Up Front and Personal

Teacher Told Students They Were Beautiful

By Priscilla DeMarinis

In observance of Catholic Schools Week, I would like to acknowledge my role model. She is neither an actress, sports figure, nor a politician; rather, she is a Dominican nun, Sister Mary William Posthauer, O.P., who taught at Dominican Commercial H.S., Jamaica, when I was a student there many years ago.

She taught English grammar, literature and Spanish; she also was the photographer for the yearbook, the Angelicus. During her grammar classes, we learned the difference between “lie” and “lay,” and “farther” and “further.” We knew that we should never end a sentence with a preposition. Even now, when I hear someone in the media make a grammatical error, I can’t help but wonder what sister would think!

As an aside to her teaching, she would philosophize. One day, she ventured the opinion that “All teenagers are pretty.” Having been a chubby teen, surrounded by classmates who also had low self-esteem, this was good news. How kind of sister to think this way! Just knowing that she was an ego booster, made it easier to tackle the sometimes-ponderous Shakespeare plays and to ultimately enjoy and discuss the plots of all those Charles Dickens novels.

If a correction of someone’s behavior was in order, she never raised her voice but gently persuaded a change (after all, God was on her side). We learned that children do feel more secure when limits are set for them.

I have always believed that the effectiveness of a teacher could be evidenced by her students’ desire to please her and to excel in the subjects she taught. So when sister asked for volunteers to type for the yearbook after classes, my girlfriend, Felicia and I, were there. Our typing skills were questionable, but we were welcomed and encouraged. Our typing improved as we spent extra time with our favorite teacher. Her acceptance of us was just the ticket to our achievements.

All too quickly, as graduation approached, it was time to say goodbye, but we took with us her gifts, which kept on giving.

Three years ago, I was privileged to attend a breakfast at which Sister Mary William was honored by the Benincasa Family Services organization for her life’s work. Standing before us was the woman I had admired and respected for all of my adult life. At age 95, and afflicted with macular degeneration, she stood tall before us and spoke about the events in her blessed life. Even at her advanced age and with her diminished sight, she was teaching Spanish to a group of adults who resided at the Dominican Village Assisted Living Facility. What a remarkable woman and what a beautiful day it was for thanksgiving.

Last summer, I visited my favorite teacher, then 98 years old and retired. She was a resident at the Holy Rosary facility in Amityville, L.I. I sat quietly and held her hand, and I had one more opportunity to thank her for my splendid education. We didn’t speak much, but in the beautiful silence, I knew she understood my gratitude.

For the past 30 years, I have worked in a New York City elementary school and I am happy to say that I feel toward our students the way Sister Mary William felt about each one of us.