LE MARS, Iowa | When Jacque Schmitt received a call about a teaching opening at her alma mater, Gehlen Catholic High School, she met with her dad, Joe Kessenich, and her siblings in the kitchen of her parents' home near Neptune, Iowa.

Her mother, Carol Kessenich, remained in her bedroom at the time, nearing the end of a five-year battle with ovarian cancer. Carol heard the talk and summoned the family to her bedside.

"Mom wanted to be part of the discussion," Jacque said.

Carol would. She was a teacher, after all, having started a preschool in their home when Jacque, the fourth of her five children, was a toddler. Carol Kessenich returned to the classroom full-time years later and spent 15 years teaching math and religion to junior students at Gehlen. She devoted another portion of her career to children in Sioux City and Remsen, serving schools in the Sioux City Catholic Diocese.

Like her daughter, Carol Kessenich followed her mother into the world of education. Patricia Ryan, of Le Mars, raised nine children before heading to Gehlen, where she taught third-graders for several years. Patricia just turned 90.

Carol, sadly, was only 56 when she died on March 31, just three to four weeks after contributing to that debate about whether or not her daughter should return to her alma mater as a 27-year-old high school science instructor.

"I had taught for four years at Sioux Center (Iowa) High School and it was a great experience," Jacque Schmitt said. "But Seth (her husband) and I now have two little kids (Blaise, 2, and 3-month-old Carolyn, who is named for Jacque's mother). And, being a high school teacher, I think it's important to attend and watch high school students in their activities, things like basketball games."

The downside? Many of those extracurricular events take place in the evening, hours after the school day has ended, hours after Schmitt has completed the 30-minute drive to be with her husband and children at home.

Schmitt could likely have landed a teaching position at Gehlen immediately after her graduation from Morningside College four years ago. Her mother, though, cautioned her against it, saying a starting point in another district might help her establish her own teaching foundation. It can be difficult for a 22- or 23-year-old educator to work with peers who taught them four to five years previous.

"Now, I feel more confident coming back to Gehlen, not fresh out of college," Schmitt said.

Based on her thoughts and the feedback from family members, Schmitt accepted the job and this week becomes the third generation of her family to teach in the Gehlen Catholic schools.

There will be reminders of Carol Kessenich in her daughter's room this year. Schmitt on Friday leafed through several of her mom's educational posters, some that will find a home on the walls of this second-floor science classroom and lab. Two of her favorites: "Stand for something or you'll fall for anything," and "Silent and listen are spelled with the same letters."

Beyond the physical signs, a kindred connection may show in the way Schmitt works with her students, fellow teachers and staff members. Schmitt nodded, saying her mother stressed the importance of establishing strong ties with custodians and secretaries, support staff members she'll lean on for years.

Other tidbits came as Schmitt drove home from Sioux Center the past few years, a time in which she'd often phone her mother to discuss what was working -- and what wasn't -- in her classroom.

"As my mom's health failed last year, it became more difficult as she needed to nap at that time," Schmitt said. "That was hard."

Thankfully, her mother, she said, didn't go it alone in her fight against cancer. Members of the Gehlen Catholic community wrapped their arms around Carol and Joe Kessenich, Gehlen alums both, and, in effect, showed Jacque she'd be at home teaching in a school that had become their extended family in many ways.

"With mom's passing, the community spirit of Gehlen became so evident to us," she said. "Ideally, I knew this is where I wanted to be because this is where we'll send our kids. I always felt at home here because Mom was teaching and was always so close to school."

Grandma Ryan, she said, cemented the importance of education by providing, via trust, funds for all 30 of her grandchildren to pursue an education beyond high school if they wished.

"I went to Drake University for one semester and was studying chemistry when my brother, Kevin, told me to consider teaching," Jacque recalled. "He knew the field for science teachers would be pretty open."

Jacque transferred to Morningside, spent part of her first semester there in a classroom and came to realize she'd make it a career. She's thankful her choice allowed her to remain close to her parents and family throughout college and into the first four years of her life's work.

"Since my mom taught preschool in our home, I've always been able to say that I've been in school my whole life," Jacque Schmitt said with a smile.

So, in that sense, this fifth-year teaching veteran begins her 27th year of school on Thursday when she reports for her first day at Gehlen Catholic, her alma mater, her family's alma mater.



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