Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Gifts of Simplicity and Time

The last two months have been busy: I vacationed for two weeks, which always means, for me, about four weeks—an initial week of packing and planning, two weeks away, and then a week of recuperating. So there went November with no postings and no blogging.
         Then came December and a posting in which I gave you a brief glimpse into my convent life in Seneca, Kansas. The following week, flu visited. After it’s departure, I tried to live the expectation of Advent, but found myself instead caught up in the frenzy of Christmas.
         I say frenzy because that’s what the last week has felt like: shopping for gifts and groceries, baking cookies and quick bread for gifts, wrapping and boxing all the gifts for sending to friends elsewhere.
         Then, decorating the house and the tree and writing messages on Christmas cards.

. . . by Marcel Rieder, 1898

         Next, shopping for the ingredients for the Christmas Eve meal at my home and for the pies and salad I’ll take to the Christmas Day family gathering at my brother and sister-in-law’s home.
         And finally, getting ready for a guest who’s coming to spend a few day with me and the cats.
         Each year, those of us who celebrate Advent and Christmas must decide how we will embrace these two seasons. This year, the planning, shopping, decorating, gifting, and visiting have ensnared me.
         I started off with good intentions, but I’ve gotten lost in the maze of trying to do too much in too short a time. And that “too much” is mostly unnecessary if a person—like myself—would like to live the simplicity of Advent and of the age-old story that prompts the celebration of Christmas.
         It is a story of the birth of a child. Like Nelson Mandela, this child grew up and found himself interacting with those imprisoned by illness and need, ignorance and hatred, fear and greed.
         His response, like Mandela’s, inspires all of us. Both dedicated their lives to helping others. Both gave us the gift of their wisdom. Their lives were great gifts from and to the Universe.

. . . "The Magi Journeying" by James Tissot

         The giving of gifts at Christmas comes from the ancient story of the Magi visiting that child born long ago in a far-flung Roman province. These wise men brought with them gifts for the child and so, we, too, bear gifts for others during this season. A tapestry depicting this event would be sewn with multicolored threads—the pink-tinged joy of dawn and the golden contentment of sunset.
         This year, I have lost both in the flurry of gift giving. So yesterday I wrote myself a letter to be opened on the first Sunday of Advent in 2014. In that letter, I advise myself to enter the season of simplicity with a heart centered on the truths underlying the Christmas stories of a birth in Bethlehem, a visit by awe-struck shepherds to a manger, and a journey by three gift-bearing magi. Within these stories is a humanity I want to embrace. And that demands a simplicity I lost this year.
         But the season is not over. And so last evening, I decided to give myself the gift of time. Time away from feeling that I must do this or that or something else that in the arc of my life is a merest grain of sand.
         By giving myself the gift of time, I hope to enter into a simplicity that will bring forth the gratitude and wide-eyed wonder that for me is essential to the celebration of Christmas.
         And when I return to posting on January 9, 2014, and to reading and commenting on your blogs on January 6—the feast of the Three Kings—I will be able to truly respond to them because I won’t feel the frantic need to get “this” done so that I can move on to get “that” done.
         In your blogs, you share your lives with all of us. I am choosing to read those blogs when time permits me to respond thoughtfully and fully to the life you share. I trust fully that you understand this.
         May the remainder of Advent and the entire Christmas season bring you whatever your deepest heartwish is. Peace.

The paintings are from Wikipedia.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Flu's Visiting

Hello All, on this crisp morning in December. I meant to post another story about my life in the Seneca, Kansas, mission during the 1961-62 school year. But the flu bug conquers all!

I did get the flu shot as I've done each year for nearly two decades, but that yearly shot hasn't kept me from having flu three or four times a winter. I'm lucky that each bout lasts only a couple of days.

This one began with a headache that lasted ten hours, despite my taking some prescription medication. Once the headache vamoosed, flu ached in the muscles and nausea greeted my stomach. So I'm going to simply drink lots of fluids, munch on soda crackers, and eat applesauce for the next couple of days.

And sleep!

And visit the site where I'm enjoying the Jacquie Lawson Advent calendar this season. Here's a winter scene from a Dutch artist. It reminds me of the Edwardian-mansion scene on the calendar. Very Downton Abbey.

