This month, Deanna O’Keefe will watch her 8th grade students run the halls for the last time. She will stand proud at graduation, feeling like these are the only students who have ever risen above the rigors of their final year to emerge academically, emotionally and spiritually prepared for high school.
When she wishes them good luck, it also will be her final goodbye.
After 21 years at St. Norbert Catholic School in Orange, “Mama O” is moving to Kentucky and will continue teaching junior high students U.S. history and religion at St. Albert the Great Catholic School in Louisville.
Mrs. O’Keefe is brutally honest and holds students responsible for their actions. She yells, she reprimands, she doesn’t give up. She refuses to ask for respect; she demands it.
There’s good in every child, O’Keefe says, and every child has it in him.
“Give your best and a little more” reads one of the many inspirational quotes lining her brick classroom walls. And O’Keefe always expects a little more, whether a student’s gift is academics—or not.
“She helps kids see their strengths and draws them out,” says SNCS parent Sharon Pearson, whose three oldest children were taught by Mrs. O’Keefe. “She teaches so much more than history and English—she teaches life skills that carry them through high school.”
Former student Nicolet Luebke couldn’t agree more.
“Mrs. O’Keefe and St. Norbert lay the foundation for us and instill confidence in students,” says Luebke, a substitute teacher at Rosary High School. “Just one person believing in you can change the course of your path in life.”
Mrs. O’Keefe is just as focused on parent accountability.
She recalled one mischievous student summoned for a meeting with his parents, who denied their son’s wrongdoing. The boy admitted his participation; his mother would not.
“Saving your children every time is doing them a disservice,” insists O’Keefe, 53, a graduate of SNCS and Mater Dei High School. “If they fail early then they know how to fix it. Eighth grade is that launching point.”
Faith is the cornerstone of her classroom. Every chance she gets she weaves life lessons into her daily planner.
“That’s what I love about teaching in a Catholic school—we teach academics but also how we should do things,” says Mrs. O’Keefe. “If I’m talking about a social injustice issue in history I ask, ‘How would you have handled it?’ Kindness and compassion. It matters how we treat others.”
O’Keefe has led this tight-knit school community by example. Outside of the classroom, she’s helped organize Bunco games and regional dances. She has secured sponsors for SNCS fundraisers, decorated props and made costumes for countless Christmas programs and spring musicals. She has coached the school decathlon team.
Twenty years ago, she also initiated the highly anticipated Washington, D.C. expedition. No child was ever left behind, even if that meant soliciting donations to make that happen. The trip gave O’Keefe the chance to share her love of history and her patriotic spirit.
And the impact has been far reaching.
Former students, now adults, are pursuing careers in the political arena. Another is an attorney, a surprising career after his academic struggles at St. Norbert.
When asked what she’d like her legacy to be, Mrs. O’Keefe took a long pause and focused on the top of her desk before looking up to respond.
Fighting back tears, Mrs. O’Keefe humbly answered: “I just want the kids to know that I love them and I saw the best in them.”