The Burlington Hawk-Eye
The Hawk Eye
Gift of Love Returned
When we moved to Burlington 12 years ago next month, among all the other problems of relocation, was concerned about a little girl named Mariann who would be 6 years old in September.
She should have been starting the first grade at Blackhawk School. Only she couldn't, because she'd never been to kindergarten. The rural school district, in which we'd lived in Kansas, didn't have one.
But to start her in kindergarten here would not only condemn her forever to being a year behind her age group; but also, with five older brothers and a teacher mother, she'd already been educated beyond her tender years. We were afraid she'd be bored silly in kindergarten and thus become a problem student. Furthermore, she was big for her age, and we worried about her psyche, towering over her kindergarten classmates.
We took our troubles to school officials during the summer. They were sympathetic but reluctant. There were rules to be followed. And, anyway, don't all parents think their children are exceptional?
It was finally agreed that Mariann would enroll in kindergarten, but that she would be watched and tested for six weeks and if, in the opinion of the teachers at Blackhawk, she qualified for first grade, she would be moved up.
Such arrangements, however well intentioned, can get lost in the bureaucratic bustle, and this one might have, too, had it not been for a remarkable woman, first grade teacher Margaret Ireland. She took it on herself personally to monitor Mariann's progress in kindergarten, and then to move her into her first grade class at the end of the six weeks, and to guide her through the year.
When Margaret Ireland died two years ago last Friday, it was a loss to education and to this community; but it was a very special loss to our family, which has special reason to remember her today.
Mariann's lack of kindergarten was only one problem. She also had a serious speech defect, something, the doctors said, to do with an abnormal palate. This handicap, with its physical and psychological burdens, hung like a shadow over her young life and we'd desperately been seeking help before we moved to Burlington.
We found it here, in Terry Strothers, another priceless part of this community's educational system. Strothers, who triumphed over his own speech defect to become an accomplished singer, as well as an effective therapist, not only had a special rapport with his pupils, but was a shining example for them as well.
When he'd exhausted all his resources with Mariann, he turned to those of the University of Iowa, arranging for testing and therapy and eventually a surgical correction of the palate.
The summer she was eight, she went to the university for special classes, bravely leaving home to live in a dormitory there with other handicapped children.
It is bad enough for parents to see a hulking teenager go off to college for the first time; it wrenches your heart when you send a little 8-year-old away, imaging her terrors.
Back in Burlington she attended more classes at Hope Haven, benefiting from the dedicated teachers there; and, in her association with others who are handicapped, absorbing knowledge and forming attitudes about life and love and people that parents and teachers alone cannot hope to instill.
The irregular beginning had been forgotten, the speech difficulty had faded into the background, and more prominent became her accelerating success in whatever she tackled, accompanied always by unrelenting persistence and self-discipline so severe it sometimes made me uneasy.
And always it was some teacher she would talk of, with love and awe, spreading out to others the gratitude first planted in her by Margaret Ireland and Terry Strothers. Mildred Riepe, more than anyone else, opened the worlds of reading and writing.
When she transferred from city schools to Notre Dame High, she matured into a new dimension, set free by the inspired guidance of Principal Dave Walker, and challenged by both the teaching and the love of a set of vibrant and liberated young nuns, Sister Laurinda, Sister Charles, Sister Ann.
When our house burned down at Christmas time, shattering her perhaps more than the rest of us, she turned to her Sisters for comfort. It did not even seem unusual that her journalism teacher, Mary Jo Deuscher, turned her whole wardrobe over to Mariann.
This afternoon, at Notre Dame, the little girl who almost didn't get into the first grade, and who had such difficulty talking, now a tall and confident woman, and the valedictorian of her class, will stand up and deliver the commencement address.
We are proud, but more than that we are thankful, for her, but even more to all those whose efforts and love made this day for her.
We can accept their gift without guilt because she had been taught in such a way that there is no question she will repay it all. She is already beginning.
Before she enrolls at the University of Iowa in the fall, she will spend the summer in the hills of southwest Missouri as a missionary with the Sisters of Notre Dame, among the old and the poor, giving back to them some small measure of what Margaret Ireland and Terry Strothers, and all the others, have given to her.
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