Teacher's calling defies borders

June 29, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

At a college in a small town in Ghana where students don't have textbooks, or books of any sort actually, the American professor faced a quandary. Some of the books she kept for them, in a makeshift, bricks-and-boards library in her office, were getting too old and tattered for lending out, but how could she throw them away?

So she piled them under a sign saying that any of her students with perfect attendance could take one to keep.

"Each one was more worn than the next -- no cover, raggedy, dog-eared -- and yet students would take 20 minutes to pick through them," Sister Kathleen Feeley said. "Then my students from the first semester heard about it, and some of them said, `Well, I think I had perfect attendance in your class, can I have a book, too?' After a while, there were pretty poor pickings left, and I had some National Geographics, so I said they could either have one book or two National Geographics. And still, no one picked them, even though you could have two of them."

"It just taught me something," she said. "They had a book; it was theirs."

Sister Kathleen is miles and worlds away from Sunyani, Ghana, as she remembers this. She is back home for the summer, living in the convent at the College of Notre Dame, the school where she was president for 21 years -- and where the library, shared with Loyola, has 410,000 books.

She has been catching up with the family and friends, the crab cakes and Ocean City trips that remain touchstones for this Baltimorean-turned-citizen of the world. Her roots are deep -- she grew up on Guilford Avenue and was educated by a religious order, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, that made its first inroads in America in here. She ultimately joined their ranks and graduated from and became president of their college here, protecting its all-women status at a time when many others across the country went coed.

At 78, she retains the restless intelligence and the potent combination of compassion and steeliness that has always made her one of Baltimore's most interesting and influential leaders. After retiring as Notre Dame's president in 1992, she returned to her first love of teaching, at the college, but also on Fulbright fellowships that took her to campuses in India and China.

But perhaps her biggest challenge was back in her hometown: In 1995, she was thrust into the maelstrom that is the Baltimore public schools system, which at that point was in the 11th year of defending itself in a federal suit charging that it had failed special-education students. Under court order, the school system spun off the special-ed division and its nearly 18,000 students, and then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke put Feeley in charge of it. "I still have the scars," she jokes now, rubbing her arms.

The appointment was testament to her standing in Baltimore -- she's also served on several corporate boards in town -- and she felt she made some improvements. But the turmoil continued -- in 1996, to resolve the lawsuit, and a second one, special-ed was folded back into the school district, which was placed under a city-state partnership that continues today. By then, Sister Kathleen had pretty much moved on, to run a job-training program for women in East Baltimore, and later back to teaching.

Several years ago, she "felt a call to go to Africa, because of all Africa has suffered and all the needs it has, especially in education." She contacted universities in countries where the School Sisters are based, but came up empty. At a birthday party for one of the local sisters, though, she happened to meet someone who told her about a new school, the Catholic University of Ghana, and gave her its president's e-mail address.

"He almost jumped through the computer" when she sent her CV, she said. He responded: "Come immediately."

She teaches English and religion at the university, which just graduated its first class, and lives with a group of sisters who run a Catholic girls school. It's not an easy life -- she drives a truck over bad roads to the campus, the electricity isn't reliable and the convent has no air conditioning -- but then, her idea of a great retirement present, after leaving the Notre Dame presidency, was a two-month trip by tramp steamer across the Atlantic and through Europe and the Mediterranean.

"They're wonderful," she said of her students. "Every day, when I get out of my truck, one of them will come and carry my things."

She has taken to the country, to the point that when she talks about the great president "we" have and how "we" were the first sub-Saharan African country to win its independence from colonialism, she means Ghana.

"I have a nice ability when I'm there, I'm 100 percent there," she said.

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