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St. Ann School teachers cross generations

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A teacher stands in front of her preschoolers, imagining what their lives will be like when they grow up. The possibilities are endless — nurses, doctors and even teachers. A quiet 3-year-old, Julia Paegle, sits in class. What does her teacher imagine for her?

Donna Lucchesi, a former teacher at St. Ann School in Arlington, only has to look as far as her sixth-grade daughter’s class to know what became of that shy 3-year-old — Paegle now teaches her daughter, Gemma.

Lucchesi also taught Emily O’Keefe, another teacher at St. Ann’s. 

Does Paegle feel nervous she’s going to be judged by Gemma telling Lucchesi what she says?

“Sometimes,” Paegle said. “I sometimes think about it and wonder if Mrs. Lucchesi ever thought that one of her preschoolers would eventually be teaching her daughter, however many years later. It blows your mind.”

Lucchesi finds it a lesson for her daughter. “I think it is really unique for Gemma to see how wonderful these young women have turned out, and just to know that I was a small piece of that, is incredible,” she said tearing up. “It doesn’t always happen. I could help build their foundation and now it comes around to them building it for (Gemma). That’s special.”

Something about the place brought Paegle and O’Keefe back to St. Ann’s.

“Something that is so different about St. Ann’s is we are so small and the teachers allow the students to facilitate relationships and strong bonds,” said Paegle. “Coming back here was like home. I never thought about teaching here. It happened because it was supposed to happen. It’s surreal.”

O’Keefe swears it was divine intervention. She was living in Houston and didn’t like it. “I said the only thing that would make it worth picking up and moving again would be if I could get a job at St. Ann’s,” she said. “A position was open for second grade. Within a week I got an interview. It happened exactly as it was supposed to happen.”

Principal Mary Therrell said to have people come back who want to teach here means “somebody did something right years ago to give them the desire to teach back at their own Catholic school,” she said. “I love it that the Holy Spirit provides for these opportunities to allow that to happen.”

O’Keefe said teaching at a Catholic school provides the opportunity to not mask the values they want to teach. “You are taught to be a good person because that’s the way Jesus taught us to behave toward one another,” she said. “It’s a very direct way of teaching virtues and values that can get clouded or masked elsewhere.”

The focus on service impacted Paegle, a Peace Corps volunteer in Rwanda (2015-17), where she taught English literature and communication skills to  seventh- through 10th-graders. “I didn’t even think I had to volunteer. It’s something you do. You help others,” she said. “I hope that our students are learning that now.”

“The beauty of a Catholic school is its focus on the human being and not the amount of information they can retain,” said Therrell.

O’Keefe remembers more than the teaching techniques from teachers such as Lucchesi. “The things you remember are the emotional connections and the obvious care and love the teachers have for the students,” she said. “That’s what sticks with you, not the reading groups and worksheets.”

One of the emotional connections O’Keefe shared with Lucchesi came when O’Keefe’s father was going in for heart surgery. O’Keefe was scheduled to read the petitions that week.

“Mrs. Lucchesi wrote a special petition for me to read. It made a scary time less scary because I knew that she was looking out for me and I knew the community was praying for my dad,” she said. “Little acts of kindness like that are what make a Catholic school different. You have more opportunities to do things like that and make people feel like their faith matters and that there are people and God looking out for you in scary times.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018