Marie Brakebill has three children of her own, but she has been a mother to hundreds throughout her 22 years teaching pre-kindergarten at St. Edward School in Little Rock.
“You may clean the dirty nose, you may have to help with bathroom skills in the beginning of the year; you hug them, but you’re firm with them,” Brakebill, 56, said. “But you love them. I just don’t think there’s enough love given to children in this world today. Too many children they don’t feel like they have a safe place or have somebody who loves them.”
Teaching was not something she originally set out to do. In her native Louisiana, Brakebill worked as a bookkeeper at a bank before marrying her husband Charles in 1980. The couple moved to Little Rock to be closer to his family in 1986. Everything changed when the couple had their first child, daughter Erin, now 31.
“It took us five years to have our first child. I never thought I’d get pregnant,” Brakebill said, adding that leaving their daughter at a daycare with strangers was something she could not handle.
“I have to know what’s going on with my kid,” she said and took a job at Little Rock’s Second Baptist Childcare Center in 1990. She is still connected to Second Baptist today, serving as the Lake Nixon Day Camp director in the summers.
Brakebill, who grew up Southern Baptist, and her husband, Nazarene, decided to go back to church and went to St. Edward Church on a whim in 1991 with their three children, Erin, Cody, now 30, and Jonathan, now 26.
It just happened to be Easter Sunday.
“When you walk in there’s just that presence. You know you’re in a holy place ... It’s just overwhelming,” Brakebill said. “We just kind of sat and watched.”
The couple joined the Church in 1994 and a year later, when the childcare center closed, she was offered a job as a teacher for the new pre-k program at St. Edward.
“I don’t think that teaching is a job. We are not in it for the money. I could make more in a public school. I like where I’m at. My dad always said, ‘If you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life.’ And I love what I do,” Brakebill said.
Patty James, a resource teacher and dyslexia specialist at St. Edward School, said her son, who is now 24, still considers Brakebill one of his favorite teachers. James said her willingness to get down on the children’s level — whether that means literally getting on the floor for an activity or dressing up as the “Cat in the Hat” on Dr. Seuss’ birthday — keeps her class of 15 engaged.
“She doesn’t call attention to herself, but she is certainly one of the top three teachers I’ve ever encountered,” James said, who has worked with Brakebill for 17 years. “She’s patient, she’s dedicated and as a Catholic school teacher our position is really considered a ministry … she cultivated and created that pre-k program. It didn’t exist before she started.”
Brakebill said her extra patience with 4-year-olds comes from her experiences with son Cody, who has Oppositional Defiant Disorder, which causes disobedient behavior. Brakebill will often allow students to be her “helper” or refocus their attention if she picks up on similar behaviors.
“He tried so hard to make friends; sometimes he tried too hard. It kind of broke my heart,” to see others treating him badly, she said. “If I see that happening in my room, I stop that, nip it in the bud, so that child does feel included. … I want them to be treated like I would want someone to treat my children and grandchildren.”
Just as she knows patience is important, she learned even more compassion after her 2-year-old grandson Ja’Kylen was killed in a car accident in 2009.
“This job was my salvation when that baby died,” Brakebill said through tears, adding that after a tragedy like hers, “I think you’re more sensitive to little people and how you should take care of them and how they should be taken care of by other people.”
Every day, Brakebill takes to heart a sign hanging in the teacher’s lounge that quotes Brother Robert R. Bimonte: “If your class was optional, would anyone want to attend?”
“I always try to have something new, something exciting in my room … I want the kids to say to their parents, ‘I want to go to school to see Mrs. Brakebill.’”
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