Take care. Keep warm. And keep your head covered when you go outside in the chill. Peace.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Refusal to Accept Life as I Found It

In the ‘50s I listened as Nat King Cole sang “Smile.”
That song influenced my whole way of looking at life
when I was young and wanted to please everyone.

In the fall of this year, I posted a series of stories about my introductory teaching assignment after making first vows as a scholastic in January 1960. The memories of that Omaha classroom are unclouded in my mind. I’ve never forgotten those seventh graders who challenged both my mind and my heart.
         But the years after that—in Seneca, Kansas City, and Baileyville—are not as memorable because not as challenging. I have little memory of the students I taught from the fall of 1960 through the spring of 1966 because the truth really is that the squeaky wheel gets the oil and almost all the students in my subsequent classes were eager to learn and to please. The seventh graders in Omaha had been “squeaky wheels.” As such, they were unforgettable.
         In the fall of 1961, the mother superior of Mount Saint Scholastica Convent assigned me to the Seneca, Kansas, mission. My memories of the students and the classroom there are dim. What I do remember clearly, however, is my surprise at the discovery of just how human nuns could be and were. I remember that and also how hard I worked to shape my negative impressions into a positive image.

In the ‘40s I’d heard Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters sing this song.
Its emphasis on the positive influenced my outlook on life
until I found myself falling apart when I was in my forties.

         At that time, the Mount convent housed more than six hundred nuns. I knew only a few of them from my college days and from my eighteen months in the novitiate. Still, I habitually refused to acknowledge any evidence that didn’t support the romantic, unrealistic, and erroneous view I had of the convent and of religious vocations. For Sister Innocence of the Order of Saint Benedict, nuns were called to be saints and so they were. They  had to be or my carefully constructed view of life would come tumbling down.
         The nuns in Omaha had not dissuaded me from that view. Sister Brendan, the superior there, was everything I thought a superior should be. But a handful of nuns and the superior in Seneca were an entirely different matter. I judged them, rather harshly.
         I judged rather than simply accept that any group of people is going to be mixed in every way. There will be healers, peacemakers, gossips, malingers. There will be the compassionate, joyous, generous, kind, helpful, brilliant, gleeful, curious, prayerful, gentle, shy, and unassuming. There will also be the vengeful, obsequious, gossipy, ashamed, guilt-ridden, embittered, nosy, domineering, self-serving, gregarious, judgmental, imperious, selfish, mean, self-centered,  self-absorbed, and depressed.
         There will be, that is, all the human traits that we meet everywhere, in every group. Those traits might be muted by the life of service the nuns have chosen, but the traits—whether admirable or not—are ingrained and do not disappear with the making of vows.  
         In the first weeks of my life in Seneca, I knew I was judging others. That wasn’t, I thought, the way a nun should act. And so in an attempt to mend and reverse the judgments in my mind, I found all sorts of reasons for why the superior and the nuns would act the way they did. Rather then accept their humanity, I twisted my thoughts into a skein of knots. I made my own reality.

In the ‘50s Nat King Cole encouraged all of us to “Pretend.”
 I learned to do that very well when I was young.

         Next Thursday I hope to share with you some of the very human traits I found on that mission. Traits I refused to accept. Instead I concentrated on my own judgmental attitude and found myself despicable.
         Thus I began to travel the path that led to my leaving on Christmas Eve of 1966. I left broken, not so much by the convent but by my own struggle to create nirvana in the midst of the gathering of humanity in which I found myself.
         It wasn’t so much that I found the nuns and the convent wanting. It was that I found myself so far short of perfection. And that, my friends, was my undoing—the belief that to be loved one must be perfect.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

For All of You, I Give Thanks

Hello to all of you whose blogging friendship has enriched my life during the past year. All of us, I hope and trust, have so much for which to be grateful. Each day, life offers us blessings pressed down and overflowing. Often these blessings come as surprises: we feel a sudden upsurge of gratitude within our innards. A lightness of heart and mind. Joy. A feeling of contentment.

These transcendent moments enrich our spirits as we meld with all others who inhabit the Universe and are part of the Holy Oneness of All Creation.

