As Mrs. Sumner’s Kindergarteners convened around Mayor Jim Kenney for story time last week, a South Philadelphia student and teacher were reunited after four decades at St. Gabriel School.
Marking one of his weekly school visits, Kenney brought along City Representative Sheila Hess to the Grays Ferry school, where she visited educator Michelle Sumner, who was her fourth-grade teacher in 1978.
For both Hess and Sumner, the reunion marked life coming full circle.
“She helped me become more of a leader,” Hess said. “I would never have dreamt 40 years ago that I would be coming back to her class in this position with the mayor as my boss and still being involved with St. Gabe’s.”
Hess, who grew up in Grays Ferry before relocating to Packer Park, recalls the adventurous and altruistic nature of Sumner, who back then was known as Ms. Olivieri.
Sparking the beginning of her career, Sumner took the inquisitive fourth-grade class on trips around Philadelphia, including Phillies games at Veterans Stadium and historic sites in Old City.
Somewhere along the way, Hess, a graduate of St. Maria Goretti High School and Temple University, discovered a zeal for a city she’d eventually come to represent.
“We fell in love with the city through these visits. These are the things you remember,” Hess said. “…I’m honored and humbled to be able to do my job, because I love this city so much. It’s an incredible opportunity to represent the city and (Mayor Kenney) and to know it started all from my education in grade school.”
While Hess sees Sumner as an inspiration, the feeling is quite similar on the teacher’s end as well.
Born and raised in Epiphany’s parish, Sumner, who also attended Goretti and Temple, remembers stepping into her first class at St. Gabriel’s after graduating college in the mid-1970s.
She says any nerves from that very first day gradually eased after meeting a gentle fourth-grader named Sheila.
“I walked in 1978 and her little face was sitting right there, and we’ve been in touch all of these years,” Sumner said. “She has not changed. She was very bright. Very unassuming. She was very courageous, and there was no sense of bullying anywhere in this school, and we still don’t have that. So, whatever her limitations may have been were never limitations.”
Decades later, Hess, who was born with spina bifida, continues to show very little signs of limitations, maneuvering gracefully last week throughout the classroom, just as she boldly navigates the city each day.
“She’s a wonderful ambassador for the city,” Sumner said. “There was nothing she could not do or wouldn’t do. She truly is an inspiration to me. I know she sees it the other way, but truly, she’s an inspiration to me, and, I think anybody who has ever met her would say the same.”
Before being appointed as the city representative, Hess volunteered for Kenney when he served on City Council. She attributes this vehemence for volunteerism to Sumner’s gentle disposition with her students.
Forty years as an educator has not seemed to dull Sumner’s compassion, as her students, some of whom she says recently lost loved ones, were eager to share their own warmth with the mayor.
While some students asked if Kenney can lower taxes and others wondered if he controls the weather, Sumner’s class was particularly touched by the mayor as he shared with the youngsters his own recent experiences with love and lost.
“It’s a lot better than hanging out with adults,” Kenney said. “Trust me…Kids are unspoiled, and they’re perfect and they love and they want to be loved and they want to learn. It’s really a wonderful time in their life.”
When Hess isn’t representing Philly, she often returns to St. Gabe’s, where she gives lectors during services, striving to give back to the community and a teacher who set the foundation for her success.
“There’s something special as you can see who she was with her children,” Hess said. “There’s just a connection. She’s more than a teacher. She’s a mentor and friend. She’s someone who coaches you and wants to see you succeed…that’s a legacy of St. Gabe’s – being part of her class.”