Life has taught retired teacher Helene Langan just as much as she taught her students.
In her 80 years, the parishioner of Our Lady of Fatima Church in Delanson learned that faith requires work and continual recommitment, divorcees are not destined for fire and brimstone, and teachers make a huge difference in the lives of children.
Ms. Langan grew up in Utica and attended SUNY-Oneonta for a teaching degree at her father's suggestion, as it would be a good career for a future mother. She was married by 21 and had to take a break from teaching for 14 years as she raised her five children.
"As soon as you started to show [a pregnancy], you had to leave," she recalled. But it was worth it: "I love being a mother more than anything. You have so much love to give, and you get it back, too."
When motherhood's demands eased, she spent a quarter century educating kindergartners through third-graders at Middleburgh Elementary School. She saw many parallels between teaching and parenting and now believes teaching is a vocation.
"Not everybody can be a teacher," Ms. Langan said. "I really enjoyed the children. When I started, I didn't realize what adults say to children, what an impact it has on their lives. Children remember and react to what adults say."
One of her kindergartners often came to school in tears.
"I would sit her on my lap and rock back and forth with her and talk with her until she was OK," Ms. Langan remembered. "I never knew what happened [to her].
"Sometimes children would come in and they wouldn't have money for lunch or they lost their snack or milk money," she continued, "and you take care of that so they feel comfortable. I think the most important role is to help children get along together. If they're angry or hurt or have something going on inside of them, they're not going to be active learners."
During her own childhood, she wasn't particularly religious. Her father had divorced before he met her mother, and she was upset by nuns who said divorced people burned in hell: "I did not believe that God would do that to people."
College was a turning point for Ms. Langan: She "could either continue to go to church or not.
"When I look back on my long life, I can find points where I consciously make the decision to stay with the Church," she said. "I have to separate the hierarchical part from the spiritual part. And I learned that I have to use my conscience."
When her own marriage ended in 1982, she struggled with the annulment process and with figuring out who she was without a spouse.
"It took a long time to heal," she said. "It was a hard time for me, but it was a good time, too, because I found out so many things about myself. I was a worthwhile person. It made me stronger [and] a self-actualized person."
She said the parishes she attended were always "warm and welcoming," but the annulment process could have gone better: "I'm hoping that since I went through it, it's changed, because it's really a humiliating experience."
Immersing herself in her faith was helpful. Today, Ms. Langan is a eucharistic minister, a lector and lector trainer, a greeter, and a member of Our Lady of Fatima's prayer and worship committee and intergenerational faith formation program.
She devours Catholic publications and attends workshops at the annual diocesan Spring Enrichment to stay educated on the faith.
"It's made my horizons much broader," she said. "I think that most Catholics couldn't name the seven sacraments or the Ten Commandments. People have a lot of confusion about what the Church teaches."
Ms. Langan is a big proponent of adult faith formation and gets frustrated by low attendance at sessions because people want to watch TV or go out to dinner. Adult faith formation, she said, offers "an education on the deeper meaning of Church teaching. I believe in lifelong learning."
Ms. Langan enjoys spending time with her children, 10 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, sewing and quilting in groups and working at a local food pantry.