On January 1, 1960, I made first vows at Mount Saint Scholastica Convent in Atchison, Kansas. During the three-year scholasticate, the Benedictine community would determine whether I was right for the convent while I considered whether the life was right for me.
On January 3, Mother Alfred sent me on mission to Omaha, Nebraska. For nearly three months, I’ve posted weekly stories about Omaha. Unless you are a new reader to this blog, you know that I spent five months in an unruly classroom of fifty-five seventh-graders. One student threw a knife at me as I was writing on the chalkboard. The blade barely missed my hand.
The students themselves weren’t safe. When the girls passed out class work, the boys jabbed their behinds with compasses. The girls yelped as they reeled down each aisle, trying to avoid the compass points.
But in early June 1960 that was all in the past. I’d come home to the convent, determined to leave.
By tradition, the Mount nuns went on retreat in early June after all of them had returned from their missions in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado. During that retreat I thought long and hard about my decision. I knew I couldn’t emotionally—or physically—handle another year like the one I’d just experienced. I’d lost fifteen pounds in Omaha and now weighed 103 pounds. My face my gaunt; my hipbones prominent.
After the retreat I knocked on the Scholastic Mistress’s office door. When Sister Sweteberta, a tall, thin, elderly woman of grave disposition, bade me enter, I walked across to where she was seated and knelt down. She was the one who would talk to Mother Alfred about my decision.
“Sister Sweteberta, I’ve decided to leave the convent,” I said, getting right to the point.
“And why is that?” she said.
“I can’t teach.”
“And how do you know that?”
“I was in an Omaha classroom for the past five months and it was just too hard.” My words were coming faster now. “I can’t do that again. I just can’t.”
She gazed at me. Kindly, I thought. And so I added. “I made a mess of the whole thing. The children hated me. And I didn’t like myself. I just can’t do that again. I can’t. I’m not a teacher.”
She gazed down at me and then spoke, her words soft, but clear. “Sister Innocence, Mother Alfred knew what she was asking of you. She knew how hard it would be. And you came through with flying colors. You’re a born teacher.”
“But why did she put me there if she knew it was so hard?” I was now on the verge of tears. “I’d never taught before. I knew nothing!”
“That’s just it,” she said. “If you had taught before you’d have known the situation was impossible. But you hadn’t. So you thought you could do it. . . . And you did.”
“But why did Mother Alfred think I could do it? Why?”
Smiling, she said what was apparently so obvious: “Because you’d been student body president in the college.”
As I sit here at the computer today I can remember so clearly what flashed in my mind: Nonsense. This is pure nonsense. This is a perfect example of a non sequitur. I’m kneeling in cloud-cuckoo-land.
I suppose the puzzlement on my face prompted her next words. “Believe me, Sister Innocence, your next classroom won’t be like that. You’ll probably never have a classroom like that again.”
And how did I respond to these inanities? Passively.
I thought my superiors knew better than I what was best for me, and so I left her with the assurance that I would stay. Sad, isn’t it?