Thursday, May 10, 2012

Father Ryan

Home was awful. My mother was always working.  This was in sharp contrast to everyone else I knew. In fact I didn't know a single other kid whose mother worked outside the home.  All the moms I saw from 8th grade on were alien beings who played tennis, lunched at "the club," shopped and then dressed for dinner.  

My mom left early in the morning for the drycleaners that was 45 minutes away (unless there was traffic or trouble) and came home always after seven.  My sister, the oldest  and 7½ years my senior who used to be in charge, had discovered boys and got married right out of high school to escape.  My brother was usually in one jam or another, one juvenile detention center or another (usually out of state) and that left me with an embittered father who was the life of the party at “functions” but a pent-up steam cooker ready to explode with little notice. I stayed out of his way. I stayed at school. I loved school. Everyone there seemed relatively sane and sometimes even gentle and caring.  Like Father Ryan.
He was really just Mr. Ryan, not a priest.

A sweet, soft-spoken older man who taught English, Mr. Ryan  was a ruddy complected Irishman who had trained in the seminary to become a priest (or so the story was told) and instead got married and ended up teaching high school English.  He spent his days trying to drum into us an appreciation of the Greeks and Shakespeare and the canon of literature instead of biblical verses.  Both seemed quite far removed from my angst-ridden life.  Mr. Ryan wanted your respect but he was respectful to you as well.

I was a talker.  School was my everything and there weren’t enough hours in the day to get in all the conversation and attention and gossip that would soon be gone when I took the bus back to the silence and tension of my home.  I relished what was going on in everyone’s life and wanted to connect with my classmates, learn more about what seemed to be their easy-going lives, and if lucky, be invited for dinner to see what it was like living in a “normal” family.

One day in English, when it had been the umpteenth time that Mr. Ryan asked me to stop whispering in class and pay attention, he got so ruffled that he said something about me being “Io’s gadfly” and threw the blackboard eraser he was holding in my direction. 

I was as startled as everyone else in class because it was so completely out of character for him to do something like that, so unexpected, shocking even. In a split-second, I felt completely and utterly terrible. 

Slowly, his ruddy cheeks reddened even more and his voice dropped even lower than its usual hush. 

“I apologize for my outburst.” he said with great humility.  “That was inappropriate and I can’t think why I did that.” He sat down on the edge of a desk.

And then the words that struck the hardest, “Please forgive me.” 

Mr. Ryan was a wonderful teacher who cared about me, listened to me, welcomed my contributions to class. This was the teacher who came up to me after class one day when I was wearing my new deep purple sweater dress and with a smile told me (in that hushed voice) that my long dark wavy hair and royal purple dress reminded him of Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor!) in Ivanhoe.  He was a sweet, kind human being.  Without meaning to, I had been disrespectful, had disappointed him, but it soon became evident that the deeper disappointment was the disappointment he felt in himself. 

I felt myself sink into the chair for having caused this awful feeling in him and me.  It was as if I had taken a club and dealt him a blow to the head.

“It was my fault!” I said quickly, trying to lessen his embarrassment.  “Honestly, you warned me over and over.  I shouldn’t have been talking!”

But he had his head down and it seemed there was no consoling him. Mr. Ryan was someone who greatly prided himself on self-control — this lapse seemed more than he could bear.  I sensed he was headed to confession and I put him in this state of sin. 

I felt terrible. I wished I were Catholic so I could say some catechism or novella or novena, or whatever it was that Catholics said. Something that would exonerate both of us. 

The bell rang.  No one moved.  He said without looking up. “Class dismissed.”

This was an odd sort of reversal that made me quite uncomfortable. Usually, it was me being disappointed in the adults around me. I had done something that caused this beloved teacher to be disappointed in himself. I thought I would cry. I just didn’t know how to handle this situation. 

I went up to his desk.
“Please don’t be so hard on yourself, Mr. Ryan, it was totally my fault. I am so sorry. You need to forgive ME — not the other way around.”

“There is nothing to forgive my child.  Now go to your class.”

As I exited the room I wasn’t sure if this would change our relationship, change the way he interacted with me, but in an awful sort of way I felt something new — for one of the first times in my life, in an incident with an adult, I wasn't the victim.  

And that may have been the greatest lesson Father Ryan ever taught me.


  1. Clinging to my religion and guns........... BobMay 10, 2012 at 11:23 AM

    my teachers told me i would never go to collage.
    I made it a point to take graduate courses toward my masters after i receive a BS ......... My Uncle, who made the USA Olympic team in gymnastics i owe a lot, and made a big difference.

  2. Great story. Being Catholic, I can say that Mr. Ryan is probably a better person than some priests!

  3. One of my favorite teachers was Miss Hudson who taught me Geometry at Northern Highlands High School in the late '60's. She was young, sharp and tough, but I learned to love Geometry under her instruction. I remember that she had a very smart approach to teaching. She started out by seeming really serious and strict. She let us know the rules and the consequences of not following them. She treated us like adults, which we were in the process of becoming at that age. Then as we took her seriously and the classroom became a good learning environment, she began to relax, smile and even laugh a bit. We actually began to enjoy her, her teaching style and we learned well. That's a good teacher!