TOMMY

THE BOY WHO MADE A DIFFERENCE FOR GOOD

By Sister Myra Richards, OSF

This is the day the Lord has made, let us be glad and rejoice in it

During these days waiting out the Coronavirus, we can utilize our time to spread The Good News. As sad as it might seem, the story that follows changed the lives of those who lived it.

My story dates to when I was a teacher in Lorain, Ohio.  Our school overlooked the majestic waters of Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes. I had a challenging class of about 45 eighth grade students. We departmentalized in the seventh and eighth grades, so I taught English, Art, Music and Religion.

There was one boy in class whom everyone admired. He had spent several weeks at home recovering from surgery the previous year and his peers were so happy to have him back with them. Tommy was always a delight.  He loved to jump rope and usually spent his lunch period jumping rope as all the kids on the playground gathered to watch.

Tommy was a leader, always cheerful and considerate and always a lot of fun.  There was no room for pouting or ill will for Tommy.  His goodness was as constant as daybreak.

One religion class was about vocations.  We discussed the various stages of life…marriage, the single state and the call to become a religious, a priest or a Sister.  All kinds of questions arose and the one most asked was ‘How do you know to which one you will be called?’  They could understand being called to the marriage and single state but continued to ask how a person would know if they would be called to be a Sister, Brother or Priest.

I proceeded to tell them.  You will know.  You will have a feeling in your heart.  God will come knocking at your door or He will ring your doorbell.

Tommy, who was sitting nearby said, “Sister if He tries to ring my doorbell, it won’t happen because my doorbell is broken”.  I looked at him and said, “Tommy, if the Lord wants you, He will get you one way or another.”

A few days later we were having an art project in preparation for Easter.  It was a difficult task which involved weaving strips of paper to form what resembled stars and then the stars would be inserted into one another to form a cross.  As the students were busy helping each other Tommy approached my desk to show me what he thought was finished.  I told him that there was a little box of holy cards on the shelf in the back of the room and that he should find a pretty picture and paste it on the cross.  I watched him as he leafed through the box and he held up a holy card depicting a cross with a white cloth draped over its beams.  I said that it was nice but the cross on cross wouldn’t look too good but then immediately I told him that it was okay.  When he was finished, I told him to take it home and hang it in a prominent place where everyone who came into his house might see it.

A knock came on our classroom door and one of the Friars came and asked if he could speak to the altar servers.  He proceeded to tell them he was going on retreat and told them to be sure to keep their assignments to comb their hair and hang up their cassocks after each service.  When the Friar left, Tommy asked if he could leave the room and speak to the Friar.

A few days passed.  It was a Friday evening and I was in my room when I heard the fire siren nearby.  Our convent was on the main street and the hospital was only a short distance away so I was used to hearing the sirens.  I always stopped and said a prayer, something I learned from my youth.

While later our telephone rang and within a few moments one of the Sisters was at my door.  Her countenance told the story.  Tommy was killed.  My only thought was, I must go to the home.  I must be there for the parents.  His mother would be broken-hearted.  Tears welled up and as I hurried many thoughts of that precious boy flowed into my mind.  I thought of his mother telling me of how Tommy babbled in trying to talk to her when he was just a baby.  He would look into her eyes and carry on a conversation.  When she came for Parent-Teacher meetings she would share her joys.

I arrived at the house.  It was about eight o’clock.  I reached for the doorbell and stopped.  The doorbell was hanging, broken…just as Tommy had said.  My own words surfaced, “If the Lord wants you Tommy, He will get you one way or another”.

Tommy’s father was sitting in the kitchen.  It was too hard for me to speak.  The silence was deafening.  I looked at the cross hanging by the door.  As I looked in its direction I said, “He did that so nicely” “Yes”, he answered, “He wanted to put it near the front door but the wind blew it off the wall every time someone came into the house.”

It took time for me to observe what had happened.  In truth I didn’t really know what happened until later.

Tommy had gone to see another classmate who had won a trophy for a basketball accomplishment.  As he drove down the driveway to home his bicycle brakes gave way and he drove into the on-coming traffic.  Only the day before the city had taken down the street light in front of Ralph’s house and it was quite dark.

When I returned from Tommy’s house that night I went over to the classroom and sat in Tommy’s desk.  I thought of the many things that had happened in the preceding days.  I was in disbelief.  It was only a few hours earlier that I said good night to each member of the class as they passed me on their way home.

As I sat there, I thought of the art project and that he was only one of two students that finished.  I thought of the joy he brought to his classmates as he out-jumped all the girls during lunchtime on so many days.  I could envision all the boys cheering him on.  He was even a pro at Double-Dutch a popular form of jump-roping in Ohio.

I anticipated the student returning to class Monday morning and some of them gathering around Tommy’s desk.  What would it be like?  Some of them would be hearing of Tommy’s death for the first time.  Even their parents would not have heard, unable to give so much needed comfort.  How would I handle the shock?  I never expected that some of them might be angry.

