I have to begin with my 6th grade teacher, Sister Leoncia. She was old, through and through. I mean, I had other nuns who were probably her age, but whose spirits remained relatively young. But Sister Leoncia was old. My main run-in with her occurred one day when we were taking turns reading aloud from our readers. At one point, the text called for me to read the word “mischievous,” which I read quite correctly. Sister Leoncia corrected my pronunciation. “MisCHEEvious!” she spat out. I would have none of it. I was raised, both at home and in school, to believe that right made might, that if you knew you were in the right, you had nothing to fear, as well as an obligation to speak the truth. I knew beyond any doubt that I had said the word correctly, so I calmly re-read the passage, once again correctly pronouncing “mischievous.” She barked the word at me this time – “MisCHEEvious!!!” For yet a third time, I proceeded to re-read the passage, again correctly pronouncing the word. Sister had heard enough. “Go to the Principal’s office!” she yelled out. I left the classroom, walked to Sister Francine’s office, and tapped on her door.
She looked up. “Yes?”
“Sister Leoncia sent me here.”
“Because she wanted me to mispronounce a word in my reader and I refused to.” Yes, I really did state it that plainly.
Sister Francine stared at me for a moment, apparently at a loss for words. Finally, she motioned to a bench just outside her office. “Sit there.” She said this in an authoritative, though quiet, voice. After perhaps ten minutes, she looked up from her paperwork. “All right, you can go back now.” She had never left her desk; she had gathered no additional information. I realized a little later that she was simply giving Sister Leoncia some time to cool off. I walked back into my classroom, catching a smug look on Sister Leoncia’s face directed toward me. She assumed that I had been properly chastened by Sister Francine and I responded by casting my eyes downward, quite content to let her think that.
Several of the nuns who taught me through the years had explanations for how the world worked that were, shall we say, at odds with most of the published literature. One of them informed us, in science class, that the moon landing had been a hoax perpetrated by the government, that it hadn’t happened because it couldn’t have happened, “because God never intended us to leave the Earth.”
Another story described how the robin got its red breast. As we were told, the robin at one time had a white breast, “and they have fossil evidence to prove this, so we know!” But one day, a few thousand years ago, the robin was flying near Calvary and heard a man moaning in agony. He was being crucified. The robin took pity on the poor man and tried to sing its sweet song into his ear. But the robin flew too close and pricked its breast on the man’s crown of thorns, and the unfortunate bird bled to death. And so, as a mark of honor for its compassion, God gave the robin the red breast that we see today. As I recall, there was no discussion of the fact that the robins we see around here are natives of North America and have been so for a lot longer than 2,000 years (there is a species of European warbler that is also called a robin, but let’s discuss ornithology another day, shall we?). Nor do I recall anyone asking sister to reconcile this with that other set of facts we were taught that described non-humans as non-conscious, essentially soulless creatures.
Then there was the day that sister gave us a unique lesson about the weather: “If you watch very carefully, you will see that every Saturday, the sun will shine, even if it’s just for a few minutes, because that is the day that Mary hung Jesus’ clothes up to dry.” Now I know that on the surface, this has to be the silliest story of them all, and maybe for that very reason, it really grabbed me. I began to religiously (if I may put it that way) observe the weather every Saturday. A month or so into my investigation, there came a Saturday so densely overcast that I knew beyond a doubt that there had been no sunshine at any point in that day. I went to school on Monday and, gathering up my courage, I approached sister and presented my findings to her. She smiled back at me and said, “The sun was shining somewhere that day!” I walked away, feeling a little disgusted. I could have respected either a total retraction of the story or a substantial new expansion of it, but this – this, I couldn’t respect at all.
I must close with an account of the day when one of my nuns got me. Really got me. Scored some points and gave me something to think about. I was in 6th or 7th grade. My English teacher was Sister Ildefonse. I had written something in a class assignment, I don’t remember quite what it was, and sister wanted to discuss it with me in detail up at her desk. I said something there, once again I don’t remember what, that set her off. “Come with me,” she said. We stepped out into the hallway and closed the door to the classroom. “You think you’re the smartest student in that classroom, don’t you?” She asked this in a quiet even tone that was focused and clear, but not unkind.
Well, the fact was that she had me pegged; that was exactly what I thought, but I couldn’t bring myself to admit it, at least not to her. But here she was, two inches from my face, awaiting an answer. “No, no I don’t,” I finally stammered out.
“Really Charles? Tell me, who is smarter than you?”
Once again, there was no escaping this point-blank interrogation. Her questions were like daggers being twisted between my ribs. “Well . . . Denise is pretty smart . . .”
“Really? Is she smarter than you?”
“Well, um, yeah, maybe . . .”
Sister stopped then and led me back into the classroom, satisfied that she had made her point. And you know what? She had. I was forced to confront the fact that I was a conceited little snot on a certain level. Maybe I still am in some ways. But I have to say that this unpleasant little discussion between sister and myself was a consciousness-raising moment in my life, and I think some good lessons, and maybe even a little humility, were part of the eventual result of it.
So even if I was told and taught some patently ridiculous things in my childhood, and even if I have left religious belief in the ashes of my distant past, I still have much to be thankful for. And I can still sit here and tell you that I think I received a superior education in that environment, these little episodes notwithstanding!
And P.S. – it still ticks me off when people mispronounce that word!