Friday, April 8, 2011

A Nice Nun Story

Over my lifetime I have heard and read numerous stories of mean and cruel nuns scarring children for life. Some of the stories are humorous and some truly are not. The legacy of Catholic School sometimes seems to be "who had the meanest nun." The tormentor in my Catholic School story, however, was Not A Nun. She was a lay teacher. And a more nasty, sour, vitriolic old witch never walked the planet. But she had a nemesis. As a result, even though I have not been a Catholic in my adult life, I love nuns. I think they are lovely. And my nun was wonderful.

This is a quick digression to gush about nuns, so you can skip it if you wish. I have always admired and respected nuns. I have huge admiration for Mother Teresa and I adore Saint Bernadette. I have a rosary with some spring water from Lourdes that my mom bought me in Tijuana. Of course it's real! Have faith ; ) I read The Nuns Story, a novel from 1956 by Kathryn Hulme, it's a great book. Sometimes I turn on the Catholic channel and watch Mother Angelica or listen to them saying the rosary. I find it peaceful. I don't want to be a Catholic but I think Nuns, Are Awesome.


 I believe that the flashes of memory from my Kindergarten and first grade years, with their partner of afternoons at Aunt Kate's Fly Swatter Wielding Nursery From Hell,  are so very clear in my mind even after all these years because they were traumatic. Can we really remember events from an early age that clearly?  Well I do very clearly remember that in first grade we had a Christmas gift exchange where names were drawn and I was very excited that a little boy named John had my name and very upset that I had Robert, a freckle faced lad with perpetual green snot hanging out of his nose. I begged my Mom to let me buy John a present too, but she said "No. Only the one whose name you have."  I was terribly angry and begrudged poor Robert his Hot Wheels car, barely looking at him as I thrust it in his hands and turned away. I told John that I Really Wanted to get him a present and saved his gift of a box of lollipops shaped like wild animals in a box decorated like a zoo cage for a long time before eating them.
 Due to the fact that I only vaguely remember moments from second and third grade, after I begged to be allowed to go to the public school because I didn't want to go back, I think our memories of frightening experiences can be very accurate.  I was an extremely shy and nervous child. My memory of my emotional feeling while at this school is clear to me. Dread. I still feel it when I think about the place.

I started kindergarten at four. I turned 5 in October but was always one of the youngest kids in my class. This was the  1969/70 school year. I believe in those days kindergarten was optional in the public school and it wasn't as advanced as it is now. Catholic school, however, started early. We started ABC's and learning to read right off the bat. My kindergarten teacher wasn't exactly sweet. She could be very nice if you were doing well and really had a temper if you crossed her. She once screamed in my face because I decided writing my alphabet was hard and drew a picture instead. But the day my mind clicked and I started reading, I looked up in wonder at what had just happened and she smiled broadly and told me 'You did it! Very Good!' : ) I got a gold star on a prayer card that day.

 Then it was time for first grade. Time to get serious. We had to wear uniforms. Navy skirt, white blouse, and a tie. The tie. A half inch slip of blue fabric that crossed at the collar with a mother of pearl snap. Black or brown hard sole strapped shoes only. Twice a week we should wear navy shorts under our skirts and bring tennis shoes for PE day. I had my pencils. I had my wonderful box of 84 Crayola Crayons. I had my yellow cigar box to keep them in. I had a red plaid metal lunchbox because my mom thought they were cute and wouldn't get me one with H R Pufynstuf on it.

 My mother worked and didn't drive. She took the bus in the mornings and actually took me to Kindergarten every morning on the city bus. By happy chance the summer before first grade a new family moved in across the street with two little girls included that would be attending the Catholic School. Their mom would drive and didn't mind if I came too. Gigi. She was a nice woman with a hard life who worked nights as a waitress. Sometimes my mom had to leave early and I would finish getting ready alone and then go across the street.

