I was 12 years old and entering seventh grade when I switched schools from Goetz School in Jackson, New Jersey to Saint Mary Academy in Lakewood. I was an intelligent boy, but I consistently fell short of my potential in school. My mother grew frustrated and threatened to send me to a Catholic school. I responded to the threat by begging her to follow through.
As I recall, Sister Sarah arrived at St. Mary’s the same year I did. She was tall and heavy set, perhaps in her mid-fifties, and she had a piercing voice. She lived in the convent adjacent to the school with the Sisters of Mercy. By then, none of the sisters wore the full habit of the old days. Instead, they wore a small headpiece with a black veil that hung down to their shoulders.
I already knew many of my classmates when I started in my new school. Lots of them lived in my town, and I knew them from Little League and Pop Warner. Though I was considered a gifted student, I soon found that I was hopelessly behind my peers in English, whose curriculum heavily emphasized grammar.
Sister Sarah offered what help she could in remedial side lessons, but my prior school had simply not prepared me for my new environment. A family friend, Mrs. Holdgate, tutored me for a few Saturdays and brought me nearly up to date. A mental block and a great deal of frustration, regrettably, prevented me from grasping prepositions, though. After what I determined would be my last lesson with Mrs. Holdgate and not wanting to trouble Sister any further, I locked myself in my room with my Warriner’s grammar book on a Saturday afternoon and refused to come out until I had mastered the topic. Interestingly, a fortuitous glance at the word “preposition” revealed a hint that is to this day a critical part of my lessons on this very topic with my eighth-grade students. In short order, I understood everything about prepositions and found myself within sight of catching up to the other students in my class.
Sister Sarah maintained a fairly strict classroom, even for a Catholic school, and she assigned a considerable volume of work. This included the traditional grammar exercises dreaded and hated by students for generations: parts of speech, sentence diagramming, pronoun charts, full conjugations of verbs through the simple and perfect tenses, and daily exercises relating to all topics from capitalization to subject-verb agreement to punctuation to fixing split infinitives and dangling participles. Sister required us to do all of this in written long form.
I was an impulsive kid at that age, and I struggled not only to concentrate on my work but also to manage my behavior. Such an imposing, assertive figure as Sister Sarah, with her regimented instructional routines and high behavior expectations, would not at first have seemed to have the patience for me and some of the more energetic children in my class. She had quite a pair of lungs and readily raised her voice to express her displeasure. And she could make herself heard across the cafeteria at lunch, as well as across the schoolyard at recess.
And I got yelled at often. Once, she sneezed several times during a class, and while most of the students said, “God bless you,” I made obnoxious noises between her sternutations. When she recovered, she quickly found me out. Apart from my scolding, my parents were to be informed.
In another instance, the victim of an Ex-Lax hoax by my classmate Marty approached me outdoors to inform me he knew I was a witness to the tainting of his chocolate milk, that his bowels had liquefied overnight, and that I had better tell our principal Sister Karen what I knew. I told the kid to buzz off; I would be no snitch. Sister Sarah, however, with her preternaturally sensitive senses, had somehow heard this discussion and shattered my eardrums from twenty yards away with a command to report to the office and report what I had witnessed.
Yet another time, I needed a pencil in class, which Sister readily loaned me. Later in the hallway, she saw me showing off finger-strength exercise in which I snapped the very pencil she had given me. Boy, did she holler, and for quite a duration.
And in a truly embarrassing instance, I made an adolescent remark concerning a certain kind of kissing. My close friend lightly remarked to Sister that Paul has a one-track mind and related my comment and the concern that I might need some kind of counseling. Sister Sarah removed me to the conference room. She did not yell this time, but the ensuing conversation was worse than being scolded.
But Sister Sarah’s true beauty as a professional and as a human being lay in what I dare not neglect to mention in those four episodes. Whenever she disciplined me, she could be stern and intimidating. She did not, however, seek to intimidate; instead, she took pains at the close of or in a follow-up to each circumstance to state that she cared about me, that mistakes do not make us bad people, and that she wanted to see me do better.
And in my better moments, she promptly celebrated my successes. This indeed happened when by eighth grade I had somehow become an excellent speller and aced all of my Friday tests. And in several instances, the significance of which I could not conceive of at the time, she saw my interest in reading and composing poetry. She repeatedly made an example of my verse by reading it to the entire class. Forty years later, I regularly compose poetry, and I think of her every time I work at it.
Nearly three years after I graduated from St. Mary’s, I passed my driving test on my birthday. I stopped by my old school and asked to see Sister Sarah. I was directed to a new gymnasium where Sister was presiding over recess, which had been driven indoors by cold weather. She smiled broadly upon seeing me, and we talked about my experiences in high school, changes at St. Mary’s, and about life in general. I remember many things about my seventeenth birthday, but that stands out most.
Then, in 2006, after many years of teaching–and of telling facetious horror stories about what a truly strict and traditional English teacher I had when I was my students’ age–I had the idea to look for Sister Sarah. I soon learned that she was at a retirement home for the Sisters of Mercy in the next town over from where I teach. I sent an email communication to an administrator there, who passed it on to Sister. I was elated when she responded to me, and I could recognize the verbal patterns and rhythms in her writing. She was pleased that I had become an English teacher and that I remembered her. She encouraged and blessed me. I felt a profound significance in everything she expressed. I had hoped to arrange a visit and see her in person.
Sadly, that was the last I heard from her, and my later communication resulted in no response. Apparently, I reached her just in time, and I consider that a true blessing.
I am a very different teacher from Sister Sarah, and I work in an entirely different context due to the passing of time and the changes in our world. Still, I feel I carry Sister’s influence inside of me, and I treasure it. I would not be the learner, the teacher, the writer, or the person I am if not for my good fortune in having encountered this determined, compassionate soul.
Blessings to you, Sister.
I am participating in the Slice of Life Challenge sponsored by Two Writing Teachers.