By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
ELKINS PARK – Kids tend not to forget the lessons they learned in Nancy Menno’s second grade class at St. James School in Elkins Park.
Take, for example, the young lady in a sophomore Scripture class at Mount St. Joseph Academy in Flourtown.
“Does anyone know who Zacchaeus was?” the teacher asked.
At first no one answered, but the young lady raised her hand and said she could sing about him. She sang what she learned eight years earlier, even though there were no props, for example a kid standing on a chair.
“Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus, come down from that tree.
Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus, no need to hide from me.
I know what you have done,
I know what you can be.”
Menno has spent an entire teaching career in second grade, about 35 years, and the Zacchaeus rhyme, complete with hand gestures, is one of the learning tools that has been part of it.
In most Catholic elementary schools, sacramental preparation is a significant part of second grade. Menno has been preparing little children for first penance and first holy Communion at St. James for the past three decades. Before that she taught at St. John the Baptist School in Manayunk for four years, she subbed at SS. Cosmas and Damian School in Conshohocken and during college at Chestnut Hill she student taught at Immaculate Heart of Mary School in Philadelphia’s Andorra section.
Over the years, probably close to 1,000 children have been prepared for the sacraments by her. It wasn’t that she deliberately chose second grade, that’s just the way it happened, and maybe she thinks it was what God intended her to do.
St. James School will close this year, and Menno hasn’t yet been able to connect with a new school. Even though she’s a bit nervous about that she has absolutely no regrets about her decision to devote a career to Catholic education. Sure there could have been more money elsewhere, but if she had doubts, she remembered her father’s question, “Do you love what you are doing?”
“I fell in love with 7 and 8-year olds,” she said. “I love their innocence, and the greatest thing is preparing them for reconciliation and holy Eucharist. It’s not a challenge because their faith is so strong. It’s humbling. I feel the same way every year. I’ve brought these children down the road. I feel honored doing it.”
Some of her friends tell her they can’t wait to retire, but she feels just the opposite.
“I’ve been doing what I love to do for 35 years. I wake up in the morning and want to go to work knowing an 8-year-old will make me laugh today. We can learn a lot from them.”
It’s not just the children, often she’ll meet her former students as adults. “Sometimes I see that second-grader in them, but it is amazing watching them grow to mature, successful adults,” she said.
Although there are a lot of challenges in education today, and Menno doesn’t know what will come next for her, she has advice for young teachers.
“It’s the greatest profession you could ever find, but do it because you love children. Definitely love the children. You are not there for any other reason.”
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.