Fifty-seven years in the classroom and Sister Rita's still loving it
This article originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 11, 2011.
As June searches out its rhythm, the suspicion that another school year has come and gone makes me think of Sister Rita, so I met her at Panera for soup (her) and a bagel (me), but her soup gets cold because I ask too many questions.
I want the broad view of education in America in the summer of 2019, a broad subject requiring a broad knowledge base that I figured Sister Rita Yeasted might warm to, as she’s just finished teaching at La Roche University in McCandless.
Just finished her 57th year.
“Consecutively,” Sister says.
Yes, Sister, consecutively.
Naturally, the first thing I ask is which felt longer, those 57 years in front of a classroom or the Pirates game she attended with her friend Linda on June 1, the 13-inning hair-pull that required a mere 513 pitches.
“Oh, what a game!” she smiles. “I bid on those tickets at a gala, and they were the best seats I ever had; we were four rows behind the rich people!”
Sister Rita reads five newspapers a day, more than some college students have read in their lives. She’s seen every play at the Pittsburgh Public Theater since 1978, has season tickets at City Theatre as well, pops in on the Broadway series, and spends the bulk of whatever spare time she can find gardening and being appalled.
“The anti-intellectualism of this age appalls me,” she says. “And that’s why I teach.”
So now we’re getting to it. Fact is, Sister Rita’s been teaching so long — at St. Bonaventure in Shaler, at St. Anne in Castle Shannon, at St. Basil in Carrick, at Greensburg Central Catholic, at Saint Vincent College, at Duquesne University, and, since 1980, at La Roche — she can remember teaching shorthand. Shorthand. Google it. She also taught typing or tried to.
“That was at St. Basil’s,” she recalled. “They put it last in the day and the principal put in all these kids who didn’t want to be there, mostly the basketball kids. We had old typewriters, not even electric. The tall kids would cross their feet over the typewriters until I would tell them they couldn’t do that. Then they’d type obscenities.
“That was when there was no ‘delete’ key.”
Before the delete key, it seems, just about everything on earth beheld a greater permanence. Rita Yeasted had grown up in Tarentum with five younger siblings in a house run by her mill worker dad and stay-at-home mom.
“He worked at Allegheny Ludlum in Brackenridge back when a lot of people worked there,” Sister said. “He ran crane. We had a field trip there. You could walk in there and see the open furnaces. They’d never do that with kids today. It was exciting. We all got out alive.”
Having honed her survival skills at a young age, she put them to use one night in the late 1980s while living in the convent that used to be next to the rectory that used to be next to where St. Nicholas Church used to be. Oh, yeah, God’s been pounding that delete key.
“Three sisters lived there, then two moved out and I had the place to myself — 16 rooms,” she laughed. “One night two kids broke in. It’s so noisy there with the trains, fire trucks, people talking, you just learned to block it all out. They took my purse and my briefcase, which had my grade book! In the middle of the year!
“I had to go into class and tell this story, and that whatever you make from now to the end is your grade. So if you haven’t been working, you just got lucky.”
So had she.
Still active as she heads toward an 80th birthday, Sister just finished her second three-year term as president of the Western Pennsylvania Council of Teachers of English, the subject that absorbed the bulk of this remarkable career once she took her master’s and doctorate from Duquesne.
As to its implications, every good teacher knows the upside and downside of 21st-century technology on education inside and out, but few appreciate its impact on the historical arc of learning as does Sister Rita.
That she can’t readily find contemporary students who enjoy a breadth of knowledge sometimes depresses her, but what scares her isn’t that. It’s, well, Sister should tell you.
“What I miss in students is that they’re not curious about things,” she said. “They live in a world where everything is instantaneous. You don’t go to a library trying to find out who the president of Haiti is. You look at your phone. If it’s not in technology, they’re not interested, so if it’s not in Wikipedia, if there’s not instant gratification on a topic, they don’t connect things.
“When I taught, let’s say, Renaissance poetry, I’d give them the date, and I’d say, ‘What was going on in America in 1580? Who was here?’ They’d look at me like I’d asked in Greek. You can make them draw connections, but they won’t do it on their own, and that’s why I teach. I can make a difference with some of them. I can’t get all of them. Jesus didn’t get all of them. He got 12 but he didn’t keep all 12, but 11 out of 12 isn’t bad.”
Sister Rita still loves it. Says she’ll retire when God lets her know.
He’s been silent on the matter.
Rita Yeasted is a member of Sisters For Christian Community (SFCC) and recently finished a 6 year terms of service of as an International Communication Coordinator for SFCC