By Celine Klosterman
(Editor’s note: The Catholic Messenger is following up with Jenna Rokes, a first-year teacher whose first day of school the Messenger covered Aug. 11.)
BETTENDORF — All around, it was a day full of tears.
Sure, the first-graders and teacher Jenna Rokes started their last day of the academic year at Lourdes Catholic School with dry eyes. There were the unemotional ends to tie up, the final tasks to tend to: Passing out graded art projects, finishing a workbook assignment, scouring emptied desks with Clorox wipes. But except for such tasks, almost all that took place May 27 served as a bittersweet reminder of the bond students, teacher and parents had formed over the last 10 months.
Even before students showed up for their final morning as first-graders, Rokes was working on one of several ways she’d commemorate the milestone: packing paper bags with gifts such as seeds — to symbolize growth — and certificates for each student. She’d pass them out later, but first came some final classwork, a Mass and an end-of-the-year party — in which students and parents shared a few gifts of their own.
“Oh, you’re so nice!” Rokes exclaimed mid-morning after a boy offered a bouquet of flowers, one of two she received.
Charmaine Gluba, mother of first-grader Sophia Gluba, followed with a verbal tribute: “This is the best first-grade class ever — not just because of the kids, but because of the most amazing first-grade teacher you could’ve ever asked for,” she said, tearing up. “What do you say to Mrs. Rokes?”
“Thank you!” students shout.
Rokes then opened a wrapped box — provided by first-graders’ parents — to reveal a blanket bearing the faces of all 23 students. “We love you, Mrs. Rokes,” it read.
“We’ll miss you. You’ll have to baby sit for us sometime,” a mother shared, handing Rokes a card and wrapped gift.
Rokes later wheeled in a TV to play a slideshow she made of photos taken during the year — of students making human letters, slicing apples and snoozing on a bus. At the slideshow’s end, she began to cry while reading aloud a typed message: “I will never forget any of you. You are the most wonderful class I could ever ask for…” Seeing her tears, students rushed from their desks to mob her with hugs.
Rokes embraced them and braved a smile. “At least I still get to read you one more book!”
She gathered students in a corner. One sniffled. “Don’t cry because I don’t want to cry anymore,” Rokes said.
She read them “Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon,” a book about a taunted yet confident first-grader that Rokes read students on their first day of class. The book ended too quickly, so she read another.
But 11:30 a.m. — time to leave — came anyway. Students formed two lines — one to head out the door, and the other to hug their teacher perhaps one last time. Three girls’ eyes swelled red with tears. “All the girls are crying,” a boy observed.
Rokes led them out to the parking lot, pausing for a few more hugs and a tearful conversation with Gluba. Back inside Lourdes, staffers and fellow teachers assured her saying goodbye would get easier. “It was like that my first year,” said second-grade teacher Amy Paul, seeing Rokes’ tears.
Not that it’s the end for Rokes and all her students. She’ll baby sit and tutor several during summer. But at least one former first-grader was already feeling the separation from his teacher a day after school ended.
“I already miss her because she is really fun,” Zachary Berntgen told The Catholic Messenger. Rokes played games like Minnesota Mosquito Tag with students, and “she makes us really happy and gives us lots of hugs.”
Zachary’s better at math thanks to his teacher, he said. “And I like reading because she would make me read chapter books.”
Rokes said it was amazing to see how far her students progressed. Toward the school year’s end, they read books to their seventh-grade prayer partners — something the first-graders never could’ve done at the year’s beginning, she said.
Just as importantly, she and the students bonded since meeting, Rokes said. “They come in and you know nothing about each other — not even their names — but then you build relationships.” She and first-graders did so partly by spending August interviewing each other. “Kids want to know who you are.” And they need to have a relationship with you before you can teach, she said.
The way Rokes related to students impressed Zachary’s dad, Dave Berntgen. He noted she was hired to teach 17 first-graders, but ended up with 23 students, and twice as many boys as girls. “Fortunately, Jenna has youthful enthusiasm coupled with extraordinary patience. I really believe she always tried to catch students doing good things and celebrate their successes, and this led to a very positive atmosphere.
“I know that Jenna would be the first to admit that she benefited from the many mentors and role models in the teachers and staff at Lourdes,” he added. “…Not only are Lourdes teachers providing students with a superior education but they also have the freedom to allow God to be present in their lives every school day.”
Rokes hopes her efforts left an impression on students. “I want them to feel the same way about me as I did about my first-grade teacher,” an “amazing” woman who made Rokes want to teach.
“I hope years from now they’ll look back,” she said shortly after bidding them farewell, “and know that I love them.”