In 1967 – not long after she first stepped inside a classroom at Our Lady of Prompt Succor School in Chalmette – Stephanie Growl had a come-to-Jesus moment.
The rookie teacher, her gung-ho bravado shattered, slid quietly after school into the office of her principal, School Sister of Notre Dame Mary Lester deBlanc.
“I’m not too sure if I’m in the right profession or not,” Growl told Sister Mary Lester.
As a first-year teacher, Growl had been schooled meticulously by her college professors in the failsafe method of maintaining subtle control of small humans.
She had made a few mistakes.
“All of them,” Growl said. “The first rule that they told us was you don’t smile until after Christmas. Well, I broke that one the first day. It is not in my nature not to have a smile. I’m very hands-on, talkative, let’s-share-the-moment person.”
It took Sister Mary Lester about an hour and a few cool drinks to talk Growl down from the ledge. She simply listened to Growl talk and didn’t try to solve her problems, which, in an incredible way, has been the touchstone of Growl’s 50 years of teaching and inspiring her students at Our Lady of Prompt Succor.
One afternoon a few years ago, one of her students was clearly having “some problems,” so Growl got on the school’s inter-office communications system and asked, “Could somebody come to my classroom for about five minutes?”
Then Growl took the student to the side and “we talked and we talked until she felt better. I mean, it only took 10 minutes out of this class, but I took the time with her. I think too many times we try to solve problems right now instead of letting them just say it out loud and hearing it. Sometimes, they can solve their own.”
In her first year, she had a class of either 49 or 51 kids – “I can’t remember which” – and trying to have a class discussion and keep control was more difficult than splitting the atom. Yet, she never thought about quitting.
“I really came home too exhausted to realize it,” Growl said. “The pace of keeping up with middle school students – I mean, I was young at the time, but you had to be constantly on your feet and ready to move and be able to think on your feet to stay one step ahead of them. I didn’t get a small class of 35 until maybe my fourth year of teaching, and then I thought I was in heaven.”
Growl’s perpetual motion in the classroom halted in 2015. Since she had two bad knees that were rubbing bone against bone, she opted for double knee replacement surgery. Her right knee surgery went perfectly. Her left knee, however, became so infected it nearly cost her her life.
“It’s really weird, because I didn’t know I was having problems – for about four days, I didn’t even know where I was,” Growl said. “They tell me I was literally tied to the bed. I was doing all kinds of weird stuff.”
With her medical condition going downhill, the surgeon told her rather clinically: “Tomorrow, you’re going to have to have surgery on your leg, and we’re going to have to wake you up if it’s not better to discuss if you’re going to have the leg amputated.”
It was the first she had heard of that possibility. Shocked, Growl told the doctor: “Come back in 20 minutes.”
“I picked up my rosary and I said, ‘OK, Lord, we have to talk. You are bringing me to this. You’re not doing this to me, OK. I’m being brought to this, and my family is not going to (have to) make that decision. We’re going to make that decision right now.’ I just held on to my rosary, and I said, ‘OK.’”
Growl decided that if her leg was less than 50 percent healthy, she would have it amputated above the knee.
When she woke up from surgery and the doctor apologized and told her he had to amputate, Growl said, “OK.”
“He kind of looked at me and said, ‘Are you all right?’ I said, ‘Yes, I am because if God brought me to this, he is going to bring me through this,’” Growl said. “I had a parish praying for me, I had a school praying for me, I had the School Sisters of Notre Dame praying for me. I had to get better.”
For nearly two months, Growl rehabbed at Chateau de Notre Dame, which she selected because she could receive the Eucharist every day. “If I was going to get through this, I needed him with me constantly,” she said.
Now a student again, Growl endured physical therapy that was heavy on tough love.
“They told me they wanted me to hop 15 feet, and I looked at them and I turned white as a ghost,” she said. “I said, ‘Excuse me? Step one, I’m 69 years old. No. 2, I haven’t hopped since I was in sixth grade, and then I had two legs,’ and they said, ‘Before you get out of here, you will do it.’ Before I got out of there, I did it.”
Growl never wavered in her determination to return to her kids. In the two months of her rehab, her cousin looked up the federal regulations on residential ramps and built one to her front door, located just across Fenlon Street from the school. Former principal Sharon Coll worked out a half-day schedule for her to rebuild her stamina.
“I have such an awesome family,” she said. “And as far as education is concerned, I love Prompt Succor School. I love the people I work with. Now, no place is perfect, but it’s as close to perfect as you’re going to get. When you talk about Catholic education, Prompt Succor is Catholic education.”
Growl returned to the classroom in October 2015, just 2 1/2 months after her surgery, scooting across the street in her wheelchair. Her students were wide-eyed and full of questions.
“One of the little kids wanted to know if my leg was going to grow back,” Growl said. “I said, ‘No, honey, it’s not going to grow back.’ And he said, ‘Oh, but it should.’ I talked about it openly. The first day I went back, I asked them what questions they had. It was like, ‘Are you in pain?’ I said, ‘No, darling, I’m experiencing no pain.’”
As a roamer and talker, Growl says her biggest adjustment has been not being able to walk around the classroom, but the biggest blessing has been her students’ changed perceptions of her.
“I don’t think they see me as handicapped, and I think that is a big thing,” Growl said. “They see me as Miss Growl. I’m not something you have to keep in cotton.”
The only leap of faith she had to make before getting her motorized wheelchair was when one of her little “babies” – a second grader – approached at recess and asked if he could push her where she needed to go.
“I wasn’t going to tell him no because that’s going to hurt his feelings,” Growl said. “I just prayed I wouldn’t go into the bushes. They all just wanted to help.”
The teacher who wanted to relinquish her chalk and eraser on that first day of school 50 years ago has no such plans now. She gets “goose bumps” when she sees the children or grandchildren of her first students attending Mass or teaching CCD classes.
“It’s like, wow, you know, this is going to keep it going,” Growl said, reflecting on the spirituality she soaked in and passed on all those years from Sister Lester and the rest of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. “The other thing is my children. I tell them, ‘Once I teach you, you’re mine forever.’ I tell them that, OK? I love them dearly.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.