When nuns wore habits and no child went home complaining to the folks that “Sister does not like me” as an excuse for misbehavior, I was schooled for 12 years by a group of women who were making every attempt to “save my soul”. Their methods varied by degree but their collective thinking did not.
We lived by the sound of the “clicker”. A clicker was akin to a small castanet that Sister held in her hand as we stood, turned, and kneeled in unison to the sound. That clicking defined our day within the classroom. It began and ended our day, announced lunch, prayer, and study. We were ruled by the clicker and Sister’s steady fingers on getting the sound just right. We hated it!
In grammar school the day began with a reading from “The Book of the Saints” which usually entailed a story of a some poor soul who had been burnt, flayed, beaten, stoned, drowned, stabbed, eviscerated, plucked, blinded, boiled, and whipped to death thus granting him/her a special place in Heaven. Underneath the narrative was the threat that their fate would be ours if we were as much as caught looking out the window during the reading! Our young imaginations conjured up sights that ensured nightmares among the feint hearted. And thus we began our day.
This morning ritual was abandoned in high school but the saving of our souls did not abate. I had one nun in my sophomore year who loved stories about Hollywood stars and since she came from New Jersey, she was an “authority” on Frank Sinatra. Her musings covered his many marriages and how much he had strayed from the fold and some of us caught on quickly that we could forestall her Spanish class instruction by getting her going on the topic. She never failed! We spent many happy and thoroughly unproductive hours listening to the faults of Old Blue Eyes and I took away from that class the only words that still stick: muchacha and muchacho! We hadn’t mastered Spanish but we were experts on Frank Sinatra and his many transgressions. It may not have adequately prepared us for “real life” but if I ever had the chance to visit New York I sure knew where to find him at Jilly’s!
The nun who taught shorthand was another case in point. She asked us to go to the board and write a “joke” in shorthand to test our skills. I could only come up with one joke. “What did the dead man say as he floated down the river? I ain’t got no body.” Something in that passage struck her wrong and she made me erase it immediately. How that stupid joke was expected to taint the others is beyond me to this day. What the hidden meaning was to that stupid, innocuous joke escapes me. Which is why I rely on the obvious to this day. Apparently, without knowing it, my “soul” was already in jeopardy!
Another nun “scalped” me. We had a study period wherein she taught a boy from another class in Latin verbs and we were expected to work on an assignment during this class period. While she was tutoring him, I became bored with the drone and looked around for something to “amuse” my fellow classmates. I sported a very long pony tail in those days and I decided that it would be a “riot” to tie it with the string from the window shade thus enabling me to make my pony tail rise and fall with a flick of my wrist. This was done for the amusement of those students sitting behind me. It was “hilarious” for about 5 minutes until Sister caught on. What I remember was her barreling down the aisle with a pair of foot long scissors and heading straight for me. She grabbed my pony tail and snipped! What remained was nothing more than a pound of hair resembling a small animal! I was shocked, speechless, and scared. She handed me the deitrus and I was instructed to take it home and not return until I had a note from my mother agreeing with the “punishment”. It was at this point that I began to commiserate with those hapless “saints”. Misery was at hand. I not only had to face my mother but my pony tail was no more! But I took from it the lesson that one never fools around when Sister is in possession of a pair of scissors, no matter how bored or restless. I was being prepared for the real world, like it or not.
Another nun took up duty at the water fountain. On really, really hot days, and no air conditioning in the building, we got thirsty awfully fast. During change of class, this nun took it upon herself to plant her ample figure in front of the water fountain so that none of us could get a much needed drink. The same admonition, “offer it up to the poor souls in Purgatory” could be heard up and down the hallways as we marched, tongues swollen, onto the next class. I didn’t much care for those poor souls since they had their chance and obviously blew it so the quenching of my own thirst stood out. But Sister was resolute, no water for us! We created new names for Sister, none of them “nice” as I recall.
I can’t watch Bart Simpson and not remember the time another nun made me write 500 times on the blackboard “I will not throw snowballs at Sister” because I had inadvertently hit her on the back of the head while aiming at a boy who was “catcalling” a girl walking in front of me to lunch one snowy day. Or the nun who had us empty our purses each day looking for contraband like cigarettes, chewing gum, or pink lipstick until we finally wised up and kept those items in our locker. We never knew what she did with all that stuff she collected but Friday nights must have been a blast in the convent!
Things have changed considerably over the years. Lay teachers now make up the majority of staff in the few Catholic schools that remain. The education I received was tremendous insofar as they opened up to us the discipline needed to succeed and the fascination of learning even against our own will. These women of their time, flaws and all, were dedicated to teaching and offered themselves to a lifetime of students like me who on occasion had to be directed back into the realm of the classroom when minds have a habit of drifting elsewhere. They cajoled, praised, humbled, and forced us into the world that awaited us when the time came. While attempting to “save our souls” they also instilled in many of us the thirst for knowledge, the love of the printed page, the ability to think.
Many of those ladies would be dead now and my only hope is that they went straight to “Heaven”. They had given so much of themselves and their dedication and perseverance had to have paid off somewhere down the line. They helped us build the principles of our lives for the most part and that in itself should be their reward. Whether they succeeded in “saving our souls” is another matter. But if not, it won’t be because they did not try.
Here’s hoping their idea of “Heaven” is as they had led us to believe. Without the damned “clicker” of course!