April 12, 2013

‘They bring a lot of joy to my life’

Teacher still adds fun and faith to students’ lives after 50 years

In her 50th year of teaching, Carmen Eliasson shares a fun teaching moment with three of her students at St. Mark School in Indianapolis—Maddie Man, left, Taylor Allen and Megan Pearsey. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

In her 50th year of teaching, Carmen Eliasson shares a fun teaching moment with three of her students at St. Mark School in Indianapolis—Maddie Man, left, Taylor Allen and Megan Pearsey. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

It’s a simple yet profound saying about the influence that a teacher can have on a child—a saying that still guides 75-year-young Carmen Eliasson in her 50th year of teaching.

The motto is inscribed on some of the numerous gifts that Eliasson has received from students through the years, gifts that fill the top of her desk and overflow onto window sills, cabinet tops and other parts of her classroom at St. Mark School in Indianapolis.

The saying notes, “To teach is to touch a life forever.”

“That’s a favorite one of mine,” Eliasson says, smiling. “It’s what we do as teachers. We rub off on kids. I know that because of the feedback I get from my students. A part of me goes with them, and certainly a part of them stays with me.”

The depth of that mutual influence comes to life when the religion teacher for the school’s junior high students picks up the framed photos of two former students from her desk.

The first photo shows a smiling girl. As Eliasson shares the picture, she reads the message that the girl wrote on the back of the frame: “Every once in a while when you’re having a rough day, look to me for a smile, and I will help to brighten your day.”

The other framed photo, prominently displayed at the edge of her desk, captures a boy. His look of innocence doesn’t hint of the tragedy that ended his life, and overwhelmed everyone who knew him in grief and sorrow.

“He died in a swimming accident during the summer between his fifth- and sixth-grade years,” she says softly. “The class was just so broken up by his death. I know I helped them. Many of them told me they wouldn’t have made it through sixth grade without me.” She pauses and adds, “I try to help them along their path in life, their path to God.”

‘Her faith is really in her heart’

That desire creates a noticeable bond with students who are at least 60 years younger than her, students who smile when they talk about the ways she connects with them, including at their games in the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO).

“She comes to all our games,” says Tony Davis, 14, an eighth-grade student at St. Mark’s. “She’s usually our biggest cheerleader in the crowd. And before the game, she’ll lead our prayers.”

Eighth-graders Jacob Fryar and Joe Burns also share how she uses guided meditation to draw students deeper into their relationship with God. Both youths mention one memorable meditation exercise in which Eliasson has students put their heads on their desktops, close their eyes and visualize following a pink ball of string that eventually leads them to a place where Jesus waits for them.

“You see Jesus there, and then she asks you to talk to Jesus—‘What would you talk to him about? What would he say to you?’ ” Jacob, 13, recalls. “It really connected with me. It shows how Jesus loves us. And it shows how Mrs. Eliasson cares about all of us, in each grade.”

Her care and commitment to her students flow from her care and commitment to her faith, says St. Mark principal Rusty Albertson.

“Carmen just really reaches the kids’ hearts,” Albertson says. “Her love for kids stands out to me. She is also very direct with them. She doesn’t sugarcoat, especially with their faith. She teaches the Catholic faith. The kids know what their Catholic faith is. For her, it’s about your relationship with God. Her faith is really in her heart. It’s nice to see how the other staff members look up to her. She still has the desire every day. She gives of herself to the school.”

‘It’s just being with the kids’

Eliasson begins each class with 10 minutes of Scriptures. She stresses the power of prayer, and has created a prayer board in her classroom. Students can add the name of anyone they want to be remembered. Eliasson adds names to the prayer board, too, from a former student who served in the U.S. Navy Seals to a former student who wrote her a letter and asked if she remembered him. (She did.)

“What I try to give my students is a sense of their own holiness and spirituality,” she says. “Prayer is so important. That’s the main thing I stress—their prayer life. Which leads to their spiritual life.”

On the day she was interviewed for this story, Eliasson considered a “statement of intent” form that she had received from principal Albertson. The form, which was given to all teachers at the school, essentially asked her if she planned to return to teach for the 2013-14 school year.

As she scanned the form, Eliasson looked back on 50 years of teaching that took her to Missouri, Illinois and California before she returned home to Indianapolis in 1993 to be closer to family and to teach at St. Roch School—before coming to St. Mark School in 1999.

She signed the form, stating her intent to continue as a teacher, the profession that defines her life.

“It’s just being with the kids,” she says, her face lighting up. “They keep you young. I’m 75, but I don’t think of myself as 75. I’ve always been involved with my students’ sports, and I love that. But it’s the interaction with them that I love the most. I’ve never had discipline problems with them. I’ve been able to relax around them, and they relax around me. It’s the kids.

“They bring a lot of joy to my life.” †

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