This morning, I learned that one of my high school teachers, Sister Marcyann Kowalczyk, lost her battle with cancer. Sr. Marcyann taught me European History during my sophomore year of high school.
You’re probably expecting me to say at this point that Sr. Marcyann was my favorite teacher, but the fact is that at the time, I couldn’t stand her. She not only scared the crap out of me—-she utterly terrified me. I was one of the smartest, most confident kids in my high school, but for an entire year I lived in abject fear of being called on by her, of being called out by her, and, worst, of failing her class. Sr. Marcyann managed to convince me that I didn’t know a single thing about European history and that, actually, I was a complete dumbass. As a result, I probably worked harder in that class than I did in almost any other class in high school, and probably harder than I worked in some of my college classes as well.
Part of what made Sr. Marcyann so terrifying is that you never knew what to expect from her. One day she came into class and said that we would have to give 5 minute talks, without notes, on some aspect of Gothic architecture during the next week. Another day she assigned 30 essays, a handful of which would appear on our next exam. She called on people at random and asked random, hard questions—and was very good at making you feel like an idiot if you didn’t know the answer. She gave current events quizzes (sometimes with warning, sometimes without) that could cover, literally, anything in the world, from what happened in Greece yesterday to the name of the prime minister of Zimbabwe. On one especially memorable test day, she strode into the room and announced that the test would be a “partner test”, and that we could choose our own partners. (It was an interesting lesson in sociology/economics, as you could see some kids immediately pair with their friends and others doing the mental calculation of “who’s the smartest person in the room”.) She didn’t sugarcoat anything—she was blunt, to the point, and had no compunction speaking her mind.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Sr. Marcyann prepared me better for college, for life, and for my current profession better than almost any other teacher I had before or since—and I’ve been fortunate to have had some truly excellent, inspirational teachers throughout my life. She taught me to think on my feet, which as an educator is probably the most valuable skill I possess. She taught me to think critically, to not make assumptions, to probe deeper into problems and facts to get the whole story. She taught me that it’s important to have both broad and deep knowledge of a subject. She was an amazing storyteller—I can still vividly remember her showing slides of Gothic architecture and weaving the incredible tales behind the building of that particular chapel, the politics and wars and personal struggles behind it, and being completely mesmerized. I could have listened to her stories for hours. When I travel in Europe, many years after the fact, I look at buildings and can tell what period they were built in and some of what was going on at the time, as well as pick out and name some of the architectural features—and this is without taking any European history since that class.
Of course, as soon as I got to college, I recognized that many of the things Sr. Marcyann forced us to do, kicking and screaming, were the very things that would help us succeed in college—knowing how to study a subject, how to take excellent notes, how to prepare for tests, how to identify and ask good questions, how to find and form study groups. The first time one of my professors handed out a list of essays for an upcoming exam, I smiled a secret smile—I’d done this already and knew the drill! I realized that she was so tough and demanding precisely because she cared so much about us and about us not just succeeding, but thriving beyond high school. And now that I’m an educator, when one of my former students sends me a note to say “I hated you when you made us do X, but now I do X every day in my job and I want to thank you”, I send a secret, silent thank-you to Sr. Marcyann for being such a great role model to me in this regard.
A few days ago, my high school posted a note on its Facebook page asking us to send cards and memories to Sr. Marcyann. I had actually started to draft a note to her saying much of what I’ve said in this post. I wish desperately now that I had taken the time earlier to do so, but somehow I sense that she will hear these words and know how much she meant to me, and to countless other SHA students.
RIP, Sr. Marcyann. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, from being such a terrifying, demanding, amazing teacher and human being. You are one of a kind and you will truly be missed.