That Oneness unites us despite our differences with regard to religion or politics or skin color or ethnicity or sexual preference or other beliefs to which we cling sometimes as that which defines us.

What really defines us I believe is our ceaseless search for authenticity, for wholeness of the human spirit—a wholeness that speaks loud and clear of the great gifts we bear to all human—and animal—kind.

This year I am especially grateful not only for the friendship you have extended to me but for my family, the cats with whom I live, my home, the beauty of our natural world, and my health. And one thing more: renewed possibility.

Meniere’s entered my life in 2006 and has narrowed it in many ways. But this month I flew—for the first time since the disease took up residence within me. Flying is somewhat tricky for those of us who are often in the throes of vertigo and the accompanying headaches and so I’ve given up traveling to anyplace except where I can drive. And driving long distances at seventy-seven is tiring!

This past year, a young mother and her four children “adopted” me as their grandmother. During my lifetime I’ve been daughter, sister, and aunt, but I’ve never been called wife, mother, or grandmother. This is a whole new episode in my life and I feel humbled by it—and grateful.

When this family of five invited me to visit for two weeks I hesitated because the distance was too far to drive. I checked train and bus schedules but both time and cost were prohibitive. After much mulling, I decided, with some trepidation, that I had to venture forth and take to the skies. I found an inexpensive roundtrip ticket that pretty much made the decision for me.

A Meniere’s friend in Stillwater, Minnesota, gave me sound advice on how to prepare for the flight. Nevertheless I felt stressed, which can exacerbate Meniere’s. So on November 6th, both anxiety and I boarded the plane.

Now here is the wonderful news: I experienced no problems in flying across the country and back. NONE. O ye jigs and juleps! O, joy in the morning! This means that my life has opened up to possibility again.

As I’ve aged, my life has narrowed. Partly because of Meniere’s and partly because of moving away from friends of thirty-eight years and settling here in Missouri. I am neither a joiner nor a churchgoer and after volunteering for fifty-some years, I’m ready to leave that enriching way of meeting other people to the younger generations.

But discovering I can fly means I can visit with friends in Minnesota more often. I can visit those places that are on my “bucket list.” Moreover, the realization that Meniere’s is still present but that it no longer holds my life in thrall has helped me realize that even here in Missouri I can venture out more and seek new experiences. I can get on that superhighway to Kansas City and enjoy the concerts and plays there.

And so today as all of us honor the courage of the soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, as all of us give thanks for our health and our families and friends, as all of us gather with loved ones to embrace the goodness and abundance of our lives, I am saying a special thank you to the Universe for the treasure trove of possibility that I now see opening up before me. Life is good.

Peace to all of you, pressed down and overflowing, on this Thanksgiving Day.

Note: The photographs from Wikipedia are of the Rocky Mountains. I flew over them and also was driven up them and through their canyons. The world is indeed beautiful.

PS: Next Thursday I hope to begin posting regularly again. You’ll find me in Seneca, Kansas, teaching fifth graders.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Final Bout of Hatred

In late August of 1960, I returned to Omaha. For the next nine months I taught a delightful class of fifth graders. Just thinking of that year with those eager fifth graders who soaked up learning makes me smile. How different from the seventh graders of the spring before. The only thing that marred those idyllic and carefree days were the recesses and the days I did the convent laundry.
         Throughout the year, several fifth graders would always gather around me during recess. We’d talk and laugh. And daily the members of that seventh—now eighth—grade gang would intrude. “You won’t be smiling when we’re done with ya,” they’d taunt. “We’re goin’ rape ya ‘til your ears ring.”
         Always the threat of rape.
         Because of that, Sister Brendan told me I was never to walk back to the convent alone. Another nun always accompanied me.
         The gang never raped me, but they did toilet-paper the trees and scrubs around the convent numerous times. Moreover one of my obediences was the weekly laundry. I’d pin a load on the line and go back inside the convent, only to return to the backyard and discover all the wet clothes trampled in the dirt, the clothespins littering the yard. 

