On any given day, a steady succession of girls parades in and out of the office of NDP’s Dean of Students, Chris Kaiser. As Dean, Mrs. Kaiser’s responsibilities include overseeing all student activities and schedules as well as enforcing the school’s disciplinary policies. So there are any number of reasons why a student might drop by…or be summoned to… Chris’s office. The truth of the matter is, however, most of the girls drop by intentionally. A concept completely foreign to NDP students of my era. I think I speak for all of us when I say we would go out of our way – even if it meant backtracking through the West Wing, across the courtyard and through the East Wing – to avoid any unnecessary encounters with those whose offices were along the administrators’ corridor. No need to get on their radar unnecessarily if you know what I mean. And to be actually summoned to one of their offices could only mean trouble. Trust me on this one. I know from whence I speak. On the other hand, we had no Dean of Students back then, either. If we’d had a Chris Kaiser in our corner, the story might be a little different.
Today, students visit Mrs. Kaiser’s office for all sorts of reasons. Some drop by for a good chat. About school concerns, scheduling problems, sports, friendships. She makes time for all of them and knows each and everyone by name. She greets them accordingly, then peppers the rest of their conversation with her favorite term of endearment:
“Hello Lauren! C’mon on in, Sweetie! How are you today?”
Sometimes students drop in just to say hi and grab a piece of candy from the bowl on her desk. Many stop in to admire or add to the collection of NDP photos and memorabilia Chris has amassed, all given to her by one student or another over the past thirty some years. Each girl certain she was Mrs. Kaiser’s favorite. Each memento given as a sign of love and affection. Even on the rare occasion when a girl is called to Chris’s office for disciplinary reasons, Chris always gives her the benefit of the doubt.
“I tell the girls, ‘Just because I asked you to come see me, doesn’t mean you’re in trouble,'” Chris explains. “I always like to hear all sides of a story before taking any action.” That is not to say Chris is a pushover, but it is important to her to be fair. It is just one of the qualities that makes her so good at her job and so accessible to both the girls and their parents.
Yet that is not her signature gift. What really makes Chris so good at what she does is her uncomplicated, unwavering, and unconditional love for the girls. It’s not something she thinks about or analyzes and when you ask her to elaborate, she really can’t.
“I don’t know,” Chris ponders the question. “I just…I just love the girls so much. I believe in their essential goodness. And, it’s just…when they’re happy, I’m happy.”
This, to me, is the sign of the genuine article. The real deal. In the words of the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, Chris is “grasped by what she cannot grasp…and is changed by it.” Her title may be Dean of Students, but in many ways Chris is Mother Love.
“In some ways, yes. I am like a surrogate mom to the girls while they’re here.” Chris admits. “You know, today, the family dynamic is very different than when you and I were students here. It’s busier. It’s more hectic. Some of the girls split their time between 2 homes. Sometimes their day has the potential of being ruined simply because they left their socks at one house and their shoes at another.”
For those reasons, Chris keeps a supply of things like socks and hair ties in one of her desk drawers.
“The little things that can go right in the day, can make your whole day,” Chris testified with palpable sensitivity. And, you know, I wasn’t sure whose day she was referring to: hers or the girl’s. Or both. She really feels better when they feel better. Listening to Chris talk about the girls the way she does, it occurs to me that she is the personification of the biblical call to “love tenderly,” writ large on the dining room walls at NDP and inscribed on the heart of every one who passes through Notre Dame.
Over the years, Chris has played many roles at NDP: student, alum, teacher, parent, homeroom teacher, club moderator. These days, despite her jammed schedule as Dean of Students, she still manages to teach one math course a semester.
“Best 40 minutes of my day,” Chris says wistfully. “The truth is, it wouldn’t matter what I was teaching. When I started as a teacher here, I just fell in love with the girls.” Giving up teaching to become the Dean of Students was the hardest decision she ever had to make, according to Chris. In fact, it was her husband who convinced her to take the job.
“You’re missing the point,” he explained sensibly. “You’ll have all the girls. And they need you.”
Just then, there was a knock at Chris’s office door.
“Hello, Sweetie! How are you today?”
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” the young student said nervously, looking at me and then back at Mrs. Kaiser. “But, do you have a minute?” That was my cue to wrap things up so I thanked Chris for her time and let myself out. As I was leaving, I heard Chris say tenderly:
“It’s so good to see you. What can I do for you today, love?”
I would be hard pressed to think of someone better suited to a job than Chris Kaiser is to hers.