By Linda Thomas
Hometown Weekly Correspondent
When Marie Maciejko (pronounced “ma-cheko”) was growing up in Westwood in the 1950s, a tinny jingle piercing through the humid air in summer would set mouths watering. The ice cream truck was about to turn the corner, and that meant a rambunctious rush to find Papa Joe in his garden.
Papa Joe, Maciejko’s grandfather, was a jolly old-timer from Italy with a pocket full of quarters.
“Papa Joe, can I have a quarter for an ice cream?” each kid would shout.
And they certainly could.
It was that kind of neighborhood, where every porch had moms and grandmas watching over the local children, all of whom they knew by name.
That’s the safe environment Maciejko tries to create today, when the school bell sends hungry teenagers pouring out of their classrooms and into the Westwood High School cafeteria, where Maciejko works the snack bar, open to kids from before homeroom through the end of the day.
And, like her grandfather before her, she does her best to put a smile on all the kids’ faces.
Maciejko isn’t sitting in front of a classroom teaching, yet she makes it her job to know their names and day-to-day activities. And she makes it a point to know their stories - their life stories.
“I know a lot of the students’ names,” she said, “but I won’t say I know everyone. You do develop a rapport with the students. A lot of it is you see these kids, day in and day out, and you get to know what they like and what they don’t like. Then, you’ll say, ‘how was your day … what’s going on.’ Somehow, you just become friends.
“I love it. I absolutely love it.”
The students today know that she always remembers their favorite foods.
“She always knows what I want,” said Celina Lennon, now a senior.
“Every morning when I see her, she’ll say, ‘Good morning, Celina.’ We always have a conversation of how the day is going or how vacation was. I love hearing about her daughter and her family and stuff. It warms my heart so much.
“And she never takes breaks. … She works so hard,” Lennon said. “It’s incredible and it’s worth appreciating all the hard work that she puts in for all her students, and she loves and cares for them so much. Every day I see her, and every day she puts a smile on my face.”
Principal Sean Bevan says Maciejko is a favorite of the kids — and her recall of students is impressive.
“In a school of about 1,000 students, she is able to remember a staggering number of the kids’ names,” he said. “She even knows a lot of their orders, too. And she truly has a good sense of the pulse of the school, so I try to see her a few times a week to hear how things are going.
“Marie is on her feet for long stretches, yet still manages to greet the kids with warmth and enthusiasm,” Bevan said, “and a sense of humor, which is a valuable trait when dealing with not only teenagers, but many adults as well.
“As in many schools, the cafeteria is a place during the school day where kids stop in to take a break,” he said. “Marie has always shown a good combination of compassion for all students, even ones who can be a challenge for our staff. But she also has high standards and is able to be kind to those students, while also upholding our expectation that they are in class and learning.
“In short, she's what we call a 'warm demander': she shows kindness to all students, but also expects all students to be productive, polite, and purposeful members of our school community.”
Maciejko still lives in the house on Winter Street in Westwood where she grew up — the house her father had built for her and her two siblings.
She graduated from Westwood High in 1968 and recently celebrated her 50th high school reunion.
Her daughter, Katie, graduated from Westwood High in 2007. Now 29, Katie is married and living in Pennsylvania, but doesn’t miss a day talking with her mom. “She’s the love of my life,” Maciejko says of her daughter.
When Katie was in third grade, Maciejko, a stay-at-home mom, glanced through the school menu and saw they were looking for substitutes to help in food service. She put her name in, got an interview and started working two days a week. Soon, those two days turned into full time.
“The hours were perfect … and when there wasn’t school - vacations or holidays - that meant no work for me.”
Maciejko has worked for the school since 1998. A year later, the school hired a new director in food services and a food service coordinator. Between the two, they started a snack bar at the old high school.
Maciejko considers the students like her own children, and calls herself “their other mother.”
“Christmastime I remind them, ‘Don’t forget to buy Mom and Dad something nice,’ or I’ll tell them, ‘Don’t forget to do this.’ I always say please and thank you, and most of them say please and thank you, too,” she said.
“The kids are always friendly. ‘How’s your day? What’s going on? How was Christmas? Did you go away?’”
James Vanaria, a 2006 Westwood High graduate, is now a special education teacher in the Westwood Public School district.
As a student, he remembers how Maciejko always took the time to get to know the students.
“While I was mostly buying soft serve ice cream two to three times per day, our encounters always resulted in mini conversations about friends and family,” he said.
“When I was hired as a full-time employee at Westwood and was assigned to my first lunch duty coverage, Marie and I picked up right where we left off. She asked about my family and she could even recall a number of students that graduated the same year as me, which I now know, as a teacher, is extremely difficult not to blend the years.
“She makes such a positive impact in the 15 to 30 seconds she interacts with our students, and I truly believe that when those students graduate, they will reflect back on their years here and appreciate just how wonderful Marie is. I know I do.”
Vanaria remembers that when he first started teaching, Maciejko asked him questions about his immediate family, and says he was amazed she was able to remember so many details about his life.
“This has shaped me as an educator because it helped me realize that even small conversations I have with students can make a huge impact,” he said. “We often get lost in the hustle of the school day, and sometimes the most beneficial thing we can do for our students is listen and genuinely care for who they are as people. Marie personifies this with her everyday interactions, and it's something she continues to do daily.”
Maciejko considers herself a “homebody,” and she’s been that way all her life.
“You came home from school, you did your homework, and if my mother or father needed help with dinner, that was my responsibility,” she said. “And when I got married, my former husband and I moved into this house with my parents, so my daughter had that same relationship before they passed away.”
Four and a half years ago, Maciejko was diagnosed with breast cancer. She says her main concern was to live long enough to see her daughter marry.
“My wish came true,” she said. “Katie got married last August — and knock of wood, I’m now cancer-free.”
Maciejko’s kinship with the students at Westwood High School has given her a strong sense of community, which was solidified by the class of 2013, when they dedicated the yearbook in her name, a month after the death of her father.
“It was like it lifted me up at a time that was very sad for me,” she said.
“Marie was really surprised when we announced her name, but she shouldn’t have been,” Bevan said. “Any kid who visits the snack window knows she is a critical member of our school community.”
And at the end of each school day, if you’re close to the cafeteria, you’re likely to hear Maciejko shouting out one last message to the students.
“‘Last call for toasted bagels’ — the catchphrase students associate immediately with Marie and only her,” Bevan said.
“To get an alum to reflect fondly on their time at Westwood High School, you need only say that phrase, and they will think of Marie and her good nature.”
Editor’s Note: Linda Thomas writes for Hometown Weekly Publications, Inc. For comments and suggestions, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org