Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: Catholic, Catholic education, Catholic values, Catholicism, nuns, religious life, religious orders, the sixties, Vatican II
My credit union demands I put answers to secret security questions, and all of them are frustrating.
This particular firewall must be to protect the bank, not me. On the contrary! If I’m ever accosted by bad guys demanding access to my account, they’ll probably have to kill me, because I won’t remember how I spelled the name of my First Pet.
It was a baby frog I tried to teach to sit upright in a tiny plastic rowboat in Granny’s washtub in the hot August sun, and I was too little to spell the name I gave it at the ‘funeral,’ after I forgot it and went for ice-cream and came home and it had fried.
These security questions must be composed by excruciatingly dull people, because their favorite authors never change, and they always know their father’s middle name. Listen, to know Dad’s last name is beyond some of us, and we hate to be reminded of it every time we do our on-line banking!
Consider the question that asks you to name your favorite teacher. “Who’s your teacher-hero?” As if that were easy!
I had so many good teachers. My dying God, we were rolling in them! I had Sister Patricia for 10th grade homeroom. She was old. I remembered her recently, but not for outstanding instruction. I remembered her because my stomach growled.
As homeroom teacher, she taught us religion, and then supervised us during morning snack. It cost a quarter. Sister Patricia observed that I, a scholarship student, had not taken any refreshment the first week. On Monday of the second week, she put a jelly doughnut and a carton of chocolate milk on my desk, and, collecting my folder on the Works of Mercy with her other hand, whispered, “Help me out, won’t you? I shouldn’t eat that doughnut.” She gestured at her waistline, well-concealed beneath the habit, the beautiful one the Sisters Adorers of the Most Precious Blood used to wear. It had a cape and an eye-socking crimson sash. She made her offer sound like a reverse beatitude. Thou Shalt Assist the Dieting. It wasn’t charity, I’d be helping!
I helped all year.
On the other hand, Sister Clotilda, my geometry teacher in the morning and chorus teacher in the afternoon, didn’t seem like a hero. I don’t get geometry, and I always blame her. Geometry sounded threatening, the litany of things they thought they could prove! I always wanted to say, “I know you can prove that parallel lines will never meet, but why do you want to?”
Sister never explained the practical applications of geometry, though. I’ve since learned the utility of finding the mileage to distant objects like the moon without actually having to go there. It’s a trick you can do with a tree and its shadow–proportions. But right then, the sight of little Sister Clotilda, with her sleeves rolled up to give her better reach, just meant trouble.
She also taught us music, last period in the big chorus room, with the wide windows looking over the graveyard. I stood on the risers next to my best friend Mary Ellen in her pop bottle glasses, and we gave our hearts to the haunting second voice of Silent Night. Sister never had to frown at me last period, the way she did third. Because of her, I can read music and harmonize anything. I know how to find do, just from looking at the treble clef. I’ve been in some choir or another all my life. It’s brought joy.
Sister Mary Pauline is a big contender. In her large sunny room on the second floor, she revealed the world of English literature. She carried her fine figure with elegance, and we imagined she had been a woman of prospects. Perhaps she fled to the convent with a broken heart! We suspected she knew a thing or two about love. “Love’s not Time’s fool,” said Shakespeare, “but eternal,” and Sister added, ‘like God’s love for mankind. ‘She liked an essay I wrote on Gerard Manley Hopkins, and read it to the class.
She took my side. When I told the truth about smoking in the drama loft and got suspended, she said, “Well done,” and informed me privately that the area behind the potting shed was safer. I hennaed my hair just before prom, giving myself an excuse not to attend, because I didn’t have a dress. All my outraged teachers were united against me. Sister found me hiding in the library stacks, and whispered, “If I hadn’t been born with red hair, I’d dye mine, too.” You couldn’t see her hair beneath the coif. I had to take her word for it.
She studied us with genuine interest. Once, I was typing intently in the press room of our school newspaper. Several girls were chatting with Sister Pauline, who was the sponsor. She turned from them to read over my shoulder. I was writing an article about integration, which would’ve been controversial at that time and place, East St. Louis in the late fifties, but not unwelcome at St. Teresa’s. Our school was attended by a small number of African-American girls and founded in Christ’s egalitarian gospel which offers a cross to everybody.
“You could do with fewer exclamation points,” she observed. She looked at me thoughtfully for a moment. “I pity the man who marries you,” she said.
It was the kind of statement that gives a girl character.
Graduation came. Unlike my friends, no one at home was discussing college. I didn’t know how to investigate scholarships and I couldn’t tell anyone how poor I was when I had spent four years hiding it. And I couldn’t stay home. Imagine the sisters’ surprise when I applied to join their ranks, and my surprise that they accepted me. I was going to the motherhouse at the end of June, and there I would meet another teacher who changed my life.
There isn’t much packing, to enter a convent. The trousseau, as it was called, since we were Brides of Christ, was small–ten cotton undershirts, ten pairs of drawers, black oxfords, black stockings, black sweater, toothbrush, any color. The sisters would supply everything else, my letter said.
My mother fingered the sweater and sighed. My mother had no patience with girls who couldn’t figure out how to use what they had naturally to get ahead, the way she had. But she took me the hour’s drive into rural Illinois to the motherhouse, and let me out. Nuns made her nervous. I told the sister who answered the bell a lie about ‘an emergency’ and ‘it grieved my mother, but she had to go’ and joined the other postulants and families in the waiting room, until the Superior General Mother Mary Catherine opened to us the heavy interior doors that marked the cloister where only we could enter.
