Jill Demmel was the type of teacher you are destined to reminisce about long after you leave the report cards, reading assignments and recesses behind.
As a second-grade teacher at St. Catherine Labouré School in Harrisburg, Demmel understood that some of her pint-sized students were dealing with adult-sized challenges beyond the walls of her alphabet-lined, primary-colored classroom, fragrant with the scent of Play-Doh, books and glue.
To brighten their world, Demmel performed countless random acts of kindness: she bought hairbrushes and decorated them with the words “You Are Beautiful” to brush a student’s hair every morning.
She bought snacks for the children who would have gone without.
She came to every game, recital and tournament and cheered exuberantly from the sidelines.
“She gave out ‘mom hugs’ and you didn’t even have to tell her you needed it,” said Megan Fackler, the school’s administrative assistant and Demmel’s close friend.
She even purchased clothing for students in need.
So when she suddenly passed away on October 9 at the age of 49, leaving behind her husband Bob, two daughters, parents Ronald and Judith DiNinni, sister April and a confused classroom of second-graders, the close-knit school family was rocked to its core.
Demmel had just been diagnosed with what was deemed to be a “mild” case of breast cancer. After just one chemotherapy treatment, she was hit with an aggressive infection that overpowered her gentle, loving heart.
But in her true selfless fashion, before she started chemotherapy, she left a carton full of Nerds candy for Fackler, so Fackler could still enjoy her guilty pleasure while Demmel was unable to leave her daily sweet surprise on Fackler’s desk.
No one thought that carton of Nerds would outlast her.
The pain and permanence of death is difficult for anybody to fathom, but when you are seven, and the teacher you love was fine on Friday but gone on Sunday, grief and confusion are more confounding than advanced algebra.
On that solemn Sunday, an emergency text went out to all school parents informing them of the sad news and encouraging them to talk to their children. Grief counselors were also brought in to help.
Children at that age often experience “magical thinking” to try to cope with complex issues, grief experts say. When they lack the emotional tools to understand the world, they may, irrationally, blame themselves or others to try to explain the unexplainable.
Fortunately for the children of St. Catherine’s, something truly magical happened instead.
The teacher who stepped into Mrs. Demmel’s ample shoes was her 22-year-old daughter Ashley, who, as fate would have it, had just graduated from Shippensburg University with a degree in Elementary and Special Education.
Long-time learning support teacher Aimee Surgeoner said some caring teachers feared it would be far too painful for Ashley to walk into her mom’s empty classroom.
Yet, soon, they saw that taking her mom’s place was far from traumatic—it was healing. Ashley wanted to teach the kids the way her mom did; hug them like she did; and give them the Christmas gifts her mom would have, which she did: blankets and ornaments with their names on them. She wanted to train them for the all-important sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion.
Still, Ashley wants to be known as a gifted teacher, not just Jill’s daughter. Fortunately for her schoolchildren, she is both.
When news of Ashley’s hiring hit social media, the outpouring of joy was tangible.
“Absolutely beautiful” said one mom…. “Can’t think of a better tribute to Jill and a gift for those lucky second graders.”….. “Best news I’ve heard in a long time,” said another mom….“Couldn’t imagine anyone else teaching those kids!”
“I see a lot of Jill in Ashley,” Fackler said. “Ashley is gentle, kind and patient. She gives the best hugs. She is her mother’s child.”
“We were elated for Ashley to take her mother’s room,” Fackler added. “She was graduating college and it just seemed like fate.”
“Ashley is a quieter, more reserved version of her mom,” who were often seen together at school events or decorating the classroom.
“Having Ashley step in for her mother has been a blessing for all of us. It has truly been seamless,” Surgeoner said. The entire school community, from the principal and teachers, to the custodians and lunch ladies, supports her, and they all feel Ashley channeling her mom’s love.
Ashley just wishes she could text her mom for advice one more time.
Students sharing memories of Jill with Ashley has been a big part of their collective coping, Surgeoner said.
Even the Demmels’ dogs – a beagle mix and a black Lab – seemed to be in mourning, but they have gravitated toward Ashley, too. They used to sleep in bed curled up by Jill; after roaming the house for weeks looking for Jill, they now often sleep with Ashley.
In honor of Demmel, the school family purchased a buddy bench, which Fackler described as a place where, “when you are feeling sad or alone, you sit. Friends see you and either sit with you or ask you to join them.” It was something Demmel always wanted for the school playground.
“I know the staff will be sitting on it to talk to her as well,” Fackler said.
“I feel like Jill’s final gift to her daughter was Room 116. Jill will never be replaced, and that void will always be present…. As much as I know she didn’t want people to be sad for her, she comforted us with Ashley.”
Ashley said the kids sometime tell her they miss her mom. Often they call her “Mom.” Even though she is “Miss Demmel,” they often call her “Mrs. Demmel.” And that’s more than fine with her.
“I know she was my mom, but she literally was the best person ever,” said Ashley. Her father always called his wife “a saint.”
Still, school goes on, including the pancake breakfasts, the school plays, the holiday fundraisers, the classroom parties. Soon, Mrs. Demmel’s first class of second-graders will be graduating from St. Catherine’s as eighth-graders.
Fackler said, “You can still feel Jill in room 116, and I think Ashley feels comfort in that. It was just meant to be. We needed her, and she needed us.”
(Diane McNaughton is a parishioner of St. Catherine Labouré Parish and a freelance writer. Bench photo by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)
By Diane McNaughton, Special to The Witness