Sunday, January 18, 1998
If you're sick of teen-agers,
try Irish cure

The Cincinnati Enquirer

This little miracle came together quickly, but the most important part didn't happen overnight.

It begins with the immigration during the 1920s of the Magennis family from Northern Ireland to Brooklyn. Eight children, who couldn't get jobs because they were Catholic. And it ends at the very Catholic, very Irish McAuley High School in College Hill.

Sue Ward teaches social justice and spirituality to seniors there. This, I gather, is something like community service and religion and philosophy rolled into one, with a dab of history and a hint of sociology. But I could be making this up.

I am not making up the rest of it, although it sounds like an After-School Special. The good teacher. A death. A bunch of teen-age girls who perform an exceptional kindness. With nobody watching.

''I teach by telling stories, a lot of them about my family and growing up,'' Sue Ward says. A favorite aunt, Kathleen, figured large in her lessons. The second oldest of the Magennis children, Kathleen ''had the whole Ellis Island experience.''

And, later, the American experience. Good stories. Personal. And Mrs. Ward shared them with her classes. It was natural for her to ask her students to ''pray for my little Auntie Kathleen'' when she died Jan. 3 at age 99.

Chronic do-gooders

''Mrs. Ward talked about her aunt nearly every day,'' says Annie Boh, a senior. The kids were surprised when their teacher said she wasn't going to the funeral.

One was bold enough to ask why. Money. Even with the bereavement rate, it was $400. ''Not in the budget,'' Mrs. Ward said.

That was on a Monday, Jan. 5. By the next day at 10 a.m., the girls had reserved a ticket and come up with money for the fare. It accumulated $2 and $3 at a time, with almost all the 223 students chipping in.

With uncommon foresight, they put together an envelope with enough money for a taxi from the airport and other essentials. Pizza and french fries were drawn on the outside. But this was only a suggestion.

They'd checked with McAuley's principal, Cheryl Sucher, to make sure Mrs. Ward could have the time off. ''We didn't have to think twice,'' Mrs. Sucher says. ''We took turns covering her class, of course.''

Of course.

The plot involved many telephone conversations, a special talent of every teen-ager. ''My big risk,'' the principal says, laughing, ''was to give out the principal's home telephone number. I gave it to the ringleader and made her promise to swallow the slip of paper.''

The ringleader, Annie Boh, has been caught doing this sort of thing before. Not too long ago, she discovered a classmate's family couldn't come up with the tuition for her senior year at McAuley.

So, Annie and her friends raised the money, thousands of dollars. But she does not want to talk about this. ''It might embarrass somebody.'' The McAuley girls asked Mrs. Sucher to hand off the trip to their teacher for the same reason.

'It's your turn'

They enclosed a note:

''All your life, every day, you've given more than you will ever know. Now, it's your turn to take.''

Is this story just a little too sweet for you? Well, then you may want to consider the sour side of it. Most school teachers can't automatically come up with hundreds of dollars for an unexpected expense, even though they perform one of the toughest and most important jobs in the world.

Not every kid goes to a school like McAuley. Not every teacher inspires this sort of behavior.

''I just love them,'' Mrs. Ward says. ''And I guess they love me back.''

And, of course, this is the part that didn't happen overnight.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Mondays on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.