May 20, 2022

A desperate call leads retired teacher to return to challenge and bring joy to students

At 74, Mary Jaffe came out of retirement this year to teach at St. Barnabas School in Indianapolis, where eight of her grandchildren attend. (Submitted photo)

At 74, Mary Jaffe came out of retirement this year to teach at St. Barnabas School in Indianapolis, where eight of her grandchildren attend. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

When Ryan Schnarr sent the text, he did it out of desperation and with the full knowledge that he was about “to ask a lot of someone who had already given so much.”

As the principal of St. Barnabas School in Indianapolis, Schnarr was in a desperate situation at the beginning of this school year.

After a long summer search, he had finally found someone to teach science to the seventh- and eighth-grade students, but that teacher decided he couldn’t continue after just a few weeks of school. And Schnarr was suddenly in need of someone to teach science to 111 students.

He thought of a person he knew as a master educator, someone who had mentored younger teachers, someone who had encouraged and challenged her students to reach their potential academically and spiritually. There was just one roadblock.

Mary Jaffe had retired from St. Barnabas School in 2015 after 41 years of teaching. And at the age of 74, she had settled into a relaxing retirement. Still, Schnarr sent her a text, asking her to call him, never hinting at the desperate situation at the school.

Jaffe called, and Schnarr explained the predicament, adding that he was still advertising for the position and that it was likely she would just be needed for a few weeks. Jaffe quickly said yes during that call, looking past challenging health issues with her feet and her back and focusing on what was best for the boys and girls because that’s the kind of person she is.

“I needed her to be the person God made her to be—an amazing teacher and leader of kids,” Schnarr says. “The day she stepped back into the building, there were a lot of smiles from people.”

So why is this story being shared at the end of the school year? Well, those “few weeks” turned into a few months, and before long it was Christmas break. Then school started again in January and Jaffe was back in the classroom, too. And she’s still there as the school year at St. Barnabas is ready to end on May 25.

“I’m so glad I did this,” Jaffe says. “I can’t believe the year is almost over. It’s been so much fun. It’s been so rewarding to meet these kids and teach them. And there are a whole lot of people who have had my back and helped me out.”

Those qualities—terrific support and a steadfast willingness to help—are ones that her students also use to describe her.

As the youngest of five children in her family, Claire Meinerding didn’t know what to expect on the first day Jaffe returned to St. Barnabas. Yet when she shared the news with two of her older siblings who had been taught by Jaffe, she says, “They were so excited. They told me she was the best teacher in town.”

After a year with Jaffe, Claire has her own thoughts about the educator.

“She’s such an amazing teacher. Her class is so much fun, and she teaches us so much that I feel really prepared for high school,” says Claire, an eighth-grader who will attend Roncalli High School in Indianapolis in August. “She’s so understanding, and she listens to us.”

After the first week of having her in class, seventh-grade student Mason Schnarr was riding home with his dad, the principal, and he told his father, “You weren’t joking when you said Mrs. Jaffe is the real deal.”

That feeling has intensified through the school year.

“She’s always there for us. And she’s also really funny,” Mason says. “She doesn’t want us to be lazy. She makes sure we’re all prepared for high school and life in general.”

Jaffe says she strives to build confidence in her students, to listen to their questions and provide the tools and support so they can work through the challenges and solve them on their own.

She also views herself as similar to many Catholic school teachers who consider their students as an extension of their family. She is now teaching the children—and grandchildren—of some of the students from her early years as a teacher.

Returning to teach at St. Barnabas has also given her one more opportunity to connect with her own grandchildren. Eight of her 10 grandkids attend

St. Barnabas, ranging from the first grade to the sixth grade.

“I keep a snack bag in my room,” she says, smiling. “On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, all the kids come to my classroom after school. We have snacks, and we chit-chat about the day, and we all walk out together. I’m going to miss that.”

She plans to retire—well, mostly—at the end of the school year. She and her husband John will celebrate 50 years of marriage in January, and the mother of their three children wants to spend more time with him. At the same time, she has agreed to be a mentor to the new seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher who has been hired for the next school year.

“I’m going to have two grandchildren in the seventh grade next year,” she says. “I want them to get what they need.”

As this school year nears an end, she thinks back to the phone call with principal Schnarr that put everything in motion.

“Honestly, I didn’t think it was going to be temporary. This particular class has gone through different teachers with COVID and turnovers,” she says. “Actually, I didn’t even think about getting paid. I was more concerned about the kids.”

That overwhelming concern reflects the way she has approached her teaching, her faith, her life.

“God has been good to me. I think you say thanks by giving back,” she says. “I always believe God has a plan. I put a lot of faith in his decisions. Looking back, I’ve learned to say, ‘My prayers were answered.’ ”

Schnarr has the same feeling about Jaffe coming back to teach this year.

“One thing that always leads to success is a teacher who is dedicated to her craft and her students, and who keeps Christ at the center of all of that,” the principal says. “Our Catholic schools need and deserve teachers like Mary Jaffe. It’s going to be sad to see her walk away again.” †

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