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Sister Karen marks milestone in teaching math at Pallotti High

For one Pallottine nun, teaching math is like teaching life: You have to boil down long problems, and you want your students to be able to analyze all their factors and arrive at a solution.

Sister Karen Lester, sponsorship director and math teacher at St. Vincent Pallotti High School in Laurel, has been teaching students those lessons for 50 years.

"Time goes too fast for me," Lester said. "I don't even think of it — you just do what you do and it goes by. I didn't pay attention, had no idea I was approaching 50 years."

Lester, 77, has been teaching at Pallotti since 1963, but she's been a part of the school for much longer. A native of Morgantown, W. Va., Lester joined the Pallottine sisters with two years to go in high school. She graduated Pallotti in 1955, and as a student would step in for her math teacher, teaching the class herself. Lester taught her sisters in the Pallottine order throughout high school and college, while studying math and physics at Catholic University in Washington. She briefly considered becoming an X-ray technician, but one class away from teaching made her realize she missed it.

"I just kind of drifted into [teaching math]," Lester said. "No one thing made me be a teacher or want to be a teacher, I just wound up there, and I've been happy for it."

Fifty years later, the math is still the same. But while the numbers don't change, many things have, and Lester — the longest-tenured teacher at Pallotti — has witnessed much during her time at the school.

"There are more students, a new building, more lay-people," she said. "When I started here, it was all nuns and only one or two lay-people. Now, I'm the only nun left. You see the influence of the lay-people more and more, and I just have to make sure that the approach of St. Vincent Pallotti is being followed."

Pallotti High School was founded in 1921 and has been under the authority of the American Province of the Missionary Sisters of the Catholic Apostolate [Pallottines] since 1934. Now, with more than 500 students, Pallotti is the oldest Catholic, co-educational high school in the Archdiocese of Washington and adheres to the philosophy of St. Vincent Pallotti who, Lester said, was "a great champion of the poor and those who struggle in school.

"We try to create good circumstances, a good environment, for students who learn well and those who struggle," she said. "We try to make learning a very positive thing."

Among the many things Lester has seen change in her time at Pallotti is the school's athletics program. As the first female athletic director in the state — a position Lester said she held for 30 years — Lester saw sports teams added left and right, from boys and girls basketball to soccer, football, baseball and field hockey, among others. She still attends most games, said Pallotti administrative assistant Claire Rudinski.

"She's constantly at games, nearly every one you can think of," said Rudinski. "She's their biggest fan."

Rudinski has known Lester for nearly 20 years, and said everyone who knows her loves her. A celebration of Lester's 50 years in October drew nearly 250 people, including Lester's family members and numerous alumni.

Lester said she keeps in touch with many of her former students and is always delighted to see the succeed.

"When you're in a classroom filled with students, you don't always see the brightness of the light, but one-on-one, in tutoring, you see that light bulb go off and it's such a good feeling," Lester said. "It's heartwarming when you find your students have gone on to do great things. When they're successful in what they choose to do, it makes the memories even fonder. It makes you feel proud. I mean, they did it, not us, but we got them off to the right start."

Having Lester still at the school after so many years is like having a bit of living history walk the halls, Rudinski said. Lester has no plans to leave Pallotti any time soon.

"I've had many, many good years here," Lester said. "I don't think about retiring. It'll probably come someday, but I'm going to keep doing what I like to do. I have enjoyed everything that I've done here. It never occurred to me to do anything else. Year after year I've done what was expected of me, and I'm happy. I've been here so long, I don't want to go anywhere else."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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