I am who I am today because of my teachers and mentors, and in my writing so far I’ve had the great privilege to pay tribute to several of the amazing ones who are no longer with us—Valerie Leone and Frank Kovach from Chaney High School in Youngstown, Ohio, Jerry Carter (one of my graduate professors), and of course my mentor and guide Janet Leff who paved the way for my recovery. This week I learned that the first teacher to so deeply touch my soul—Barbara Dohar—left her earthly body after a battle with cancer. She was my third-grade teacher at St. Brendan Catholic School in Youngstown, and almost everyone I know from my time there, including my brother Paul who had her in class six years later, remembers her as one of their favorites, if not their absolute favorite. Although I was blessed with many great elementary school teachers at St. Brendan, which was overall not a safe place for me due to bullying, Mrs. Dohar was a special light of kindness and compassion. Even after she wasn’t officially my teacher I would always go to visit her, and that’s how my brother remembers her too. She never stopped being your teacher. As Paul reflected, “Her warmth and generosity extended beyond the limits of the school year.”
I fondly remember her daughter Marie-Elizabeth as well, who was my brother’s classmate at the same school. In reaching out to Marie-Elizabeth over Facebook to offer my condolences, we marveled at how so many of Mrs. Dohar’s students, her “children” as was referenced in the funeral homily, speak of what a powerful presence she was in their life, even thirty and forty years later after they had her in class. She spent her entire career teaching in Youngstown area Catholic schools and actively leading youth groups at her home parish of St. Maron’s. Whenever students would see her in the community in their adulthood, it was common for us to tell her that she was the best teacher we ever had. According to Marie-Elizabeth, Mrs. Dohar, who lived with such a quiet humility, could never believe that spending nine months with a single teacher could leave such an impact.
My class third grade class at St. Brendan (1987-1988) only had her as a teacher for six months—because she was out on maternity leave for three months of the school year when her son John was born. And I know that for so many of us, it felt like we lost the sun. In those short six months, she not only taught me what I needed to know as a third-grader, she made me feel like I was special and beautiful just as I was. For me, she epitomized the words of Fr. Henri Nouwen that I love so much and that I often cite in my teaching: “When we honestly ask which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.”
And so often it was just in the way that she looked at me—with that glowing smile of acceptance, never disapproval. Mrs. Dohar knew that I had a hard time fitting in with my peers because I was overweight and rather different—even at eight years old I never felt like I belonged in the era into which I was born, showing a love for reading, old music, showtunes, and history instead of what the other kids were into. She would say things to me, sometimes in the line to the bathroom, sometimes when I came up to her desk, and other times on recess where I just felt understood.
“Jamie, you’re my walking encyclopedia,” she would say, with an air of reverence and respect, never as a put down a la you should do more to try to fit in.
Once she even said in front of the whole class, “Jamie is going to be President someday,” and that made me smile. Although I would never want that job in a million years, it made me feel empowered to know I could do great things.
And another time, after being brutally teased by some classmates, she just let me cry with her. If you study with me, you know that I don’t throw this term around loosely—Barbara Dohar was my safe place.
Even though a word was never spoken about it between us, she also seemed to pick up on the struggles that I had at home. Several years prior, my father left the Catholic Church and became a rather anti-Catholic Evangelical. Only in recent years of my healing am I starting to deeply realize how much my father’s new religion harmed me, and even as I was being exposed as a young kid to all of those anti-Catholic ideals, there I was in a Catholic school getting Catechism and marinating in a great deal of confusion. She knew how much it affected me, and she provided me with my first dose of the only medicine that ever helped me to heal from the wounds of spiritual abuse and mixed messaging—what Nouwen and other theologians call the ministry of presence.
At her funeral Mass, which was private due to the COVID pandemic yet we were fortunately able to stream online, Deacon William George said it best: “She was a hero our children could look at and see God’s love here on earth…her ministry was her life.”
No dogma. No pressure to conform. No scolding. No preaching.
Just pure love.
Even when she set a boundary or disciplined the class, she did it with such love that showed us she really cared.
Mrs. Dohar is one of the beautiful beacons in my life that helped me to know that Jesus was and is real and not abusive. I met Him through her.
This type of presence is how someone can be in a teacher’s classroom for only six months formally yet learn a lifetime of lessons about the truth of their self-worth. This quality is what so many of us truly get through education. Not just reading, writing, and Catechism. Rather, receiving those wondrous glimpses into how God really sees us: Precious. Radiant. Capable of so much if we can just be shown some non-judgmental love and compassion. These are qualities that I believe make good therapists and good educators. As someone who wears both hats in this adult life, I know that I carry her influence. She was the first one to show me what a therapeutic relationship means.
When my St. Brendan classmates put together an informal reunion at a pizza bar in downtown Youngstown in 2010 (we were all around thirty-one), Mrs. Dohar is the one teacher we all wanted to invite. And her showing up for that party was like the sun graced us with its presence once more. Of course we all gushed our usual compliments to Mrs. Dohar on her, and she was bashful. She would give this look that said, “I didn’t do anything special.”
Like Deacon George said in the homily, “Her life was her ministry.”
Her simple existence is what was special.
And as Marie-Elizabeth shared with me, this blog would probably make her bashful, if not embarrassed. Yet I want you to know what a beautiful person touched my life at such a vulnerable age, and I only hope that I can pay a small portion of this grace forward in the work that I do and in the life that I live today.
I love you, Mrs. Dohar.
I’m truly sorry I didn’t get one more chance in this lifetime to tell you that. Yet somehow I think you know. For you lived your life in that realm of love.