Dear Mrs. Connolly,
I’ve been putting off writing this letter for a while now. Because you see, even though I know you’re about to retire from teaching religion at my children’s school, and even though I’m extremely happy for you, I want to bury my head in my pillow and deny, deny, deny that you are leaving us.
I still remember the day that we met a few years ago. It was spring time, and my family was getting ready to move to Houston from Minnesota. We were looking at Episcopal schools, and our little rising first grader had the opportunity to spend part of a day in the classroom while I took a tour. The admissions staff introduced me to you, and you smiled when I told you where my husband would be working, at an Episcopal church nearby. You invited me to look around your classroom, and I did. I noticed the map of Israel and how it was placed inside a map of Texas to show its scale. I noticed that everything could be accessible to little learning hands. I mostly noticed a calm peacefulness in your classroom that day, and I think it had a lot to do with you.
You may not have known that day that I was nervous. I wasn’t anxious about admissions or academics, or even fitting in – although maybe I should have been thinking about those things. I was thinking about your religion class, and how it would fit into our faith life. Because my family is full of priests, we spend a lot of time thinking about theology, and I see my husband’s hard work in unraveling some sticky points of theology that people learned as children. I’ve seen how a harmful message can hurt a child for the rest of their lives, and I’ve seen how a hopeful message can change their lives forever, too. I held my breath as I entered your classroom, not knowing if I’d be undoing or reinforcing the lessons my children learned there. I quickly learned that I’d be learning more from them than they would from me, because of the questions they asked that were planted in your classroom. There would be no undoing of harmful messages here – only God’s love and forgiveness. You not only taught them this love, you showed it to them every day.
A few months after we moved to Houston, both of my children, even my shy, reticent preschooler, had taken a liking to you. Who could blame them? You told them wonderful stories, and you loved them. They knew right away that you loved them. You folded intricate origami designs with them. One day, my eldest took a little origami creation out of his backpack and began to weep because it had been crushed by his books and his lunch box. I was heartbroken for him, and I was touched at how special it was to him. Clearly, this was an important gift. The next day, I related the incident to you, and I asked if you could show me how to make the origami thing to replace it. You told me that it was a special prize won in your class, and you not only replaced it, you made more origami for him. Intricate stars and delicate little boxes – special prizes that I knew came from you. At Christmas time, I found an origami nativity scene in his backpack, and I knew what loving care you took to make it. It is carefully tucked away with our other Christmas decorations, and we get it out every year. These unexpected little treasures are little bits of grace tucked away for us to find. We don’t deserve them and we didn’t earn them. We are just grateful for them.
In summer time, you came to our church to volunteer for Vacation Bible School (or, as we call it, a Very Big Story), and you helped and sang and crafted and played. Even after month after month of spending time with children, we were so touched that you wanted to sign up for more. After seeing it in use at our church, you found a place for The Jesus Storybook Bible in your own curriculum, and you used it to share God’s Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love.
The next year, our eldest son found a buddy. I was relieved and overjoyed that he seemed to click with a kid in his class, in a way that I hadn’t seen him click with anyone else. “He needed someone who sees the world in the same way he does,” you noticed. That kind of profound insight doesn’t come from simply instructing students. It comes from loving them. You modeled God’s Always and Forever Love to my children, and I am deeply grateful.
The tiny acolyte vestments and miniature crucifix will not be the same in chapel services without you, but I will mostly miss your lovely homilies. When you speak to the children, I often feel like you’re speaking to me, too, and your message is accessible while still being relevant and fresh. I know how rare that is, and I will miss it.
And so, Mrs. Connolly, you have earned a hard-won rest in your retirement. Rest your origami-loving fingers, but please don’t ever stop showing the rest of us how much God loves us. Please know how much you are loved, and how much you will be missed. I hope you will still read the Jesus Storybook Bible and think of us.
With much love and gratitude,