          After this had happened a few times, another nun stood guard during the laundry days.
         One playground scene imprinted itself on my mind. In mid-winter, I was talking with Eugene, a fifth grader who was all of four and a half feet tall, malnourished, his face thin, a shock of black hair over his forehead, a woeful look in his eyes.
         Eugene was telling me about his dad’s drinking when one of the eighth graders—a member of the gang—strode up. He was tall, at last six feet, and burly. He smirked, put one of his muscled hands around the back of Eugene’s neck, squeezed, and lifted him off the ground. Eugene’s feet dangled; panic widened his eyes.
         “You b___,” the eighth grader snarled. “We’ll get you tonight!”
         “Let Eugene go!”
         “I suppose he’s your pet. Probably likes you. Doesn’t know what a b ___ you are.” As he spoke, he squeezed tightly so that Eugene’s face turned blue; his eyes rolled back.
         “Drop him,” I yelled from my five-foot-four height.
         “Make me!” he shouted.
         I slapped him.

         The bully dropped Eugene, who crumpled to the ground, coughing.          
         Rubbing his left cheek, the eight-grader muttered some choice curses, debating whether to hit me.
         Seeing the white line across his cheek left by my slap, I was appalled at what I’d done. But I had no time to apologize because Eugene was struggling to get up, still gasping for breath. I knelt on the asphalt and gathered him in my arms. Looking up, I saw the eighth grader looming over us, his fists clenched, his curses still bluing the air.
         “I’m going to report you to Sister Brendan,” I said.
         With that, he turned away, sullen, and rejoined his buddies who’d been watching. I don’t know what Sister Brendan said to him and his gang, but that ended their playground forays into fifth-grade territory.
         The year passed. I enjoyed being with those young children whose curiosity made learning exciting. But I continued to feel guilty about the hatred I’d incited in those gang members. When I’d taught them, my intentions had been good, but the results echoed for many years so that it was only thirty years later that I could finally see that I did have a gift for teaching and that those first five months had little to do with me and much to do with those damaged boys.
         And that, my friends, ends the saga of Omaha.

Note: I’m taking a vacation for a while, but will return to this on-line memoir in late November to share with you my next teaching assignment: Seneca, Kansas, in the fall of 1961.

All photographs from Wikipedia.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Little Humor in the Omaha Saga

The summer of 1960—the summer I discovered why Mother Alfred had sent me to Omaha—Sister Sweteberta told my scholastic class of eighteen that we had to “turn” our habits that summer.
         I panicked. I’d faced knives, but thread and needle were an entirely different matter.
         About fifteen years before, the sewing of an apron while in Girl Scouts had been a dismal experience. A failure. My flippant attitude about the project had incensed the leader who’d summarily dismissed me from the Scouts.

Bess Truman with the Girl Scouts

            After Sister Sweteberta gave us the news about turning our habits, I asked two friends if they’d do it for me while I did their obediences. One tablewaited in the summer refectory; the other worked in the scullery. They also used a polisher on the terrazzo floors of the four-story building. All that sounded like a leisurely summer picnic next to the ordeal of turning a habit.

Sewing Fisherman’s Wife by Anna Ancher, 1890

            To turn a habit was to make the back become the front by changing the sleeve openings, the yoke, and the frayed hem. The back of our daily habit had become shiny and threadbare from our having sat on it for two years. The long, narrow scapular of black serge we wore over the habit—back and front—would cover the shine. Turning would keep the habit whole, not holey.
         Turning was beyond my capabilities.
         My two friends thought they got the best of the deal. They actually liked to sew. Both of them had probably been great girl scouts. When the Scholastic Mistress heard my plan, she nixed it. I’d turn my own habit.
            “I don’t like sewing,” I explained.
            “It’s your habit, Sister Innocence. It’s your duty to take care of it.”
            “I’m not good at sewing.”           
            “You’ll get good.”
            “Believe me, I can’t sew no matter how much I try.”
            “If you don’t learn how to sew, you’ll never be a real woman,” she said.
            “I don’t want to be a real woman if that means sewing,” I countered. 
         She held up her right hand for silence.            
         I closed my mouth. I’d taken the vow of obedience. I’d lived it out on mission for five months with an unruly group of seventh graders. Surely turning a habit couldn’t be worse than that.