My first grade teacher met her class with a frown daily. She was strict and all business. She struck fear in our hearts walking us over to church for prayers. We were required to bring lace veils and wear them there. I wonder about that now. It wasn't something our mass normally required. I think it was her own preference. The teacher kept them in her desk for us. Before we went down she would admonish us about our behavior with threats of 'Father' being angry and coming after us if we didn't do things correctly. Within the church she hissed orders through clenched teeth. I was so petrified most of the time that I didn't remember anything. Afraid to make a move I often was in trouble for not moving at all. When someone stole my awesome box of 84 Crayola Crayons and I was apparently in meltdown mode, my mother finally went in to have a chat with this teacher. My mother learned then that I was not exaggerating. When she came home I asked about the crayons and she said, 'I couldn't get an answer about anything.'  Later she told me. "all she would talk about was how you kept chewing on the ends of your tie." She was completely fixated on it.
Yes, due to overwhelming anxiety I had become a TIE CHEWER! Disgraceful. The only thing more unforgivable would be....Not Having A Tie At All. *Gasp*

My dad kept my ties in his desk. Sometimes I would forget to put them away after school. Sometimes I could not find my tie. Often there was no one there to help me look.  Sometimes Gigi had a spare. Sometimes she didn't. When she didn't I had to go tie-less. This happened more than once. When we had inspection in the morning the teacher would sputter with anger about my missing tie. One morning she had enough!

"You go down the hall to the Principles Office and tell SISTER that you have forgotten your tie!"
 She glared with an evil gleam that let me know I was done for. The rest of the class froze in terror and disbelief staring with their eyes bugged and mouths hanging open. Sent to the Principle! Sent to Sister!

"I have had enough and I will let The Principle Take CARE OF IT THIS TIME !" MayBE thEN YOU Will leARN YOur  LESSON!"

She left me in no doubt that I would be flayed alive and returned to class a bloody pulp to stand as an example to the others of the repercussions of sin. Breaking the eleventh commandment. Thou Shall Not Go Tie- Less in school.

 I was silent and terrified as only a critically shy, anxiety ridden little girl could be. I slowly made my way down the cavernous high ceilinged hall alone. I glanced up at each door cautiously. Unsure of finding my way by myself because we always traveled in a line with an adult at the head. Finally I arrived at a door leading into the Principle's office. I hung back standing awkwardly in the doorway. A woman sat at the big desk, writing. She was intimidating in a full black habit. Only the beige of her face and hands stood out against her cuffs and wimple.  I can't remember the details of her face but I can see her hands holding the pen clearly. It was her. The Principle. She looked up and said,
"Yes? Come in. What is it?"

I told her Mrs. : ( had sent me.

"Come and sit down. What did you do? Tell me."
The tears starting to leak out I began, 'i don't have my tie.'

"Why don't you have it?"

I can't remember exactly what I said. But I explained my tie not being in it's usual place and that I looked everywhere and probably told her no one had been home to help me look as well.

I waited for her forehead to wrinkle and her voice to raise. Instead we chatted for a little while and she told me to be more careful about remembering my tie.

"Yes Sister." Was it time for my punishment yet? What would it be? A paddling? Fed to wolves?

She opened her desk drawer and I watched closely as her hand reached in wondering what form of torture would be produced. Her hand emerged holding...

a tie.

'Here you are. Wear this one today but remember to bring it back to me directly after school. Don't forget." And then...

She smiled.

I was in shock and awe and felt an incredible flood of LOVE and relief wash over me. I was off the hook. When I entered the classroom wearing my substitute tie the teacher greeted me with anxious hope. You're Back? What did she do about it? I couldn't help my smile. 'She gave me this tie to wear today.'

I still remember the look of disappointment followed by rage that came over the women's face. Bull dog framed by tight,  graying pin curls. But. I was unscathed by it. I had. A tie.

Her hatred of me was unrivaled from that day forward and she found any way she could to make my life a misery. This is what she accomplished. My parents and Gigi took their daughters out of the school and let us go to public in second grade. Oh yeah! Freckled Robert and his Snot turned up in my public school class the next year too. The Catholic School lost four tuition's that I know of.

As for my Nun, I never forgot her. I would love to thank her now and a few years ago I contacted the school and church to see if she was still alive and if I could write her. They claimed they don't keep records of where transfers are made. I'm not sure I believe that,  but I find it understandable that it may be a safety precaution. But I am so grateful for her kindness that day. I was a very scared child and this Nun was kind and understanding. It is the only memory I have of not feeling terrorized while there. In only a few moments in time she made an indelible impression on my life. Though the shortest part of this story it is the biggest part and gives me something to keep in mind when interacting with others. Truly,

Everything we do matters.

And can last a lifetime.