First we were clothed in the postulants’ habit. Gone were the saddle shoes and circle skirts. Bouffants were tucked under short veils. Transformed, we made our official entrance in chapel for benediction, which was already filled with white-veiled novices and the retired nuns who lived in the motherhouse. Dinner followed, and then came recreation, and we could talk. Mother told us that we weren’t to have special friends, but to spend time with everyone. I wondered if I’d even want to be “special friends” with any of my fellow postulants, or they with me. We all came from schools of the Sisters Adorers, but there all similarities ended. I was the only city girl. The rest were farm girls, two girls were awfully pretty, another had a withered arm.
I hadn’t realized the order had so many schools! Originally Italian, founded by a colleague of Maria Montessori whose humane teaching methods were written into the Holy Rule, the order had expanded to America from a German branch.
Then, after Mother’s introduction, we unpacked in the dorm. Each sleeping area, which closed at night with curtains, had a bed, crucifix, nightstand, and a straight-backed chair. I had the corner, with two windows all to myself. Outside, the moon was full; the motherhouse cross cast a long, straight shadow over the fields. Everything around me smelled wonderfully clean, the fresh white sheets, the curtains separating the sleeping areas, the rich land outside the windows. My postulant’s dress, the black oxfords and stockings, were laid out and ready for the morning. I felt safe. It was heaven, surely.
The next day we began our new routine: rise at six, meditation, mass, breakfast, chores, and then the schedule said, class. We met in the postulants’ classroom. Mother Dolores presided.
The order was pleased, she said, to be able to offer new sisters a university education. Our postulant classes would receive credit from St. Louis University. Next year, the novitiate year of intense spiritual preparation, we’d take only theology, but then, after our first vows, we’d live in the order’s house on campus and study, provided teaching or nursing was the apostolate the Lord wanted for us. “There are other paths,” Mother Dolores said, “but most of you will earn degrees.”
Degrees weren’t required to teach in Catholic institutions, at that time. So I hadn’t understood we’d take college classes, let alone from St. Louis University; in my circle, it was elite. I raised my hand. “What classes will we take?”
“Freshman theology. I’m certified to teach that. First year Latin, first year Greek, from Sister Madeline, who is a university teaching assistant working on her dissertation. Freshman English.”
Theology. Latin, Greek, English. No math. I can do it, I thought. “Your English class,” continued Mother, “will be taught by Sister Scholastica. She is our order’s first Ph.D.” Mother beamed.
Everyone loved Scholastica. She was the fruit of the Adorers’ hard work. Scholastica had gone to one of the order’s grade schools, then high school, entered the order and gone straight through university to her doctorate, graduating summa cum laude. She wasn’t even German. She was 100% American.
We postulants worshiped her. She was hardly older than us, but thinner. We didn’t know the word cool yet, but Scholastica was. She had Buddha beside the crucifix, and played jazz on a record player. Her office was filled with books and Chagall prints of floating brides, instead of bleeding Sacred Hearts. She called movies films and read authors to us we’d not heard of, Flannery O’Connor, whose protestant characters screamed, and J.D. Salinger, half-Catholic, half-Jewish, and charmingly dissatisfied with practically everything. And Scholastica could drive!
She gave us difficult assignments. We précised authors, summarizing every major idea while retaining the author’s style. We read Yves Congar who said we were all priests, and Teilhard de Chardin who said all matter had spirit and made choices.
They raised questions. Why worship Christ in the chapel when He lived everywhere? Or kneel in prayer while your brother goes hungry? The vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience began to seem like privileges. In religious life, you needed shoes, you asked for them. You needed a degree, ditto. Was that poverty?
Scholastica brought young women from the University to speak to us from the chapel pulpit wearing power suits and high heels. We could end war and wear lipstick, apparently. We must do more than serve the poor–we must end poverty. That’s what Christ wanted, they said.
So, little by little, we acquired the flower-power spirit of Vatican II. And one by one, we left. All the postulants and novices, then professed sisters, first in trickles, then torrents. Sister Scholastica left.
And I, too, disappeared into the whirlwind of the sixties.
I don’t know what happened to the others. I went into the world with love for the poor and a hunger for an ecumenical God. I looked for Him in everything New Age, but I didn’t find Him. I served the poor and fought poverty itself. I registered voters with Dr. King in Alabama and went to jail, sat-in for increased minorities’ admissions at San Francisco State and went to jail, demonstrated against the Vietnam war and went to jail, protested for union jobs on Auto Row and went to jail. I escorted draft-dodgers to Canada and pregnant girls to Mexico for their illegal abortions. I collected ballot signatures for the Black Panther Party, taught energetically in the poorest schools (for thirty-five years, as it turned out), and every Saturday walked the projects distributing socialist literature. And of course I was vegetarian.
But the Soviet Union fell. It turns out poor people don’t like communism. The kids I taught learned better grammar, but not higher virtue, and it ruined not a few of them. I married a guy and had four kids because he said he believed in freedom, and then I found out what he meant by it, which was freedom from me and the kids. And I developed a good case of blood sugar from the vegan diet.
In short, I went out into the world, and the world kicked my behind. In trying to do good, I did harm.
Yet perhaps God was served in some small ways. I am hoping to ask Him personally at the Last Judgment, when I plea bargain. He surely must know I meant well. At least I never deserted the humankind He died for. Nor even yet. (That’s what I’ll argue!)
My teachers changed me, that’s certain. Who were the heroes? It will take my whole life down to the last drop to know that.
Meanwhile, please, security guys, couldn’t you just ask easier questions? You could get a girl killed, ya know.
To those readers who were there: you will be able to tell I have telescoped some events. Also, that I lived in poverty while my ‘family’ enjoyed a position of no small power in our town, might surprise my classmates, but they could not know what transpired behind closed doors for the stepchildren of that family, and I was not about to let them know, either. Every child of alcoholics knows the game.
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