            Let me be the first to tell you: it was. That summer I had to do it all by hand because the personality of a sewing machine continued to evade me. I had so many needle pricks in my fingers and left so many drops of blood on that black serge that my friends felt sorry for me and surreptitiously helped whenever Sister Sweteberta wasn’t looking. We were downright sneaky.

            Years have passed and I’m fairly certain that letting others define us is hazardous for our emotional growth and contentment. The Scholastic Mistress defined a woman as a female who could sew. Upon leaving the convent on Christmas Eve in 1966, I discovered that many people—both men and women—defined a woman as “married.” Or, even better, “married with children.” I didn’t then and I don’t now fit those definitions.
            The truth is I’m not particularly concerned about “being a woman.” Being either male or female is of little interest to me. What is important is becoming an authentic human being. I’m gently greeting—day by day—the Oneness that lies deep down in the center of myself. I choose to let this Oneness define me.
            What I know for certain is that I never become a scout . . . or a seamstress.
            Surely Dante considered sewing one of hell’s worse torments.

Note: Next Thursday I’ll share my second year in Omaha with you. That will complete the Omaha saga!

All photographs from Wikipedia.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Finally, the Reason for Omaha

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?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Final Visit

(Continued from last Wednesday, October 16 . . .)
On this gloriously cool day, I’m inviting you into that 1960, seventh-grade, Omaha classroom one last time. There I established a regime of strict discipline, onerous both for the students and for me. Most of those seventh graders wanted to learn, but surely not in such a tense atmosphere.
         The situation was precarious. If the students acted as if they liked to learn, the ruling gang members might await them after school and batter them into submission. If they played along with the gang I might put indiscriminate checkmarks on the board and they’d have to stay after school and answer to their parents.

Richard Westall’s Sword of Damocles

         Yet despite the pervading fear, most students took part in discussions, followed directions, and responded well to the varied techniques I used for teaching.
         A coterie of them, however, remained adamant. No one was going to steal their power of intimidation. In every way possible, they undermined my attempts to make learning pleasurable. An undercurrent of retaliation lurked behind the menacing glares these students cast on their classmates. The image that came to mind was of a submarine ready to torpedo those students who were brazen enough to enjoy learning.

         One of those students was Maureen. One day—a day when no one got three checkmarks on the chalkboard—she stayed after school to ask me about college. She was bright and wanted to learn—purely for the sake of learning. From my first day in that classroom, she’d paid attention and responded to questions and prompts.
         The next day, I noticed that Maureen had a pained look on her face throughout our lessons. I discovered why only when the students filed out of the room at the end of the day. As Maureen passed me, I noticed that the back of her white blouse was marred with countless dark dots. I asked her to step out of the line. The other students left the building while I spoke with Maureen, who began to cry.
         This is what she’d endured that day: The girl behind her in the third row from the windows had spent the day leaning forward over her desk so that her face was close to Maureen’s right ear. 
Throughout that long school day, Jenny jabbed Maureen’s back repeatedly with a hat pin. The dark dots were the blood that welled up beneath the blouse. With each stab of the pin, Jenny muttered in Maureen’s ear, “This is what happens to snitches.”
         Countless bloody specks stained the back of Maureen’s blouse. She never again wore it to class. Nor did she ever again stay after school to ask my advice about her future education.
         Jenny did stay after school the next day and worked the math problem, cursing Maureen and me beneath her breath the entire time. I’d spoken with Sister Brendan about the incident, so I could say to Jenny, with certainty, that if she ever tortured anyone else in our class, she’d be expelled.  
         One more bonfire doused. One more casualty of the civil war that raged in that classroom. One more student filled with hatred.

         I’ve never forgotten those two young girls. Where are they now? Who are they? And what about all the rest of those students who, in their recalcitrance and fear and longing, brought from me the creativity I never knew I had? Where and who are they? I wish I knew.
         I would never want to relive those days, and yet I am grateful for what I learned from those seventh graders—all of them. The lessons they taught me served me well throughout all my teaching and my developing of curriculum for several Catholic publishers.
         As I’ve aged, I’ve come to realize that for myself all has worked out to good. Hallelujah.
Note: I’m trying to establish a writing and blogging schedule that works for me. So after a year or more of posting on Wednesday, I’ve decided to do my weekly posting on this on-line memoir on Thursday. I hope to see you here next Thursday to share with you what happened when I returned to Mount Saint Scholastica Convent in late May 1960. Peace.
                                       ( . . . continued next Thursday, October 24.)

