Learning to Grow

Written By: Susan Walker-Spring

I didn’t want my children to attend Stella Maris, not that year, anyway. I mean, I’m not even Catholic, although I do appreciate the idea of inviting God along into the classroom rather than relegating him to some peripheral, take-him-out-and-dust-him-off-on-Sunday spot in life. I had nothing against the school; in fact, all three of my kids had attended pre-school there, so I knew what I was saying no to, and it was definitely not lack of educational quality. It was more a matter of separation, both geographic and emotional, a distance from the East End that I desperately needed.

The kids and I had just moved from a rental in Bridgehampton to a sunny, airy home in East Moriches, around the corner from both my pediatric office and the house I grew up in and in which my parents still live. My ongoing divorce had become messy, as these things often do when intimidation is involved. I had chosen to go home, dreaming of a new start close to all things comforting and familiar. Unfortunately, that new start was complicated by a protracted battle with my children’s father that to my dismay I was not winning. So, there we were that September, fighting the 27-east traffic at the merge by the Lobster Inn along with the plumbers, framers, and the rest of the trade parade. It was our daily trek to school in Sag Harbor, eating breakfast bars in the car, singing to the radio, and praying for the strength to endure.

At the time I had no idea how badly I needed that strength, how much worse things would become. Suffice it to say that our tenure in East Moriches was brief, our forced return to the Hamptons swift and painful. The following months were a whirlwind of relocation, putting my house on the market, negotiating custody and a settlement to end my marriage and intermittently falling on my knees begging God to please fix this situation the way I thought it should be fixed. As it turned out, God had better plans for us, plans that included Stella Maris.

The school became a constant in our lives when everything else was anything but. The teachers were at the door every morning, welcoming each child by name, encouraging them to view learning as an opportunity rather than an obligation. The students got along with and genuinely cared for each other. Children with special needs were embraced rather than ostracized by their peers. The education was superior, as evidenced by standardized test scores well above the national average. Stella was a warm and friendly place, a place where you would hear people say “God”, without the requisite “oh my” preceding it, a place where you could learn and pray and cry and fall apart and be accepted anyway.

Oh yeah, did I mention that it was great for the kids, too?

There was the teacher who, noticing my daughter’s sadness, offered her a quiet, safe space in her classroom and a journal to express her feelings.

There were the children in the second grade book club I taught, young and fresh and excited, acting as if leaving their classroom to read with me was a privilege for them when in reality the privilege was mine.

There were the children in my middle school girls’ club, playing with each other’s hair and giggling about the boys in their class and then blowing me away with some insightful comment on the book we were discussing.

There was “morning prayer”, during which principal Janie Peters opened each school day with her faith and her guitar and her staunch belief in her students’ potential. There were the children singing and laughing and learning and trying to behave so they didn’t have to go to Janie’s office and get the ‘Jesus talk’. Spend any time at Stella Maris and you couldn’t help but think that our kids might someday change this world for the better if we continued to nurture them with this education based on faith, respect, and love.

You get the picture.

More than two years went by in a blur of learning, growing, and healing. Spring found us busy settling into a new house, the kids juggling homework and little league at Mash Park, me teaching my book clubs at the school and working full-time. I have never been very receptive to nor included in the spread of gossip, so I guess it’s possible that, as my memory suggests, I really didn’t see what was coming. It’s more likely that I did hear the rumors and yet refused to believe them. Schools don’t just close, do they? Apparently, they can, and do. Whether due to a lack of finances or declining enrollment or something more sinister, our Stella Maris education was ending. After the last ‘can we fix this’ meeting was called to a close, the decision final, I sat my children on the couch in our living room, took a deep breath, and told them. Blank stares retuned my gaze.

“Mama, what’s for dinner?”

Insight into this unexpected, underwhelming reaction came a bit later, while I was dishing out mac and cheese. I had recently nursed a full-blown case of this-school-can-not-be-closing denial myself. How could I expect a more mature reaction from innocents with less than one quarter my age and experience?

Ultimately, we all accepted what we could not change. The sun filtered beautifully through the stained glass windows of St. Andrew’s church on the day of the Stella Maris closing celebration. The building was filled to capacity with students, teachers, parents, and friends. Janie was at the helm, ubiquitous guitar in hand, telling her tear-stained students, ‘Don’t be sad that it’s over, be glad that it happened.’ As the last chord of the last song echoed through the rafters, my 7-year-old ran toward the pew where I was sitting. “It’s never going to be the same Mama”, he sobbed, flinging himself into my arms. No, baby, it won’t. This is loss; you’ll recover, you’ll be OK, but it- and you- won’t ever be the same.

Several more years have passed, and time has smoothed the sharp edges of our sadness. I have begun using that stretch of Route 114 again, no longer avoiding passing the forlorn structure with its missing “Stella Maris” sign, and I don’t hurt nearly as much when I do. My children are students at another local school where they are (mostly) happy, although one of them reminds me on a regular basis, “It’s not Stella Maris, Mama.” I am engaged to a wonderful man with two beautiful daughters; a man who is kind and gentle and daily affirms my self-worth. We will be joining our families with an August 3rd wedding at our home in Sag Harbor, less than a mile from the building where my children learned about atoms and verb tense and Christopher Columbus while I learned about starting over and acceptance and healing. We have moved on.

The gym shirt with the Stella Maris logo on it purchased for my oldest child still fits my youngest- at least, that’s what I tell myself as I leave it hanging in his closet during my semi-annual purging of outgrown children’s clothes. I suspect one day it won’t make the cut any longer, will end up in a goodwill bag with jeans that no longer button and worn shoes that have been outgrown.

Then again, perhaps not.