By ERIKA ANDERSON REDDING, Special to the Bulletin | Published May 25, 2018
ATLANTA—As students excitedly prepare for the freedom of summer vacation, two Atlanta Catholic school educators are preparing to say goodbye to their beloved students for the last time.
For Melody Summers of St. Thomas More School, Decatur, and Sandy Wilson, of Immaculate Heart of Mary School in Atlanta, retirement is bittersweet. Though they’ll be excited to turn off their alarm clocks, both will miss the children who have touched their hearts throughout their years of teaching.
Melody Summers began teaching in Catholic schools in 1969 in her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. After becoming Catholic at age 18, Summers, a graduate of the University of Alabama, knew she wanted to teach in an environment where she could be open with her newly discovered faith.
“(Converting to Catholicism) was a major influence in my life,” Summers said. “I decided to pursue a career of teaching in Catholic school because I wanted to share my newfound faith in all its beauty and strength with young minds.”
After teaching at two Catholic schools in Birmingham, and a third in Nashville, Tennessee, Summers came to Atlanta, where she taught third grade at the former Sts. Peter and Paul School in Decatur from 1984 to 1994, and was named Teacher of the Year in 1991. She’s taught fourth grade at St. Thomas More School since 1994 and said she’s been inspired by the entire school family.
Considering “the rising cost of Catholic education, I am encouraged by the sacrifices that parents are making to have their children receive a Catholic education at St. Thomas More, which provides students the necessary knowledge and values and empowers them with the morals and principals of how to live,” she said. “St. Thomas More forms a community of study, worship, belief and morality. It’s a place where students, teachers and parents can grow together in wisdom and maturity. St. Thomas More is the place where families come together to relax and work, a place where friendships are born and security is experienced—all built and supported on the bedrock of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church.”
Summers’ passion for her faith has continued throughout her teaching career—and she hopes she inspired her students along the way.
“I want students to remember that when they get out into the marketplace, it shouldn’t be about how to make a living or how to make money, but more especially (on) how to live,” she said. “Our Catholic faith offers solid role models in this manner, particularly in the lives of the saints and most especially, the Blessed Mother. I hope my legacy will show the importance of the Catholic faith in our lives and the shallowness of the many voices in the public square offering children all sorts of ‘merchandise’ with promises of happiness. I also hope it will show the importance for students to be grounded in their Catholic faith in order to recognize the limitations of these promises.”
Summers said she, too, has learned from her students. She recalled an amusing memory in which one of her students brought his horse to the school’s blessing of the pets, and she said that her students have often sparked joy and imagination in her own life.
“The children have a sense of joy and humor in their lives, and they have a willingness to share new ideas. They are very forgiving and willing to apologize whenever needed,” she said. “They have a great sense of wonder and fairness, are very open to prayer and are really compassionate and trusting.”
As far as retirement, Summers said she’s looking forward to traveling and watching the news from a lay person’s perspective.
“I look forward to returning again to the ‘Holy Land’—Ireland, that is,” she said. “And of course, watching the inclement weather forecast and not waiting to see if our school will be closed for a snow day.”
Librarian Sandy Wilson gets choked up when she talks about how much she’ll miss the students, faculty and parents at Immaculate Heart of Mary School.
Wilson has served at IHM since 1980, when she made a career switch. She’d previously served as a trainer for a tax examination company—but quickly fell in love with IHM.
“This whole atmosphere is so special. This has been my family—the faculty, the staff, the parents and of course, the children,” she said.
The school had a retirement celebration for Wilson, and many former students came to express their thanks to her.
“We have so many alumni who have sent their children here, and it’s always so wonderful to see them,” she said.
Wilson first began volunteering in the library when her own children attended school there. Eventually she got a position as an assistant, and later became the librarian when the previous librarian passed away suddenly. Throughout her nearly four decades at the school, the library has evolved but has remained an essential part of IHM.
“The administration has always supported the library. I may be biased, but I think it’s central to the whole school. I think that’s because we’re an open library. We have students, faculty and parents who are here before school and after school,” she said. “There are always parents and students here reading or working on homework with their children.”
One of Wilson’s best-known accomplishments is the Birthday Book program, which was started by her predecessor. Each year, she purchases new books, which can, in turn, be purchased in honor of a student, spouse or teacher’s birthday. The book is donated back to the school with a nameplate commemorating the student. Wilson said many alumni come back with their children and are excited to see their own birthday book still in rotation.
As the librarian, Wilson also teaches library skills classes to the students. But when she looks back at her time at IHM, she hopes those she taught will remember her for her love.
“I hope I’m remembered for my kind heart and that my students know how much I love every one of them,” she said. “I would probably work here without pay—I just love it.”
Wilson said that in her retirement she hopes to volunteer and spend more time with her children and grandchildren. But she’ll forever leave part of her heart at IHM.
“We take care of one another. When one member of our community is hurting, everyone comes together,” she said. “We’re just a big family. I’ll miss it tremendously.”