I was curious as to how Tommy had left his desk.  As it was to be expected everything was in order…not overly neat but orderly.  I was interested in reading some of the answers to the quizzes at the end of the chapters in his religion book.  One of the questions was: What would you do if your parents punished you for something you did not do?  Tommy wrote, “I would take the punishment for all the times I didn’t get punished for something I did do.”  On another blank he had written, “I know I will be saved because God loves me.”

The weekend dragged and I poured out my sadness in tears over and over when I was alone.

After what seemed that the weekend would never end, Monday finally arrived.  It was extremely difficult for the class dealing with Tommy’s death.  They didn’t want to do anything.  They expressed their feelings as to what they believed was my indifference concerning Tommy’s death when my reflection on the blackboard began with Tommy WAS instead of IS.  They could not accept that Tommy was gone and they would never have him with them again.  I let them work out their anger and hurt.  They moped around and decided to do just nothing until I finally questioned them as to what they were going to do for Tommy’s funeral liturgy.  How were they going to lessen the grief of the parents and others who were hurting just as much as they?

I spoke of the goodness of Tommy and how he had brought joy to each one in the class.

I didn’t have to tell them.  They already knew.  He was always there for them.  Even his last kindness was letting Ralph know that he was proud of Ralph’s accomplishment when he visited Ralph’s home to see Ralph’s trophy that night.

I shared with them some of the sayings in Tommy’s religion book and told them to share it with each other.  I suggested that they might use some of his words in the Liturgy they should think of preparing.

Regular lessons in my classroom were set aside the next day and the class gathered in small groups to work on the Liturgy.  Some played guitar so they practiced and sang together.  The readings were special and they chose Tommy’s own words for the responsorial psalm, “I know I will be saved because God loves me.”  While they worked together they shared memories of Tommy and in sharing a certain peace crept into the room.

On the evening of Tommy’s wake the children realized they would never see their friend again.  The casket was closed.

Tommy’s funeral Mass was special.  To observe his classmates, each one having a part was very moving.  At the Kiss of Peace a group went to the Mother and presented her with flowers and to the parents a Bible with a white cloth cover.  The Communion reflection was the reading of the poem ‘Footprints’.  It had a special meaning because the schoolyard is on the banks of Majestic Lake Erie the setting for Tommy’s Jump rope marathons and where all the children of St. Anthony School have for many years enjoyed hours of play.

The morning after the funeral my heart was heavy.  I did not want to face the class.  How could we go on as if nothing happened.  I began to feel sorry for myself.  No one, not even one person said to me, “Sister I’m sorry.”  I could not keep the tears back.  I sobbed.  Tommy was one of my students.  He came to my classroom every day, month after month.  He was a delight…a breath of spring in the harshest days of winter.

I didn’t know it at the time but when the Friar came the day we were doing the Easter art project, Tommy had asked to speak to the Friar.  He had asked that he might be re-instated as an altar server.  Tommy had been sick the year before.  That’s the way he was…always wanting to do good.

As I started out to church for morning Mass that Monday I believed that Tommy would help me.  I kept thinking how difficult it would be to walk into my class.  Everything seemed to drag, yet it was all over so quickly.  It just didn’t seem right or somehow fair.  As I walked I kept saying over and over, “Tommy you’ve got to help me.  You were always so good.  Can’t you please do something for me?”  As I neared the back of the gym building I noticed a piece of white paper under the basketball rim.  I leaned down and picked it up.  It was one of the little holy cards given out at funerals.  Through my tears I read ‘Thomas Patrick Zaworski’.  I turned the card over and can never, (even if I live a hundred years), I can never convey what I experienced when I saw the identical cross Tommy had pasted on the Easter cross he made in art class.  All my sorrows turned to joy and I literally ran the rest of the way to church.  It is a joy that I always experience every time I think of Tommy.  I believe he was right there with me during those sacred days.

I pray daily that I, like Tommy, can make a difference in just one life each day.

Thirty-nine years have passed since then and my memory of those days is as fresh as it was then.  I hear the fire siren and the phone ringing.  I see the Sister at my door and hear her voice.  I see the doorbell hanging as I stand on Tommy’s front steps.  I feel Tommy’s presence near me as he sits in his desk close by.  I experience the joy he brought to an entire class, a joy that made each day special when it was difficult to move on.  I cherish the memory of an entire class becoming aware of each other’s value and the reverence and respect they shared for each other.

To honor their classmate the students began a Thomas Zaworski Fund which would enable a student the privilege of attending St. Anthony School.  The fund is still active and the school is still thriving with a marvelous enrollment with excellent reviews.

I know that some day when I go to Heaven I will see Tommy.  He was just fourteen years old when he wrote, “I know I will be saved because God loves me”.