Photographs from Wikipedia.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


Hello All,
Today's a bit of a downer for me and writing the next episode in the Omaha saga calls for more concentration then I can summon right now.

I hope to post tomorrow. Which explains of course why I've added this video from the movie "Annie." She's with a lovable dog, and of course, if I were singing and walking the streets of New York, I'd be with a cat . . . or two . . . or three!

Ellie, Maggie, and Matthew might, if I summoned them, come. That is if I offered food. And then again, maybe they wouldn't. They might prefer not to. Such is life.

Hope to see you tomorrow. Peace.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Teaching in a Peaceful Classroom

(Continued from last Wednesday, October 2 . . . )
 Days slipped into weeks, then months. The number of students staying after school waxed and waned. Some days a few got two checkmarks, but not three. Still, when peace became onerous, some boys would feel the pressure and “act out.” Then I’d be in the room after school with four or five of them.
         On the whole, discipline, order, balance had been established in the seventh-grade classroom I’d tired to teach so ineffectively for the first few weeks. Now I could begin to supplement the books they’d completed in the first semester. To do this, I simply remembered all the fine teachers I’d known. I remembered especially their enthusiasm, their love for their subject matter, and their belief in the thirst most humans have for learning.
         Following their example was not difficult. I loved learning and I quickly discovered that I loved teaching also. Watching a realization dawn on a student’s face. Seeing heads nod in comprehension. Listening to questions that showed critical thinking. Seeing the students reason; their wanting to know more: the why, the wherefore, the what, the when, the how, and when. All this was the reward of teaching.

         Coming up with ways to the minds and hearts and spirits of those students became all-important to me. Here are a few of the many projects I used to capture their interest and to reinforce whatever we were studying:

Imitations of famous art and books they’d read
Mock radio news programs
Mock soap operas
Mock television news programs
Mock “Man on the Street” interviews
Mock newspapers
Mock quiz shows
Puppets and puppet shows for stories they’d devised
Collages to illustrate types of whatever we were studying
Mobiles for geography

         In the classroom closet, I’d discovered a large roll of newsprint. That gave me the idea for the project I remember best. To begin, I asked the students to bring to class the Omaha newspapers delivered at their homes. We then examined the papers to discover what kind of information they contained.
         The students discovered feature articles, news stories, comics, obituaries, sports articles, advice columns, business sections, gardening articles, movie reviews, weather reports, almanacs, crossword puzzles, letters to the editor, editorials, opinion columns. We discussed the difference between feature and news. We read opinions, editorials, and the letters to the editor. We simply researched the innards of newspapers.
         Then I gave the students large sheets of newsprint and encouraged each of them to do a two-page newspaper on the early American period we were studying in our history class. Most of the students wholeheartedly engaged in this project, which lasted some time and involved research, writing, creativity.

         For example, they came up with letters from colonists—rebels and Tories. One student even pasted onto his paper a mock letter from King George III bemoaning the waywardness of the Massachusetts colonists and praising John Adams for defending the British soldiers who’d been involved in what Paul Revere—the master propagandist—was calling “The Boston Massacre.”
         When the students completed the project—on which they’d worked at home and at school—we had fifty-five two-page newspapers. The names they’d given to their various newspapers, which represented all the colonies in 1776, displayed real creativity, as did the news, features, puzzles, comics, sketches, and other writing they pasted in the columns of their papers.
         We thumbtacked and taped the newspapers all around the room so the students could read and enjoy one another’s work. That was, I say with little modesty, the best teaching idea I ever had.
         Next week, I’ll share one last story about this classroom. Then I’ll post about returning to the monastery that summer and about my second year in Omaha. By the end of October this saga will be complete. Hallelujah!                  
                                             (. . . continued next Wednesday, October 16.)

Note: If you have some interest in discovering how I taught English and writing, please click on one or more of the following postings from my Sunday writing blog. In them I detail how Sister Mary McCauley taught my class in grade school. I followed her example when I began to teach.

Photographs from Wikipedia