As a young, modern and creative teacher, Kayce Swigelson connects with her students as she imparts her love of the French language and culture upon them. But several nights per week, this self-professed “old-soul” lets her love of a decade-old era transform her into a different person entirely.
“Sometimes I feel like the librarian who’s also in a punk band,” Kayce says about her involvement in the Lindy Hop St. Louis club. The club is dedicated to promoting jazz and swing dancing, and Kayce is an active member who regularly dons the clothes of the 1920s and 1940s and then drives all over the St. Louis area to join fellow club members on the dance floor.
“I’m an old-fashioned, 90-year-old woman on the inside and I’ve always had an interest in this music and dance style, but didn’t know why,” Kayce says. “My father was a musician and my grandmother was an Arthur Murray dance instructor, although I didn’t know that until she died. I tracked down a swing club when I was in college and learned to dance and now it’s a wild obsession.”
Dancing isn’t the only creative interest for Kayce. She enjoys visiting antique shops and estate sales and finding old things to restore or repurpose. “I’m a reserved, introverted person, but when it comes to creativity, I can be really bold,” she says.
Kayce also loves the humanities and the arts, and in fact, she had planned to make a career out of being an artist. But she says her life has included a series of events that have taught her that it’s best to “stop arm wrestling God” when He has other plans for you.
Such was the case when Kayce walked through the doors of Priory for her job interview in 2010 and saw the placard stating, “To whom much is given, much will be expected.”
“That’s something my mother always told me and it’s a motto I try to live by,” says Kayce. “It was a sign to me that Priory was where I was supposed to be.”
Kayce discovered her artistic side in high school and headed off to Truman State University with plans to study graphic design and fine art and then become an art illustrator.
“Once I got there, I found that the idea of working with computers, instead of with my hands, wasn’t right for me,” she says. “I had taken and enjoyed French in high school and was enamored with the language and culture, but I put it on the back burner because of art.” Kayce rediscovered her love of all things French in college, so she changed her major to French with a minor in translation and English literature.
Then, Kayce won a full-tuition scholarship to attend graduate school at Notre Dame, and she planned to complete a doctorate in French. Interestingly, her scholarship required her to teach a course to undergraduate students, and there she discovered a love of teaching.
“At that first class, God planted something in my heart,” she says. “I had all these undergraduates looking at me and I experienced the excitement of connecting something I love and sharing it with others. I had to rethink whether I wanted to be stuck in an ivory tower, doing research and finding things out for the next five or 10 years, or did I want to share what I already knew.”
Kayce decided to finish a master’s in French and francophone studies and then planned to seek a job teaching at the college level. Again, she says God intervened on her behalf.
“I met the man who spoke at my graduation at a reception following the ceremony, and he was from St. Louis. He told me I should consider teaching at Priory, and I dismissed it because my plan was to teach college students,” she says.
And Kayce did teach French at the University of Missouri-St. Louis for one year and then found herself looking for a job when she learned of the opening at Priory. “I connected what that man said to me and realized it wasn’t an accident that he planted that seed, so I applied for the job and here I am.”
Kayce joined the Priory faculty in 2010 and says, “I strongly feel that Priory students are extraordinary – in faith, intellect, wit and curiosity. It’s an overwhelming privilege to be a part of their formation and to really know them as they grow into gentlemen. I can’t help but love them and want to do everything I can for them.” She says her students give her a belly laugh everyday, and thoroughly enjoys her daily interactions with them.
Although Kayce exchanged her dreams of a career in art for a career teaching French, she didn’t abandon her artistic side at all. In fact, she has embraced it and recently published a children’s book that combines her love of French and her love of art.
The book, titled “The Grand Adventures of Petit Louis,” chronicles the adventures of a Parisian cat who wanders around Paris painting mustaches on works of art and French landmarks. Kayce wrote and illustrated the book, which can be found on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
“The idea is that the book will teach little ones about French culture, and how to act when in France,” she says. “It’s a fun, whimsical way to keep kids engaged and get them interested in the French language.”
A new creative outlet for Kayce will involve French cooking, although she claims that scrambled eggs define the upper limits of her cooking ability. Still, she and Brother Dunstan recently partnered to offer a French dinner for eight people – a package that was among the most popular items sold at Priory’s annual auction.
“We’re calling it Mademoiselle and the Monk,” she says. “He’s the chef and I’m just the helper. But we will offer a full-course French dinner by candlelight, complete with decorations and a theme.”
Kayce and Brother Dunstan are good friends and share a love of the French culture. He spent time studying in French Canada and enjoys cooking, and Kayce promises to pull out all the notes she took while living in France in college and watching her host mother prepare meals.
Kayce says she is grateful for her job at Priory, which gives her an outlet for so many of her creative passions. She is able to use her love of art in the classroom, sharing her knowledge of art history and classic paintings. She encourages students to make up captions (in French, of course) for the paintings.
“My interests are so varied and I was always anxious about how those would tie together in a profession,” she says. “I think God guided me to Priory and found a way to weave together everything I love. I can implement art and music and theater and helping people learn to express themselves in my job here.”