Romantic education

When Mike Schaffer walked down the halls of Mater Christi Catholic school in North Riverside escorting his son, Michael, to his kindergarten class, he made an impression on first-grade teacher Michele Cargola.

"They were so cute together," Michele said, "and I thought, 'Oh, that's such a handsome dad.' "

It was early 2004. Michele was 32 and had never been married. Mike, recently divorced, was 42.

A few months passed. Michele was having coffee with a friend at Panera Bread in River Forest when she saw Mike behind the counter.

Mike had recently relocated to North Riverside from Kenosha, Wis., with Michael, and was working as a manager at the restaurant.

"I spent that whole school year with a ridiculous crush on him," Michele said.

"I was clueless," Mike admitted.

Fortunately, the frequency of their conversations increased when Michele became Michael's first-grade teacher that fall.

"I was really growing fond of Michael," Michele recalled, "and he started saying things like, 'Maybe you can come over to our house for pizza with my dad?' "

Mike and Michele started sharing long chats — either after school or during Michele's coffee visits to Panera. While they always kept their relationship in the "friends zone," Michele's attraction continued to accelerate.

"I remember I was with my mom at the pancake breakfast at school in the spring (2005) and she saw Mike there and she said, 'I know that guy from somewhere.' So the very next day, my mom called me and she said, 'You'll never guess who's sitting in the waiting room. That guy that we saw at the pancake breakfast!' "

It turned out that Mike was a patient at the doctor's office where Michele's mom was working.

"So I put my mom on the case to see if he was dating anyone," Michele said.

"Her mom was asking me questions whenever I went to the doctor, trying to gently find things out," Mike said. "I was working so much and taking care of Michael, so I wasn't dating."

The school year ended on a somber note for students and staff when Mater Christi closed its doors in June 2005 because of low enrollment. Michele gave all of her students her phone number and email address to keep in touch, so Mike had his son call and ask Michele if she wanted to join them for pizza and bowling.

"I wasn't sure if she was interested in me as more than a friend," Mike said. "I figured with Michael calling, it was safe and that way if it was just a teacher-student thing it would be fine. If it's something more — that's fine. I'm trying to figure it out. So I had my first-grader do the work!"

For the next couple of months, Mike, Michele and Michael spent a lot of time together. Until one day, Mike decided to ask just Michele on a date.

Mike thought it went well, until it was time to say good night.

"I brought her home and I thought it was strange that she didn't ask me in," he said. "Her uncle was sitting on the porch. I figured she'd introduce me, (but) she just jumped out of the car."

"I was so nervous," Michele said.

Mike, however, thought maybe Michele just wanted to be friends. Despite the apparent rejection, though, he kept asking Michele out. Within a couple of months, they shared their first kiss.

"It was Sept. 4 and we'd gone out with some friends and went back to my house that night and he made a move," Michele said.

Except, again, Michele's nerves got the best of her.

"We were kissing," Mike recalled, "and she said, 'Everybody stop!' And I said, 'Who's everybody?' "

"I was a nervous wreck," Michele explained, "and I was also so attached to Michael at this point and I thought, 'If this doesn't work out, then what happens?' "

Despite the mixed signals, Mike brought Michele a dozen roses and a card on Sweetest Day 2005. This time, Michele didn't put a halt to his kisses — and was relaxed enough to tell Mike she had had a crush on him since the first time she saw him.

"I never would have guessed that," he admitted. "I had no idea!"

They were engaged in October 2006 and married July 5, 2008, at St. Louise de Marillac Church in La Grange Park.

"Michael spoke at our wedding," Michele said, "and he said, 'To my dad and my new mom, I hope that we're happy as a family.' And then he started bawling and so many people started crying — that was the talk of the wedding, how touching Michael's speech was."

Nine years after they met, Mike is still amazed when he hears Michele talk about the way she felt when she first saw him walk down the hall at Mater Christi.

"Sometimes signals come across and you think, 'OK, that's it,' " he said, "but a person might be putting something out there that isn't how they really feel because they're scared or they've been hurt.

"But if I didn't come back and ask her out again after that first kiss, we would have never gotten together. You have to keep trying to work with it and see where it takes you."

Today, Michele teaches first grade at Brook Park Elementary School in La Grange Park. Mike works as a supervisor for Mariano's supermarket in Elmhurst. The Schaffers are happily living in North Riverside, the town where their courtship began.

"I was in my 30s and not dating anybody, and I wanted to get married and wanted to have a family," Michele said. "I was so afraid — but you have to be willing to put yourself out there. I found love where I least expected it. Life is full of surprises."

Twitter @jenweigel

Love lesson

Michele Schaffer said accepting partners for who they are is important for a relationship to thrive. "You have to be realistic about things. When you're younger you think, 'Oh, I can change somebody or I can overlook those things,' but you really have to be able to live with somebody as they are."

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