© 2011 All Rights Reserved


  1. Oh my! The tie! I went to two different catholic schools. One we wore a red tie & the other a blue tie. I don't remember forgetting mine but I'm sure I did. We we're in fear of the whipping machine. Did they tell you it was a whipping machine in the school? I bet that nun was pissed! The good thing about it was not all nuns were mean & all the teachers weren't nuns. I thought it was creepy that the nuns lived across the street from the school. I can see why they won't give out any information.

  2. I had a teacher like that too - Mrs. Butler. She was the sourest, bitchiest, most dried-up old hag ever, and she haunts me to this day. I went to public school until grade two and then Catholic school. Some of the nuns were nice, some weren't. I think teachers like the mean one don't get as much of a free hand to terrorize kids as they used to, since parents are more involved and more willing to speak up, but it still makes me sick that people like that become teachers - who gives them jobs?

  3. I went to Catholic school from K to Grade 3. I started at 4 too. And although, I had some really scary teachers, the nicest was a lovely small woman who ended up becoming a nun a year after I left the school.

  4. I think your point was that one smile at the right time can flavor years of Memories :)

  5. Nicole: I couldn't remember her name and they may have thought it was a lot of work if they are not even sure she is alive. That's ok. Maybe I'll look into it some more : )

    Alison: I know. I think there used to be more of them than there are now but they're still out there. I think my mom was unsure what to do. Especially with it being the church. She did respond by letting me leave the next year. Her opinion when I was old enough to discuss it was that the woman was nuts. She never forgot her either. That meeting freaked her out.

    Marilyn: A lovely little Nun : )I bet she made a good one!

    GB's Mom: Yes! but I can't say anything without making it complicated ; )

  6. That's a very sweet story. My mom had mean nuns that used to box her ears. I guess like anything else, it's the luck of the draw.

  7. oh sooo true. loved hearing that story. not because you were terrorized, but because you tell it so well. and i wanted to just hug that nun!

    2 thoughts here:
    1. i, too, got a christmas gift exchange gift from my 1st grade crush, jason duncan, a brown plastic headband. i wore it daily until my brother cracked me on the head and broke it in half. i DISTINCTLY remember holding it and crying in my closet :-)

    2. the lunch monitor in my elementary school's name was (if you can believe) mrs. smack. she was awful. i hated lunch meat as a kid, so sometimes my mother would pack things like pepperoni and cheese and crackers instead. and you know i hated condiments! she came over and yelled at me one day for eating my snacks before my sandwich and wouldn't believe me when i tried to explain that my mom didn't give me a sandwich. she accused me of lying and then proceeded to say to me when i started to cry "crying for your mommy isn't going to help." i was in kindergarten. seriously? she probably keeled over dead when parents started sending coca-cola cans and twinkies in their kids' lunches! i too have never forgotten how awful she made me feel.

  8. DG: My grandmother had some horror stories too. If my nun had been as mean as the teacher I may not be the adjusted, confident woman I am today ; )

    Elissa: That was truly yet another evil woman. How do they get into schools?

  9. You are one of the most creative bloggers out there, lady - you always have something fresh and interesting to talk about! I went to private school and wore a tie (and kilt and knee socks :)). No nuns though!

  10. It's the easy things that always make the biggest difference.

  11. Peryl: Thanks Sweetie, you spoil me! I figure people can only handle so much of whether Mid will graduate or not ; )Kilts? Now that would have been cool.

    KLZ: Very true: )

  12. That is such a tremendous story. I love how that moment of kindness stuck with you forever, but I can't stand that it caused that nun to be even tougher on you from that point on. :(

  13. I don't know where to begin my comment. What a powerful memory. I'm glad you had your nun to counter such a nasty teacher.

  14. blueviolet: Thank you, she was a nasty piece of work but in the end I didn't have to wear uniforms anymore : )

    Erica: Thank you. I'm glad too. But it did result in some awkward hero worship since I'm a Lutheran ; )

  15. Oh my goodness! My belly clenched this whole post. You poor wittle thing! Feelings are so much stronger in memory than actual events. I am so glad you were shown kindness to counteract those and give you something wonderful to cherish. My 1st grade teacher Mrs. Parson was a dream. I'll never forget her reading Charlotte's Web to us in class.


  16. Angelia: My belly was clenched during the entire 2 years I was there. Sadly, it left a bad impression of school on me and I never was really happy to be there all the way thru.

  17. Horrible woman.


    Crazy, too.

    To be that way to such a little girl.

    Sick bully.

  18. Empress: She was JUST HORRIBLE. And I think the crazy part is right too. That was my moms opinion.


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