January 19, 2016

The Vow of Endurance

(Names have been changed. Rest in peace, sisters.)
I’ve always been impressed with people who can name their grade school teachers. I can’t. My father can name teachers he had 80 years ago. He sees them in his mind’s eye and recounts when they hollered and smacked kids. And when they gently buttoned little coats or taught history and ignited his imagination.

I do remember names of teachers I didn’t get. Sister Mary Katherine, an Irish, spinstery nun that kids feared. Sister Mary Ellen, a tomboy-plus-spitfire nun. For the life of me, I cannot remember the names of my Kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, or 3rd grade teachers. And I really liked Kindergarten! I know that my 1st grade teacher, a new and young nun, left our school and the Dominican order when that year ended. My 4th and 5th grade lay teachers moved out of state and onto other vocations. My 6th grade teacher, a very popular nun, left the order when I was in high school. Huh.

Mostly, school was a series of autumn-winter-springs, in plaid uniforms with neat desks that went from “I’m going to be a model student,” to so messy I couldn’t close the lid all the way.

A few teacher memories remain tattooed inside my head. Permanent marks on a kid who didn’t understand what she was seeing. They stay intact because something happened.

For many years, I wondered, “Why were they allowed to teach children?”

My grade school, St. Thomas the Apostle, had two buildings. Depending on the grade, your classroom was either in the Old School or the New School. The former had exterior metal fire escapes, ten coats of brown or green lead paint throughout, and no air conditioning. The latter stood across the street in lightly painted cinder block with huge, metal-framed windows. School-wide assemblies were held in its chilly, windowless basement. Filing down there for an assembly was a welcome relief on hot, humid days.

One particular assembly had to do with world hunger. Being older, my class got seated in the back rows of metal chairs. The film projector whirred a stream of stick-limbed, bloated-bellied, flies-crawling-on-the-face-of-crying children. It hit me hard. I kept looking from the screen to the clothed, fed, comfortable kids and adults at the assembly. People watched, seemingly bored or distracted. I grew distraught. Didn’t they see the suffering? How could this be happening? I felt like I had blood on my hands. The school day veered off a cliff. The world was a mess.

Over to my left, Sister Mary Frances sat quietly. What was she thinking about? Did she feel awkward seeing starving, crying children? Her black lace-ups barely contained her feet. Her ankles, pouring over the leather shoes, mounded out. The fabric of her habit pulled taut across her enormous belly. Like a big, soft baby, she had deep creases between her hands and wrists. Her neck, with skin pinched at the collar, bulged. As I continued my examination up to her fleshy head, pressed into a coif and veil, our eyes locked. God knows what my expression was. I could feel myself telegraphing guilt and disgust. Guilt about being caught being disgusted. She pursed her lips and looked away. I looked down.

As a teacher, Sister Frances was earnest and humorless. As a physical being, she would literally bite herself bloody. The insides of her index fingers, from the tip to bottom knuckle, were scabbed and red. I remember standing next to her desk, nauseated by the wounds. I wondered why she couldn’t stop. Didn’t the other sisters notice? No one talked about it. She’d go through the day eating and biting on her hands, teaching kids who didn’t listen and didn’t want to be in her classroom.

On the other hand, Sister Mary Margaret resembled a wiry, gray haired rat. God help me, she really did. Sixty-something, she had chin hairs below razor teeth, with small eyes and a stern voice. She served her God, “By God!,” and didn’t take crap from children who were vain, shy, stupid, smart, rich, poor, lazy, hyperactive, dishonest, timid, inscrutable, lustful, or lusty.

It was a problem trying to get on her good side.

There were days she’d call me out to the entire class – sometimes deservedly and sometimes I had no idea what the hell. I guess I was probably guilty or too smug for my own good, anyhow.

As the only girl left standing during a classroom spelling bee, I knew if I stayed calm, I had a real chance against those boys. The room was electric and I could feel support from all the other girls who’d been knocked out. At my next turn, Sister Margaret looked at me and said, “foyay.”

Whaa? I never heard it before. Honestly, that word was never uttered before and it wasn’t on our study list. I asked her to please repeat it. “Foy-ae,” she was now smiling. I guessed some letters, but blew it and walked numbly to my seat. Then she announced, “Foyay is another pronunciation of the word, foyer (which was on the list). Remember that, class.”

Man, she probably laughed herself silly inside when she thought of doing this. Like taking candy from a baby. Candy from a girl who thought she was something. Or maybe, she didn’t give it much thought at all because she’d taught dozens of jerky kids and would probably have to teach dozens more before they carried her out on a stretcher.

And then there was Sister Mary Helen, who had to be in her late seventies. She looked like a basset hound with soft, wrinkly folds all over her face. A sweet person, she always stared up at the ceiling when talking. I’m not sure how she got around half the time because she never looked directly at people or anything else. She spent hours making deals with our class just to get through the day.

Several of us had a spitball phase that year, thinking it was just the funniest thing to see how many we could slime to the chalk board. We’d let loose a barrage of soggy notebook paper missiles every time Sister got distracted. She’d find them later (yuck) and admonish us, “Don’t make the janitor do more work cleaning up after you people!”

After finding a particularly heavy coating of spitball debris, she slumped in her chair. Leaning forward so her elbows rested on her desk, she clasped her hands together and began to cry. There was a smattering of giggles, but most kids including me sat in stunned silence as she bowed her head, shoulders heaving.

Those three nuns remained with their order, living in the vow-of-poverty convent next to school, staffing the classrooms without choice. Upon reflection, they weren’t so awful. Well, awful some times. But when I think back on them now, I realize they honored a vow that twisted and turned into an unending, relentless endurance test.