Jesus, and under the image, a promise of Our Lady to those who wear the Brown Scapular piously:  "Whoever dies wearing this (brown) scapular shall not suffer eternal fire.  Mary's promise.")  Some of the children were writing notes on loose-leaf paper and pasting them into their cards.  There were lots of red and pink cut-out hearts with arrows going through them and declarations of love.  Usually during an art period, the children were animated and cheerful.  This time, they were very quiet, seriously going about their work of doing something good for Mrs. Walsh.

I wish I had made copies of the children's cards before sending them on to Mrs. Walsh at the hospital.  But I do remember two of them distinctly. Joel, the boy with the scapular, had written:  "I hope you don't die, but in case you do, put this on so at least you won't go to hell."  Roy put this note on his card:  "Adam and Eve didn't listen to their leader and they fell.  We didn't listen to our teacher, and you fell.  I hope you get well."   

Mrs. Walsh did get well.  In fact, a priest from St. Vincent Ferrer, Fr. O'Connell, was kind enough to take me to her home to pay her a visit when she was recuperating.  She was soft-spoken and frail.  She thanked our class for the prayers and flowers, and the "wonderful cards".  We sat in her living room and spoke a while, when I noticed an old black and white photograph in a small frame on one of the end tables.  It was a little boy, maybe ten years old, about the age of my students, but apparently it had been taken a long time ago.  The boy looked familiar, and the picture seemed as if it could have come from one of my own family albums as it had the look of old photographs my parents had taken of me and my brothers in the late fifties and early sixties.  My attention kept being drawn to that picture. Mrs. Walsh must have seen me looking at it, and she said, "That's my nephew when he was a boy," and said his name.  Upon hearing it, I immediately recognized the name.  We had been classmates from first through eighth grade at Little Flower School.  "He was in my class at Little Flower when I was little," I said.  Mrs. Walsh said, "What a coincidence."

Some years passed, and we had a new school principal.  One morning she came to the door of my classroom with a small black book in her hand.  It was a St. Joseph Daily missal.  She said that an elderly woman from the parish had passed away, and the book belonged to her. It had been left among some other effects in her office to distribute to anyone who might want them.  She said, "I couldn't think of anyone but you who would want this old book."  I attended the Traditional Latin Mass in Brooklyn where I used one just like it and appreciated having another since original pre-Vatican II missals were hard to find. I opened the book, and inside, Mrs. Walsh had written her name.  I did not know that she had passed away and was learning it for the first time.  I didn't tell the principal what I knew about Mrs. Walsh, the accident years back in the schoolyard, and her nephew having been in my class, but simply thanked her for the book.  Perhaps, one day, she may come across my blog and read about it.  Wouldn't that be a coincidence?

Joan Virzera

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