ELMHURST — It is easy to assemble a “hall of fame” of great women with names like Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, and Mary, Mother of Jesus.
All appear in a special display put together by the student body of St. Adalbert Catholic Academy in Elmhurst, Queens. Among these famous women, it includes St. Adalbert’s middle school English teacher, Michele Curry Cardona.
The honorees’ photos are arranged to form a skirt on a mannequin whose top is a St. Adalbert fleece jacket, erected last month in honor of Women’s History Month.
Other famous women whose photos hang on the skirt of the mannequin, which still stands in the school’s lobby, include singer Ariana Grande, artist Frida Kahlo, actress and inventor Hedy Lamar, and Princess Diana.
And just how does Cardona fit into this collection of luminaries?
Each class, kindergarten through 8th grade, was tasked with picking three names for the skirt display. Eighth graders chose Pakistani human rights activist Malala Yousafzai Malik, Filipina pediatrics scientist Dr. Fe del Mundo — and Cardona, their homeroom teacher.
“It means everything to me that the kids think that highly of me,” she said when The Tablet visited her classroom on April 7. “I tried to dissuade them. I said, ‘No, no, not me.’ And they said, ‘Why not you?’ ”
Cardona said she loves helping the students “see what they can be.”
“They don’t realize what they are capable of,” she said. “If anything, they know I’m rooting for them.”
And that includes attending their athletic events and urging them to enter top high schools.
“I’m more than just their teacher,” she said. “I support them, encourage them. It’s so corny to say this, but when you love your job so much, it doesn’t feel like a job.”
Some of her students explained why they decided to pick their teacher to be honored.
“Ms. Cardona has just always been someone to talk to about things,” said student Elizabeth Meade. “She has been very inspiring in the things she says to us, and that helps us. We need that.”
Classmate Janna Pasia agreed. “It all really started as Elizabeth’s idea,” she said.
“When she first mentioned it, everybody here thought that it was a great idea, and we all really wanted to push through with it,” Pasia added.
Cardona, a lifelong resident of Elmhurst, has been a full-time teacher since 2016 at the school, which is affiliated with St. Adalbert’s Parish. She is a member there, and her two children graduated from the school.
Her son Austin will graduate next month from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Her daughter Gabriella is studying political science at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.
Cardona went to Dominican Commercial High School, an all-girls school in Jamaica that closed in 1998. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English and worked 10 years in publishing before becoming a stay-at-home mom.
When her children grew older, she became a substitute teacher at their school, St. Adalbert, which rekindled earlier thoughts about being a teacher. She joined the faculty full-time in 2016.
Principal Thomas Morris understands why the students sought to honor Cardona.
“She has a great nurturing approach in her classroom, and our students love her,” he said. “She knows how to work with them, and she knows how to help them reflect, Morris said. “It’s not all about punitive consequences. It’s like, ‘Okay, you made a mistake. Let’s talk about what happened and why it happened, what can we learn from this?’
“Her classroom is very much like a family. The kids feel very comfortable.”