Sunday, September 25, 2011

Thank you, Sister!

My school experience was fairly unremarkable. I went to 12 years of Catholic school in Philadelphia. Eight of these years were spent in a huge school of 2700 students. There were 6 classes of each grade, from first to eighth. Inside those classes were way too many students for those who may have had any learning problems.

In my first grade class there were 8 row of 12 desks to hold all of us. 96 children in a first grade classroom. Picture it. How in the world did the nuns teach us anything? I remember word lists sent home that we had to memorize, as a prelude to reading. I often confused s-a-w and w-a-s, and w-h-e-n and w-h-a-t. I remember my Mom giving me hints in order to figure out the words. When I became a teacher, I asked my mother how in the world did I learn to read? She answered, "I taught you to read! The kids that didn't have their parents' help were left back in first grade or went to public school."

The discipline of the classroom made for children who were quiet and compliant. I was so afraid of my first grade nun, that I wet my pants because she told us we could not go to the bathroom unless we raised our hand and she called on us. She didn't see my hand among the 95 other hands in the class and I couldn't hold it. I remember being totally embarrassed, walking home to my brother's taunts at lunch time. Luckily my mother is a reasonable person and didn't make a big issue out of it.

Until I went into 6th grade I had not yet realized that you could have fun in school! I had looked at school as someplace that was scary and tense. A place I neither enjoyed nor detested. Until Grade 6, that is. Sister Christine Marie was an unusual teacher. She put on music on Fridays and encouraged us to paint, sketch or color whatever the music led us to imagine. She taught us about modern art and played the guitar. She had two brothers in religious orders who regularly came to visit, telling us of foreign places and bringing little gifts for us. Sr. Christine Marie opened up a world I had not previously known could exist in school, a world of creativity and adventure.

Seventh grade brought even more profound revelations about school. Sister Frances Bernardone ran her classroom in a manner in which you WANTED to be good. She rarely had behavior problems in class even though I think she was a brand new teacher. Once she was absent and we behaved badly for the substitute teacher. When she came back, there was no yelling or punishment, just disappointment in how we acted for the sub. Her quiet disappointment made us feel as big as an ant. We never misbehaved again!

Sr. Frances would greet us in the schoolyard every morning asking us to stump her with a joke or riddle. Every day began with a joke! We learned all manner of things and when one of us would try to get over on her, she'd query, "What are you thinking? Do you think I fell off the Christmas tree in this habit?" She regaled us with tales of daring teenage escapades with her brother, like the time she and her brother took their father's car for an unauthorized midnight ride. She pushed us with comments about junior high meaning taking greater responsibility for learning. She made you want to learn all you could, to please not only her but yourself.

She was the reason I volunteered in High School to tutor in a school in West Philly. I wanted to try and see if I could be the kind of teacher she was. Little did I know, she taught in the same school as I tutored in and once I discovered that, I actually got a chance to thank her for her inspiration. I think of her often and was saddened to hear of her early death a decade or two ago. Generations of school students definitely missed out on her innovative and loving techniques.

Hopefully I have been able to inspire others as she has done for me. Thanks, Sr. Christine Marie and Sr. Frances Bernardone, for all you taught me - much more than the curriculum.

Still learning!

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