SERVING OUR VETERANS: Memories of Mrs. O’Leary
I have always made a conscious effort to not write about much personal information in my column. I will set aside that effort today.
I grew up on a small farm in west central Minnesota and attended all twelve grades of my early education in the same school building in Graceville, Minnesota. Mrs. Mary O’Leary was my sixth grade teacher during the 1964-65 school years. No, she was not the famous Mary O’Leary whose milk cow kicked over the lantern and started the great Chicago fire of 1871. My teacher, Mrs. O’Leary, was also the mayor of Barry, a very small town six miles to the west of Graceville. So, she was Mrs. Mary O’Leary, Mayor of Barry. I always thought that had a nice ring to it. By the time I entered sixth grade, Mrs. O’Leary had been teaching many years. At the time, she seemed quite old and stern to me. But, thinking about it now, she was probably younger than I am today. I believe one of her goals as a sixth grade teacher was to prepare her students for moving on up to the less restrictive structure of the junior and senior high levels. To make this transition successful, she felt it very important that her students become self-motivated, disciplined, and develop good study habits. As with most elementary teachers in those days, she taught all classes from math to science to English to history to music. She would get to her class room early and write down many different questions and problems on the black board. Before the first class of the day started, her students were expected to come into the classroom early as well and work quietly on these problems rather than loitering in the hall or playground. Although stern, even then I could tell she was a very kind and caring person who truly wanted all her students to be successful. Although now gone, she has always been one of my top five teachers who had the greatest educational impact on me.
Mrs. O’Leary not only prepared her students for academics but important life lessons as well. She taught us about working together, caring for one another, getting along with each other through mutual respect and resolving our differences. And she taught us about love of our country and patriotism. One of the responsibilities of the sixth grade boys was to put up and take down the United States flag each day. She taught us how to fold the flag and do the raising and lowering in a respectful way. Along with this, she also told us that we should always stop what we were doing, come to attention with our right hand over our heart, whenever we saw our flag being raised or lowered. I remember one boy telling her he felt kind of weird doing this as not all the students would follow suit. To this day, I still remember Mrs. O’Leary’s response to this remark, “Never feel embarrassed or ashamed to show that you are an American and you love your country.” These words left an indelible impression on me which I carry to this day.
Like all of her generation, Mrs. O’Leary had lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and the Korean War. The Vietnam War was just beginning to escalate. She understood the meaning of sacrifice and lives lost for the freedom and democracy we have as American citizens. In desperate times, she had witnessed the hope our flag instilled, she had witnessed the flag- draped caskets of those who had paid the ultimate price, and she took none of these things for granted.
I am presently employed by several school districts in the local area as a substitute teacher. I have observed that in some schools all the students begin the day by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance together over the PA system. In some schools, each classroom says it on their own. In some schools, I guess it must be left to the individual teacher, as the Pledge is not said at all. I think Mrs. O’Leary would be quite disappointed. I am sure it was her goal, besides academic learning, a teacher’s responsibility, along with parents, was to include lessons on the importance of patriotism, duty, and love of country. I feel we sure could use more teachers like Mrs. O’Leary today.
So, thank you Mrs. Mary O’Leary, Mayor of Barry, for all the life lessons you taught me. May God continue to bless your memory and grant us the willingness to share your message of our love for our country, as you so nobly demonstrated to your students.
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