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Thursday, Aug. 30, 2007 02:37 pm

Starting over

Veteran Ursuline teacher finds a new home at Springfield High

Untitled Document Ask Sheila Walk what she misses about her previous teaching job, and she ticks off a list ranging from the profound to the mundane: She misses the quaint architecture of the ancient building. She misses the students and teachers who filled its halls. She misses the “block scheduling” that allotted 90 minutes per class. She even misses the blue recycling bins. The fact that her new job pays a significantly higher wage and has air conditioning — a perk her previous gig lacked — doesn’t begin to compensate for what she lost.
“I miss being completely sure of what I’m doing and that I’m doing it well,” she says softly. “I miss the familiarity of it.”
For 22 years Walk taught language arts at Ursuline Academy. In May, when the school’s owners — Springfield College in Illinois and Benedictine University — announced that the school would be closed down, Walk was the teacher who had been there longest. She knew every student, every family. She loved that school. “There was a feel to it that visitors would often comment upon,” Walk says. “My husband, soon in our courtship, said, ‘This doesn’t feel like a normal high school.’ There was something unique about it. It was hard to define, but once people got there they understood it.”
Her voice makes her sound like a cross between a Midwestern farm girl, which she is (her family raised grain and livestock on a spread outside of Neoga), and the sweet ingénue in some BBC Masterpiece Theatre production. She chooses her words consciously, from a classical vocabulary, and her tone approximates that of a professional golf commentator. At Ursuline, Walk taught speech, discussion, debate, oral interpretation, and drama — a job she calls “an enviable load.”
“There are few schools in Illinois where that much speech communication is taught,” she says. Her load included required classes for freshmen and sophomores, so she taught every student in Ursuline Academy for at least a year and a half. At school sporting events, concerts, or performances, Walk knew every kid on the field, court, or stage — an intimacy that never failed to sweeten the experience.
“You know the old adage ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’? Well, I knew what I had,” Walk says. “It was a wonderful place.”
She heard rumblings that the school was in trouble, with its budget declining, but as Ursuline approached its jubilee year Walk felt optimistic. “Our enrollment was up, the principal was staying, most teachers were staying, and we had a great group of parents and students. So I thought, ‘This is great; this is a new chapter, an upward swing,’ ” she says.
“When rumors would circulate, I would say, ‘You know, this school’s been here 150 years. We’ve been through wars and depressions. This is a scrappy little school. We’re fine.’ ”
But on May 14 the principal made a startling announcement. He sent the students to the gym and gathered the teachers and staff in a classroom to tell them that Ursuline was being closed. “Time stopped for a moment, because it was such a shock,” Walk says. “In that moment, life changed for me. It wasn’t a career or a profession, and it certainly wasn’t just a job. It was my vocation — and I used that in the lay sense of the word, not the religious term. It’s what I’d given my life to.”
What followed was a blur: two weeks of academic intensity, preparing students for final exams as though everything was normal, even as she watched them cycle through the stages of grief. Graduation, more poignant than usual. The jubilee celebration of Ursuline’s 150th year. The task of emptying the classroom she had inhabited for more than 20 years. Students, alums, family, and friends helped Walk pack and load box after box on a truck. “I will always remember that last look around the classroom, now empty, and sound of the door as it closed,” she says. Walk, though, had something not every Ursuline teacher had — a clear knowledge of where she was going. Only two days after SCI announced the school closure, Walk had received a phone call from Chuck Hoots, the principal of Springfield High School. She later received other inquiries but decided to accept Hoots’ offer. Walk now teaches senior English, a speech class, and a course called Drama as Literature in a fourth-floor classroom (take the elevator to the third floor, then climb a steep staircase)  at Springfield High.
“I feel like a new teacher again,” she says. “After 27 years of teaching, I feel like a rookie.”
She likes SHS. She likes the staff, the curriculum, the architecture, the constant presence of her favorite creatures: teenagers. She’s on board with the school’s mission statement; she finds SHS policies “logical.” And she likes bumping into the 40-or-so Ursuline refugees in the hallways. The only thing missing is something she plans to rebuild. “I miss the trust. [At Ursuline], people trusted me to know what I was doing and do a good job,” she says. “I look forward to the students at Springfield High knowing that I have information they’ll need about the world and college and beyond. I have some accumulated wisdom, and they have a right to what I know.”

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