Helene Ciaravino

Coming Home

I was one of those students who spent my entire childhood at St. Patrick’s School—from kindergarten, all the way through eighth grade. Completing almost a decade of my early life there, I cannot help but feel that I am coming home when I walk into the halls of the original building. And I did that recently, when my husband Tom and I enrolled our two children at St. Patrick’s. Our six-year-old daughter and five-year-old son will now have the privilege of nurturing their intellects, spirituality, and sense of community at the school where I learned to read a novel, write an essay, do basic algebra, speak from a stage, play an instrument, march in a parade, and double-dutch for Sports Night. I couldn’t be more pleased.

It is no small thing that my family—who sent my two sisters and I through St. Patrick’s School, Our Lady of Mercy Academy, and then Georgetown University—stayed in touch with our kindergarten teacher until her death. When we went to visit Sr. Margaret McCance at the Amityville retirement community for religious, she took out cards she had recently gotten from former students. Sr. Margaret sent so many of her “families” birthday cards for countless years, and we noted how she received the same love back. Her kids wanted to check in with her again, send her the update, ask for a prayer, let her know she was a part of the lives she had helped to sculpt. Sr. Margaret was a “sister” in every sense of the word, guiding her students with a firm but loving hand. The classroom in which she taught is still a kindergarten room today—on the second floor. It was there that I began to understand phonics and participate in class discussions. Little did I know how much reading, writing, and speaking would become part of my professional life.

During the time I attended St. Patrick’s, the current cafeteria was the gym, the library was the stage, the art room was the computer room, and the computer room was the music room. Everything has shifted, but when I walk up those wide staircases, I flash back to giggling with my two best friends as we trudged up to the third floor, in single file and to the right. The brown- paper covered textbooks awaited us. Although I graduated from St. Patrick’s way back in 1986, small associations that a child would make still stand out in my mind: Mrs. Cummings’ pretzel- stick prizes for the row who behaved the best per week; Miss Grasso’s warm smile and beautiful heels as she walked a student across Main Street; Miss Rose’s colored chalk and resident skeleton, the latter of which was as much a classmate as the rest of us; Mrs. Ekis’ impressively bright mind and impossibly glossy nails that impressed me to no end, not to mention her strawberry hair, which matched my own mother’s; Sr. Rose’s “St. Thomas Aquinas” prayer, which I can still recite today, and those mystery aquariums that piled around the back lab tables; Mr. O’Connor’s gavel, which we gave him as a Christmas present so that he could keep “order in the court”; Mrs. Chesterton’s first name, Regina, which I took for Confirmation; Fr. Tom Fusco’s summer Bible school at which all the eighth-graders truly wanted to volunteer, because F!r. Tom was so invigorating and inspiring. I could go on and on.

Life was different back then. Catholic Daughters would fund-raise at the school by selling boiled hot dogs on Thursdays. Eighth graders would sometimes “go downtown” on Fridays, leaving the school and heading toward the public library, where we would drop our bags, change our clothes, and go store-hopping for a few hours. We’d buy candy at Sweet Temptations and check out the bins full of cheap treasures at B & Ds. Life was simple, but we didn’t know that. We thought we had it all, and I suppose we did.

My love of creativity and writing started at St. Patrick’s. We were always encouraged to write: cards for Father’s Day, poems and essays for contests, book reports on The Outsiders and The Pig Man. I continued to consume poetry and prose, both writing and reading them, throughout high school and college. I earned a BA in English and an MA in British and American literature from Georgetown University by the mid-90s. Then I entered the publishing industry, becoming an editor for a medium-sized publishing house on Long Island. After several years, I enrolled at Fordham Law School. Yet after moving into NYC and completing only Orientation Week, I knew that law school didn’t feel right for me. I gave up my spot and decided to see where life took me. The next day, my former publishing boss called. He was starting a brand new publishing house, Square One Publishers, and contracted me to write two books for him.

I completed one book on the poetry publishing industry, and then another that studied four different cultural approaches to prayer: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist. This time of research and writing in NYC was also a time of great spiritual focus for me. I looked inward and found that teaching—literature and writing—was my calling. So by the time I hit my late twenties, I left publishing for teaching at Our Lady of Mercy Academy, which I absolutely enjoyed. I had so much fun with my girls in the classroom. Whether I was appearing as Ben Franklin to share his clever aphorisms in American Literature or discussing the ways that ethnicity and gender shape our identities in College Writing, I cherished my time in the classroom with young women who were spirited and inquisitive.

I stopped teaching to have my two children and spend their first few years with them at home. During that time, I managed our small business—Night Sky Educational Services—which my husband had started years prior. We send science-oriented programs to schools across Long Island. So I continued to be associated with education in that way, as well as through free-lance tutoring and editing.

And now I find a new chapter opening, as I return to OLMA as an English teacher once again. I continue to work on creative writing projects on the side—I have about three book projects that continually float around in my mind, and I scribble down lines, here and there, when I can. In the meantime, I’ll be back at St. Pat’s, watching my own children receive their First Communion, act in their first school play, and learn how to write an effective essay. They’ll be telling time and counting money before I know it. It’s amazing to me how very much things change, but what’s even more amazing to me is how very much the important things stay the same.

Thank you to Mrs. Jennifer Larson, a former classmate of mine, who has kept our alumni connected and has given me this opportunity to share my reflection on St. Patrick’s School.

(February 2015)