Credit: HelloGiggles/Anna Buckley/Caitlin Flynn

For Women’s History Month, we asked our writers to sit down with their unsung heroes — their moms — and explore a topic the two don’t normally discuss. Our writers dug deep into subjects like careers, finances, and gender roles, and were shocked by what they learned. We hope you’ll be inspired to have a new kind of conversation with your mother or mother figure.

My mom, Lydia Flynn, and I have always shared an extremely close relationship and, in addition to being my best friend, she’s one of my heroes — right up there with Gloria Steinem, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the other women young feminists idolize.

I’ve always thought of my mom as a natural-born teacher, so it seemed right that I talk to her about her career for this project — but I was shocked to learn that she never wanted to be a teacher at all. In fact, it took quite a bit of convincing before she agreed to teach third grade at Our Lady of Guadalupe in San Antonio, Texas.

Immediately after graduating college, my parents joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and moved to San Antonio to become teachers. I’ve always known my mom’s time with the JVC was extremely formative and important, but I had no idea she was so unsure about signing up.

As far back as I can remember, my mom’s been a dedicated and thoughtful teacher. After my parents moved from San Antonio to Connecticut to start a family, she homeschooled me during different periods of my life, whether it was due to an intense ballet training schedule or the serious health problems that I developed in high school.

Plus, the year I left for college, my mom immediately took a job teaching third grade. When I was home for winter breaks, I frequently visited her classroom and saw firsthand that she was an amazing teacher who was passionate about her work and beloved by her students.

When we had a lengthy talk this month about her experience with the JVC, I learned that she found her calling in an unconventional way that changed the course of her life.

Caitlin Flynn: When you were in college, was the possibility of becoming a teacher on your radar?

Lydia Flynn: Not at all. I majored in psychology and my concentration was child development, but I was actually way more involved in political organizing throughout college. I had done quite a bit of organizing for the Campaign for Safe Energy, and volunteered for Jimmy Carter’s campaign.

My plan was to join VISTA when I graduated and do community organizing. Your dad and I applied together, and the application process was dragging on, and then we found out that one of his references had never sent in the necessary paperwork. By the time we found out, most of the positions had been filled. So then we looked into the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC).

CF: Were you given options within JVC?

LF: They gave us options and again I chose community organizing because there were positions available. But then I was tapped for a position teaching in an elementary school in San Antonio. I said I wasn’t interested, but the contact kept talking to me about how special this school was and how it was the greatest experience he’d ever had. So I filled out the reference forms and other paperwork and drove to San Antonio. It was a very quick decision and it’s hard to even explain why I did it, but it turned out to be the right place for me.

CF: What was the student body like?

LF: It was entirely the children of Mexican immigrants, and many of the students were from undocumented families. We were located in the barrio on the west side of San Antonio, and the public schools didn’t have great resources, so a lot of the families really wanted their children in Catholic school.

Q: Were there issues with immigration officials?

LF: In the course of my time teaching, there were multiple instances where during the day, while my students were in the classroom, their parents were taken by immigration officials and deported back to Mexico. The principal would come to the room and tell me, and then relatives came to get the kids at the end of the day and they stayed with their relatives.

CF: What was the impact on these students?

LF: It was devastating. They’d be sitting in the classroom and then at the end of the day an aunt or an uncle would come and have to tell them that their parents had been taken back to Mexico. So of course it was very hard for them to concentrate on their schoolwork, and it was incredibly upsetting.

CF: Were the students at risk of deportation?

LF: The school was located on church grounds, which are considered a sanctuary. So immigration could not come onto the grounds of the church or the school. There were also times when we did have people living in the rectory or in our housing — we had a little house on the grounds — who were seeking sanctuary. We had people from Mexico, El Salvador, and Nicaragua primarily. Sometimes people would just come to the church seeking sanctuary because they had nowhere else to turn.

CF: It wasn’t the path you saw for yourself, but how would you describe your experience teaching with the JVC?

LF: I really, really loved it. We were provided housing and a stipend of $65 per month for food and $65 for everything else. The idea was that we’d live a similar life to the people with whom we were working. At the end of the day, you wouldn’t leave and go to an entirely different neighborhood or environment. We were there 24 hours a day, so we really got to know our students and their families. We went and visited them in their homes; I wound up being a godmother for one of my students at her First Communion. A really big part of JVC was that we were immersed in the environment.

CF: Is there a specific story or incident from your time with JVC that really sticks out to you and has stayed with you to this day?

LF: On my first day teaching at Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1980, I met Eva, who became a lifelong dear friend. She arrived at the door of my classroom with two of her five children. It was her family’s first day at the school, too. Her kids had been attending the local public school, but Eva was not at all satisfied with the education her children were receiving there, so she had decided to bring them to OLG.

She was my peer, only three years older than me, but our lives could not have been more different. She had married when she was 15, and not long after became pregnant with her first child. I felt like I was only just beginning my adult life, but Eva was so much farther along than me.

She and I hit it off immediately. Eva hadn’t had much in the way of a formal education, but she was clearly very smart and she was a very loving, devoted mother. We became very close friends and I had the honor of teaching all five of her children.

My last year at OLG, because of unusual enrollment numbers, I was teaching a combination 2nd and 3rd grade class, and three of her children were in the class. She volunteered every day, all day, as my classroom aide that year. Because she was smart and had such great maternal skills, she was invaluable to making that year teaching two grades work. I was so honored when she asked me to be the godmother for her daughter’s first communion.

We have stayed in touch all these years. When I travel to San Antonio, I get to see her and the children and their families and we keep in touch on Facebook. What all five children have accomplished in their personal and professional lives has been truly remarkable and uplifting to witness. Whenever we get together, she and the children will always reminisce about those days and very graciously talk about what they learned from me in the classroom. But really, I learned so much from her about perseverance and parenting. It’s hard to imagine how I would have had a friend from such a different background with such a different life trajectory from my own if not for my JVC experience.

CF: Are you still in touch with any of your other students?

LF: Yes. We try to get back to San Antonio every few years and we do see our former students. It’s just so great to see them. They have their own families now, and they’ve done very well in terms of jobs and homes. They’ve done great. It’s wonderful to see that their lives are definitely an improvement over how they lived as children. They’ve progressed and achieved that middle class dream their parents had for them.

CF: After your time at home with me and [my brother], what was it like going back to teaching in Connecticut years later?

LF: It was different. It was great, I loved it, I loved being back in the classroom. But I obviously was not as immersed as I was in Texas. I certainly got to know my students well and I got to know their parents, but not in the same way as when everyone’s living in the same neighborhood and in similar circumstances. But JVC did make me want to become a teacher. It definitely was my calling to be a teacher.