More than 50 years after a new student walked into the eighth-grade classroom at Our Lady of Guadalupe School, she walked into the hospital room of the teacher who helped her through the traumatic experience.
In 1958, eighth grade wasn’t easy for Jennie H. Jaime. She had just moved with her family to Los Angeles from Mexico, and although she had studied English for a year in her home country, she was shy about speaking the new language.
“I used to get stomachaches,” Jaime says. “I felt that I was different and I didn’t fit in.”
Her classmates didn’t accept her at first. “One kid used to tease me and say, ‘Your father is a Frito Bandito.’” The prejudice was palpable, Jaime recalls. “You could feel it. You could sense it. You could almost taste it.”
Although some classmates were unkind, her eighth grade teacher, Sister Katherine Hurley (formerly Sister Peter Claver) of the Missionary Sisters of St. Columban from Ireland, took special care to make her feel at ease in a foreign country with a new language. When Sister Katherine noticed that Jaime was good at volleyball, she asked her to teach the fourth and fifth graders.
“And that’s how I started developing my speaking,” says Jaime. She wasn’t embarrassed or afraid to try out the new language with the younger students.
“She [Sister Katherine] always gave me duties to make me feel that I was helping out and that I fit in. And I think that was the greatest impact that she had on me.” Another task was addressing envelopes for the school after Sister Katherine noticed Jaime’s good penmanship.
At graduation, Sister Katherine encouraged Jaime to go to a better school than the one most of her classmates were planning to attend. Although Bishop Conaty High School in West Los Angeles was a long bus drive away, Jaime made the trip for four years until she graduated.
She married after high school and had three children, which put her dreams of becoming a teacher on hold. But slowly she began taking classes at California State University, Los Angeles and graduated with a Master’s degree in Spanish and literature.
She looked for part-time work in order to spend more time with her children and found a job at Cal State LA. After 10 years, she was offered a full-time position at Cerritos College in Norwalk, where she worked for 11 years, until her retirement. Her dreams of becoming a teacher had become a reality.
“I always wanted to pursue a career in teaching. It took a very long time but I feel very fulfilled.”
Twenty years after her graduation from elementary school, Jaime attended her school reunion. The old classmate who used to call Jaime’s father “Frito Bandito” was there.
At first he didn’t recognize Jaime and needed to be introduced.
“Do you remember Jennie?” someone asked. “She was the one that came from Mexico, she’s a professor at the university.”
He remembered her but was surprised that she had become a professor.
“I thought your father was Frito Bandito,” he said. “I never thought you would amount to anything.”
Despite Jaime’s success in her career and her growing family — she is grandmother of seven — Jaime always kept in touch with Sister Katherine, who gave her the necessary encouragement to follow her dreams.
Sister Katherine now lives in her home country of Ireland in County Wicklow, having retired from teaching. Last year in June, Jaime kept her promise to come visit. They had plans to explore Ireland together, but when Jaime came, she found her teacher in cancer treatment. Jaime was able to visit her twice during chemotherapy.
Despite Sister Katherine’s illness, she continues to be cheerful.
“I am going on in a gentle journey with cancer,” she says. At the age of 86, she is still vibrant.
“Sister Katherine was thrilled about Jennie’s visit,” said Sister Margaret Devine, one of the sisters who had worked with Sister Katherine at Our Lady of Guadalupe. Sister Katherine told Sister Margaret that she was grateful to be remembered by Jaime for the little things she had done to make her entrance into the United States less difficult.
“It was one of the biggest thrills of my life,” Sister Katherine said. She also spoke about how much admiration she had for Jennie’s career as a Spanish professor.
Sister Margaret recalled the joy she and her sisters experienced working with the students. “It was a happy combination, the Irish and the Mexicans.”
The Irish sisters loved the Mexican customs, she said. “The people were full of faith and hope for a better world, for themselves and for their children.”
During one visit, Sister Katherine insisted on being left alone with Jaime to have a quiet and traditional teatime with her old pupil. The two teachers were left alone to talk about the old days at Our Lady of Guadalupe School, tearing up and hugging as they reminisced.
This was published online by Angelus, the Tiding Online last August 20, 2015.