Looking back over 34 years of teaching, Eileen M. Gratzer of Port Jefferson Station, New York, never doubted she chose the right profession.
“I’ve always liked children and always wanted to teach. There’s that sense of accomplishment seeing them learn. I discovered early on that children actually enjoy learning. It’s the teacher’s job to encourage their curiosity and focus their attention,” she said.
“Enthusiasm can be catching,” she continued. “Some of the boys and girls motivate their classmates to try a little harder and keep up with them. Though some children can be difficult, I’ve never given up on a child. There’s always that breakthrough and a tremendous sense of satisfaction – and relief – for the teacher.”
Having spent almost her entire teaching career at the Bayport-Blue Point School District on Long Island, many children have passed through the doors of her fifth-grade classroom. “They have all made an impression on me and I hope I’ve made an impression on them,” Ms. Gratzer said.
“Even though I’m retired, I’m still interested in education, whether it’s public or Catholic. It’s sad to read in the newspapers that some dioceses are combining parishes and closing schools. It would be a tragedy if we lost the Catholic education tradition.”
Ms. Gratzer, who attends St. Frances Cabrini Church in Coram, attributes her concern for Catholic schools to her own educational background. One of six children, she grew up in St. John parish in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx.
“I attended the parish school. Then I went on to four years at Cathedral High, in Manhattan. At that time, the school had several branches and I went to Holy Trinity in the West 80’s for one year. I graduated from the main building, then on Lexington Avenue.
“Of course,” she laughed, “our teachers were nuns. There were the Religious of Jesus and Mary at St. John’s and the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill and the Sisters of Charity at Cathedral.
“It’s a cliché to say the nuns inspired me to go into teaching, but there might be some grain of truth there. College was a walk around the Jerome Park Reservoir to Hunter College. It’s now Lehman College.”
Ms. Gratzer, who retired from teaching in 1990, said that the regional elementary school setup on Long Island is an efficient answer to educational problems facing Catholic schools today.
“The program is workable in a suburban setting,” she said. “But in New York City, especially where I grew up, there would be problems bringing children to a central school. In my day, children walked to their parochial schools, which were never more than a few blocks from their homes,” she said. “But for some dioceses, regional schools are the way to go.
“It’s such a contrast to what I see in Florida,” said Ms. Gratzer, who spends the winter months in Sarasota. “There they are actually building schools.
“People think of Florida as a retirement community. I was surprised to see so many young families there, especially in the parishes with which I’m familiar. I attend either Incarnation Church or St. Martha’s, depending on the Mass schedule. I’ve since learned that many tech companies have moved to Florida and that accounts for the demographic shift.”
When asked what she enjoys most about her retirement, Ms. Gratzer did not hesitate. “It gives me more time to spend with my family” – 13 nieces and nephews and 27 grandnieces and grandnephews.
“They live in New Jersey, Rhode Island, Arizona, upstate New York, as well as on Long Island. It’s a lot of traveling; but fun,” Ms. Gratzer said.
“We’ve always been close, and it’s nice to see the younger members of the family continuing that tradition. We have family reunions, often in the summer at Trout Lake in the Adirondacks. Many of the children are the same age so they’re friends as well as cousins,” Ms. Gratzer added.
“Children have always been special to me, whether they’re former students or my family’s.
“In the past several years, I’ve found a new way to help children. Through Catholic Near East Welfare Association, I’ve been sponsoring needy children in India.
“I had mentioned to my sister Anne that I was interested in assisting less fortunate children. And I wanted my money to go where it could do the most good. She suggested I investigate CNEWA. She supports needy children through the agency and felt it would be a good fit for me,” Ms. Gratzer said.
“After looking over the brochures from CNEWA, I was eager to sign on,” she said.
CNEWA, a special agency of the Vatican, assists some 21,000 children in 286 child care facilities in India alone. Sponsors support orphaned, unwanted or needy children in homes run by religious that provide meals, medical attention and an education.
“My children are in India and we write to each other,” Ms. Gratzer said. “I tell them I used to teach and they write about their schools.
“I enjoyed my years of teaching. I thoroughly dote on my nieces and nephews. I’ve had a wonderful life: a loving family, great job, traveling the world. Now I want to make life a little easier for these children in India.
“I want the children there to actually have a childhood,” she concluded.