Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Baptism by Fire

(Continued from August 21, 2013 . . . )

The fight on the Omaha playground took place on Friday. The next day, I expected to board the train for Walsenburg, Colorado, where I’d spend the rest of the school year. But that morning, Sister Brendan, the Omaha superior, summoned me to her office.
         I knelt by her chair as did all nuns when a superior wanted to confer with them. It was a sign of obedience to what would be said or asked.
         “Sister Innocence,” she said, “you won’t be going to Walsenburg. Instead you’ll stay here and teach a section of seventh graders.”
         I must have looked confused because she added, “The nun who’s been their teacher is returning to the Mount.” I nodded, still not understanding. She riffled through some papers on her desk and said, not looking at me, “She’ll be sent to Council Bluffs.”
         Leaving her office, I went to the basement to do the convent laundry. Sister Mary Norbert followed me. She asked what I knew about my new assignment.
         “Nothing really. Sister Brendan just told me I’d be teaching seventh graders because their teacher was being reassigned to Council Bluffs.”
         Norbert grimaced. “Not reassigned. It’s not a school she’s going to. It’s a mental facility. Saint Bernard’s. Run by the Mercy nuns.”
         Now I was totally confused.
         “It’s where the Mount sends all the nuns who’ve gone off the deep end,” she added. As she ascended the steps, her final words drifted down to me like wisps of smoke from dying embers. “She’s nuttier than a fruitcake. And she’s taught those seventh graders to be Nazi storm troopers.”

This is a psychiatric hospital in Michigan.
But if you’d like to see an early photograph of St. Bernard’s,

         On Monday morning I followed Sister Brendan up to the second floor of the grade school. She pointed out her eighth-grade classroom on the left and then motioned me to the door on the right. On its glass window someone has taped dark construction paper so we couldn’t see in.
         When we entered, Sister Brendan immediately removed the construction paper, and with seeming satisfaction, crumpled it into a ball and tossed it nonchalantly into the wastepaper basket. Then she strode to the front of the classroom.
         Meekly, I followed, gazing nervously at the fifty-five seventh graders sitting there. Seeing me, many smirked. Nudged one another. Gave one another a high-five. Rolled their eyes. Whispered out of the sides of their mouths.
         Out of those mouths had tumbled the violent words that had catapulted me into the middle of their violent circle the previous Friday. They’d certainly acted like Nazi storm troopers then. I saw the boy who’d done the bopping; I saw the boy who’d lain on the ice. He had two butterfly bandages on his shaved sculp.         
         “This is Sister Innocence,” Sister Brendan said as I stood next to her. “She’ll teach you the rest of the year.” When Ron asked where their “real” teacher was, Sister Brendan said, “She’s returned to the Mount due to ill health.”  
         Gleefully, twenty-eight boys and twenty-seven girls in six rows stared at me as if I were a hen to pluck. They knew, as did I, that I was a rookie. Easy pickings.
         My heart began to pound; fear inched its way through my veins. Sister Brendan smiled at me encouragingly and then walked out of the room, closing the door firmly behind her.
         Hearing the latch click shut, the seventh-graders hooted. Howled. Their din hurt my ears. “Quiet, please,” I said, over and over. I could hear the plea in my voice. The weakness. I trembled as their voices thundered round me.
         Bewildered, I sat down at the desk and simply gazed at them. One by one. They fidgeted. Shrugged their shoulders. Began to throw balled paper at me and to roll spitballs. Still I stared at them, saying nothing. Slowly quiet settled round us.
         Now began the task of teaching. This was to be, I feared, a baptism by fire.
                                    ( . . . to be continued next Wednesday, September 4.)

Psychiatric hospital from Wikipedia.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Violence on the Playground

(Continued from last Wednesday, August 14 . . . )

