Sometimes a pie in the face is just a pie in the face.
Sometimes it's much more.
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Jenny Patrick knows the difference. She teaches eighth-grade reading, language arts and pre-algebra at Roselle Middle School, and she's one of those people who seems to have a smile in her voice and a belief that learning doesn't begin and end in the confines of her classroom.
Get her talking about her students and her new profession - she was a buyer for Spiegel catalog and a stay-at-home mom before becoming a teacher 13 months ago - and words like character and empathy come spilling out.
"Character is something these kids need to develop," she says. "Teenagers need a chance to work on empathy."
It can be as basic as teaching them to avoid snarky comments on Facebook or how not to snicker when someone misspeaks.
It can be as complex as showing them they have a role in the world and can make it a better place.
Which is why, in the midst of studying about the Holocaust this winter, she wanted her students to think about the people of Haiti, too, and how a group of middle school students could make a difference in the lives of people in need.
That, of course, is where the pie in the face comes in.
Grace House of Hope for Girls Orphanage provided a home for 30 youngsters ages 3 through 16 in Bon Repos, Haiti.
It was supported by Jim and Patty Meyer of Naperville, with help from Wheatland Salem United Methodist Church and others, and provided a safe haven for children who had never even seen a toilet before.
The building was destroyed in the January earthquake, leaving the girls to live beneath an open-sided tin roof in a gravel field and eating their meals out of Frisbees that serve as plates.
They are lucky to be alive. All 30 of them and their teachers escaped the wreckage unharmed. But now they must wait for the building that once housed them to rise again.
The Meyers were instrumental in raising money for the orphanage the first time and now they are working to do it once more. They need clothes and shoes for the girls and money for the building.
They explained all that Tuesday during a slide show at an end-of-the-day assembly at the middle school. They showed pictures of the orphanage before the quake, they showed the devastation in its wake.
The students sat quietly, many with quarter-sized eyes, trying to take it all in. Afterward, at least one boy came up to the Meyers to thank them for their efforts.
"I was very touched by that," Patty Meyer says. "It made the whole visit worth it."
The Meyers, in turn, thanked the youngsters and faculty because their school of 220 students had raised $2,348 for the cause in just a few weeks. It will be enough to feed all 30 girls for six months.
When she first thought about raising money for Haiti, Patrick says she thought the school would donate it through the American Red Cross.
But when she learned about the efforts of the Meyers, she changed her mind.
"We knew 100 percent of what we donated would go straight to them (in Haiti) and that was definitely what we wanted," she says.
Forever in blue jeans
This is how you raise $2,348:
Eighth-graders hold a bake sale.
Homeroom teachers put out buckets to collect loose change, folding money and even $100 from somebody's grandmother.
Organizers of the school's Valentine's dance turn over their proceeds.
And, oh yeah, Patrick sees news reports about the blue jeans fundraising scandal in Cook County Clerk Dorothy Brown's office and thinks, "What a great idea - except for the take the money and run part."
So with Principal Kathy Schneiter's permission, she sets up a deal where staff members can pay $2 a day to wear jeans to school for a week or $3 a day "to dress like a gym teacher."
Patrick won't say it, but it's a stroke of genius. Everybody participates. "We were so excited, you have no clue," she says. "It put a smile on everyone's face."
It was all very nice, very neat, but something was missing. The big finish. The thing that brought it all home. The thing that would get the kids laughing and stomping so loud in the gym that the ladies in the front office would swear they could hear it - and feel it - all the way down the hall.
Jenny Patrick needed some whipped cream pies.
Throw and lick
Each homeroom got to pick two students, so there were four sixth-graders, two seventh-graders and two eighth-graders who came to Tuesday's assembly armed with the knowledge they would get to stand just a couple feet from a teacher and try to throw a pie right in their kisser.
They had their choice of seven volunteer victims. There was Beth Guzik, Coleen Gillespy, Joel Simburger, Kate Duncan, Anica Erickson, Marc Cash and Jeff Fontanetta.
The teachers sat in chairs, kind of "scrunched up," wearing garbage bags that hung to their knees and science goggles and shower caps.
"The kids were laughing and just screaming," Patrick says. "They all thought it was great. It was the most fired up I've seen the entire student body" - even those hard-to-impress eighth-graders - "in a long time."
"The cameras were flashing and the videos were rolling," Schneiter says.
When the last pie was thrown - all but one found its mark - the kids gave a round of applause for the money they raised and another round of applause for the work the Meyers have done.
It was the kind of moment, the principal says, that makes you stop for just a minute.
"There's a lot of compassion out there," she says.
And a lot of whipped cream.
Dirty little secret
Years from now, when Jenny Patrick recounts the story of her pie-throwing extravaganza, there's one part she'll probably ignore.
Go back and check the list of teachers who volunteered to turn themselves into sitting ducks and you'll notice one name conspicuous by its absence.
Patrick laughs when you mention it. She mumbles something about how somebody's got to be in charge. She leaves out the part about how somebody doesn't want to spend days cleaning whipped cream out of her ears.
"I came up with the idea," she says. "I had the microphone. I couldn't be an emcee and a recipient of the pies at the same time."
Then she laughs again.
The assembly is over, the kids have headed for home and Jenny Patrick finally can take a breath. Somehow it all worked - the jeans, the pies, the lessons about helping people in need.
"I feel very blessed to be with so many great people," she says. "I hope the kids learned how they can make a difference in their own lives. We're going to be able to feed 30 girls for six months. That's amazing. That's awesome."
Kathy Schneiter is happy, too. Happy with the way both her students and staff responded, and happy with Patrick.
"She's so caring for the kids she has and so caring for the teachers she works with," the principal says. "Part of being a great teacher is a big heart."
A big heart and, sometimes, a pie in the face.