There are firsts in every life — the first day of school, the first winning team, the first lost tooth — the first love.
In my life, some of the great “firsts” have to do with my life as an educator — my first class, my first Head of School, the first student who didn’t forget…and the first class I saw through the turmoil and triumph from Freshman Fear to graduation, serving as their Dean of Students.
It was 1992 and I had been 12 years as a Lower School and Primary School Teacher who came alive in the classroom. I could see the magic happen and nothing enlivened me more than watching the discovery from the inside out — when, like the transformer toy, the child of wonder opened like the Lotus flower to the young adult whose passion for love and learning was cultivated and nourished before their parents were even aware.
Almost over night, a new need called me and although it was only a flight of stairs between the worlds of Lower School and Upper School, it reflected the continental divide. Suddenly, I was planning dances and listening to heartbreaks and finding my classroom in the middle of the student lounge and pretending that the uniform code was a life altering commitment to a social norm. It had the clarity and disparity of the international date line, but nearly instantaneously my heart opened to the extraordinary journey of adolescence. There were permission slips, detention slips, drop/add slips, sign out slips…and then there was Suzanne.
Sometimes, almost without awareness, someone slips into the cracks of your heart and you realize (although perhaps only in retrospect) that you have never been the same — and never want to be. Such was my journey with Suzanne Kondratenko — a journey that taught me something profound about what it means to open your heart, have it broken in two, and to learn far more than you could ever teach.
In those days, we had students work the reception desk after school and keep tabs on the comings and goings of everyone who passed through our doors–answering the phone, paging us when we were needed at the front door and trying to keep tabs on the Religious of the Sacred Heart. Suzanne almost became part of our religious community, and definitely part of our lives. From paging me to allow an easy escape from a community meeting to long hours of asking me about what led me to Religious Life and who God was for me and how I knew that the Sacred Heart of Jesus had room for her, Suzanne became part of our world — part of my world. Suzanne made us laugh until we cried with stories of her beloved family and asked questions that drew us closer to the God of our lives as she became both prophet and student in the simple act of being present.
I always find it hard to see our graduates off on graduation night, knowing that my life’s work is to set them free in a world for which they are both prepared and which needs the gifts they have discovered. And still, there are tears and a hint of sadness as they cross our threshold for the last time as students. But after those years of shared life, evenings of answering the phone and answering the call of life and growing into a distinguished young woman of faithful love, integrity, joy and grace, we shed more than a few tears as our religious community blessed Suzanne on her way. We knew she would be back…
Grace surrounded us as we welcomed her sisters into our lives, to find their own way and to discover their no less spectacular gifts in this place that we have called home for generations. Suzanne couldn’t resist a quick visit when she found her way home and had new tales to share with us and always a new set of questions that made me wonder who was the teacher and who was the student.
I was in a meeting as a new Head of School, finding my way in a new terrain of loving the work and knowing both the weight and the wonder of leadership. September 11, 2001 forever changed the way I have understood what it means to lead — for it is to find the way to navigate faith in the midst of the temptation to fear. Just rebounding with the news of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and making quick plans to head with our students, faculty and parents to the chapel, Suzanne’s younger sister burst into the room, “Suzanne is in New York and my Mom can’t reach her” she sobbed.
I was in disbelief. Suzanne lived in Chicago. I couldn’t imagine that this was true — there must be some mistake — I was flooded with the memories of the front desk and her faith that would move mountains, her contagious laughter, her passion for anything that had to do with her family and her insistence that kindness was a religion that must be followed. As I drove later that day to be with her mother and sisters while her father and older sister headed to New York, I could feel her tender strength and her courageous love for others — her nearly tangible presence invaded my rock solid confidence that this was a bad dream.
In the years that have passed, I have made a commitment to live with the confidence in love, goodness and grace that enfolded her. I have begged God to give me the right judgement that made her stop her descent down the narrow steps of the Towers to help a pregnant woman who was struggling to breathe on the smoke filled passageway. Likely, it was a choice that was defining and one that has defined the life that has shaped who I am and how I choose to live — she lived from the inside –out, doing what she believed and being the faith she knew and trusted.
There are many things that I am not sure about, but I am entirely confident that Suzanne is held in the heart of Jesus. Every morning as I pray in our small chapel, I have a view of a picture of Suzanne and the dispersed illumination above the crucifix in our main chapel that forms a perfect heart. I know that Suzanne lives in the heart of things — in the middle of love and laughter– in the middle of things that are hard for the right reasons — in the middle of the next generation of her family who now walk the same halls she did — in both the laughter and the tears…Suzanne is in the heart of things.
Actually, I know that I am who I am because she taught me to open my heart and let the light in…and then to give it back again like the miracle of love that cannot be contained by terror, but only reflected in the triumph of love.
Thank you, Suzanne…now and forever.