Bloodthirsty cries overshadowed the laughter of the fifth graders surrounding me on the icy playground at St. Peter and Paul Grade School in Omaha, Nebraska, on Friday, January 15, 1960.
         “Kill ‘im, Ron! Kill ‘im!”
         “Bash his head!”
         “Looka’ that blood!”
         “Bill, break his nose!”
         “Kill ‘im, Ron! Kill ‘im!”
         “Go for his eyes!”
         “Bash him a good one!”
         “Kill ‘im, Ron!”
         The words shocked me into action. Alarmed, I rushed toward a circle of boys gathered in the shadow of the school building. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder, three deep around a center I couldn’t see, shouting, punching the air with clenched fists. Frenzied, I tried to move them aside.
         “Excuse me! Let me through. I’ve got to get through.”
         The boys, in their thick winter jackets, seemingly unaware of anything beyond what was happening in front of them, refused to budge. Their churning circle tightened. Contracted.
         I shoved. Pushed. Tried to pull them apart.
         They shoved back. Snarled at me. Cursed.
         Struggling to pull them apart, I edged forward toward the center of the shouting circle.
         “Keep bashin’ his head, Ron! Kill ‘im!”
         Hearing those vicious words, I instinctively looked to the left. A boy, blond hair flapping over his forehead, stared avidly at the scene before him. His body moved back and forth to the thumps coming from the center of the circle. Saliva dribbled onto his dirty white shirt. Most of its buttons had popped off so that it gaped open over his stomach, which pooched out over his tight belt.
         I followed his maniacal gaze downward to where two boys struggled.  One atop the other. Blood matted the hair of the one on the bottom. The boy tabled above held his opponent’s head between splayed fingers. He bopped it up and down, up and down, against the ice. The boy’s head thudded. Blood spurted.
         The eyes of the boy on the bottom rolled back. His limp hands lay at his side.
         “Kill ‘im, Ron!”
         Those words galvanized me. My hands gripped the shoulders of the boy doing the bopping. I tried to pull him backward.
         He punched out at me. Grazed my cheek. Socked my eye.
         His own eyes were glazed, staring unseeingly at the force trying to stop his crazed battering of the boy beneath him.
         “It’s a nun!” the boy with popping buttons shouted. “Don’t hit her! You’re be excommunicated!”
         The shouting stopped. Silence.
         The boy on top fell to the side and lay panting on the ground. The boy beneath him opened his eyes, tried to rise, fell back.
         Just then Sister Julian came running from around the back of the school building. “What’s happening?” she shouted.
         The boy with the popped buttons tried to head her off. “Nothin’s happenin’, Sister. Just a friendly fight.”
         She stepped aside, avoiding him, and headed to where I stood, surrounded by boys, their eyes downcast. She glanced at the two struggling to get up, turned toward me, and asked, “Are you hurt?”
         “He just grazed me.”
         Julian ordered me to go over to the convent and ice my face. She’d get my fifth-graders settled in their classroom.

         As I walked away, I could hear her voice demanding an explanation from the boys. Wondering how that boy had learned the word excommunication and whose classroom he and the rest of the boys were in, I felt grateful that I hadn’t had to teach them for two weeks. The next day I’d travel to Walsenburg, Colorado, and never see those boys again. Thank heavens!
                                                      (. . . to be continued next Wednesday)

Photographs from Wikipedia.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Memories of a Classroom

(Continued from last Wednesday—August 7 . . . )
Not quite fifty-four years ago—on Sunday January 3, 1960—I, a newly vowed scholastic, boarded the train in Atchison, Kansas, and traveled to Omaha, Nebraska, a distance of 159 miles. I wore my Sunday habit and the black veil I’d exchanged for the white one worn for the novitiate year. My suitcase held . . .
·      my daily black habit made of seven yards of black serge;
·      my daily scapular, the long rectangular piece of black serge that covered the habit both back and front;
·      several flat white coifs of pleated linen, which, when shaped and worn, would cover my neck, head, and the sides of my face;
·      two heavily starched and rigid white linen headbands;
·      two voluminous one-piece cotton undergarments that encased the body from shoulders to thighs;
·      two floor-length cotton nightgowns;
·      an extra pair of black shoes;
·      two aprons;
·      my monastic diurnal from which I prayed the Divine Office, the ancient Latin prayers said seven different hours a day;
·      my St. Andrew Daily Missal for use during Mass;
·      and a collection of readings used for Matins, the longest prayer of the day.
          There may have been more in the black leather suitcase, which my parents had given me just two days before, but I have no memory of toothpaste, toothbrush, shampoo, soap, shoe polish, or the other sundries that I’d carry today.
          Nor do I remember the three-hour trip. Did I stew about entering a classroom the next day to teach when I’d had no classes on teaching? Was I curious about the nuns I’d be living with at the St. Peter and Paul convent? Did I already miss my classmates who’d been left behind to start college?
          Was the scene beyond the train window that January morning bleak? Sunny? Windy? Snow swept? Did grain stubble pierce through the frozen black soil of Nebraska? Were the dark skeletons of trees, stark against the prairie sky, foreboding? I don’t know.

         This is what I do remember about the two weeks that followed: The next day, I entered the fifth-grade classroom of Sister Nicole who was being treated for cancer in a nearby hospital. From a pole high above the chalkboard draped an American flag. Bookcases, with innumerable children’s books arranged in alphabetical order, nestled beneath the windows of the far wall. A globe stood on one bookcase. The room was sunny, filled with the children’s art and posters about reading and hygiene.
         The children within that classroom were young. Innocent. Welcoming. Concerned about their beloved teacher. They asked each morning if we could say special prayers for her throughout the day. I was eager to meet the woman whom these children treasured. Thoughtfully, she’d left me detailed lesson plans so I’d know how to proceed and what to teach.
         The only other thing I remember from her classroom is Stanley. A tall, hollow-cheeked child with sea-blue eyes and tousled chestnut hair, he sat mute in the back seat of the row next to the windows, staring blindly ahead while lobbing a hardball into his baseball glove. A sorrowful river of tears flowed over his pale cheeks and plopped onto his worn jeans throughout each of the ten days I spent in that classroom
          Another nun told me that Stanley’s father had died in an accident over the Christmas holidays. The children and I respected his grief—we were, I think, awestruck by it—and grew used to the thud, thud, thud, of the ball as it hit his first-baseman’s glove. Those thuds, which became the counterpoint to everything said in that classroom for those two weeks, still resound in my heart.
         It was on Friday, the last day of my sojourn in Sister Nicole’s classroom that I encountered a group of older children on the icy playground during recess. That encounter changed my life and may have taught me all I ever needed to know about teaching.
                                       (. . . to be continued next Wednesday)

Photograph by Jomphong from

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Monastery Sends Me Out to Teach

Hello to all of you who may have found this blog after my being away for eight weeks. During that time, I’ve finally completed a first draft of a novel and driven to Minnesota and back for a two-week vacation.
         Now I’m ready to resume my Wednesday postings on this on-line memoir. In the coming weeks, I’ll post about my three years as a scholastic at Mount Saint Scholastica Monastery.
         Way back in the fall of 2011, I posted a series of convent stories. When I ended those posts, I wrote the following:
This posting concludes the stories about my life in the novitiate. I’m going to turn now to stories about my growing-up years and my life with cats. In a few weeks, I hope to return to the convent postings and take up life in a Catholic grade school in Omaha, Nebraska.
Twenty months have passed since I wrote those words. What happened to those plans is that in January 2012 I read a posting by Manzanita on social justice. Her words sparked a six-month series of my own postings about my involvement in social-justice issues. Then for over a year I wrote about my childhood.
Many of you read those 2011 postings about my first eighteen months in the convent, but a number of you are new to my blog since then. If so, you may have some interest in a summary of my life in the novitiate, which I entered after graduating from college in June 1958. The following three posts summarize that time:   
In addition to those posts, I did three on the difficulty of deciding whether to make first vows.
Finally, on December 6, 2011, I posted the story of my making first vows and the wonder of that day.
I appreciate how busy your schedules are as you try to read all your favorite blogs. So I suspect that few, if any, of you will have the time or inclination to peruse the seven postings listed above.
However, if you do have a wee bit more time, I encourage you to read the final posting about vow day on January 1, 1960, as it sets the background for the scholastic postings.

This photo was taken on the day I made first vows 
and exchanged the white veil of the novitiate 
for the black veil of the scholasticate.  

 The outside of the college chapel in which I made first vows.

The inside of the college chapel in which I made first vows.  

On Saturday, January 2, 1960, Mother Alfred called me into her office and told me she’d planned to send me to Walsenburg, Colorado, to teach. However, a sister at the Omaha mission had been rushed to the hospital the day before, so I would take her place in a fifth-grade classroom for two weeks. Then I’d go to Colorado.
On Sunday, January 3, 1960, I boarded the train in Atchison, Kansas, and traveled north to Omaha, Nebraska. There, Sister Brennan met me and drove me to the convent next to St. Peter and Paul Grade School, Church, and Rectory.
The next day, I began to teach. I’d taken no teaching courses, but the state allowed me to teach on the condition that I take classes in the summer and work toward a certificate. The fact that I’d already graduated from college helped.
That’s the background for the upcoming scholasticate postings. Next Wednesday I’ll share with you a story of violence on an ice-laden playground in Omaha.

PS: Great news! Andi Hicks, a gifted artist, has narrated the audio of A Cat's Life: Dulcy's Story. She's given me an Irish accent so as to distinguish my voice from Dulcy's. Sure and I sound like a true Dubliner! The audio is now available on Amazon. Click here if you're interested.