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

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Settling In for the Long Haul

(Continued from last Wednesday, September 25 . . . )

In the beginning of my draconian rule of the seventh-grade classroom in Omaha, five students spent time after school trying to subtract and get to 0.
         For the next two or three weeks, five or more had to stay and work until they’d done the subtraction correctly throughout the entire problem. As I said last week, this process sometimes took two hours.
         As the days passed, fewer and fewer checkmarks went on the chalkboard. Ron held out for two or three weeks and had to stay after school each day. Led by him, Bill and John also had to stay for they followed his example and disrupted class when he did or disrupted it on their own and looked to him for approval. All three always had several  ✔✔✔✔✔✔✔after their names.

         But once Ron decided he’d had enough of this, he settled into brooding silence—like Heathcliff on the moors. He had a good brain and somewhat infrequently would offer an answer in class. His buddies would look at him admiringly and he’d preen. But when I complimented him on something he’d done or said, he seemed appreciative. I wasn’t letting him bully me and I think he developed a grudging respect for me.

Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff
in the 1939 film version of Wuthering Heights.
         The surprising event to me was that no parents called or visited me to object to their son or daughter staying after school. 
          In mid-March a couple did come to the convent one evening to demand that I change their daughter’s grades. Pam had taken her 3rd quarter report card home that afternoon and her parents insisted I had a grudge against their daughter because she was smarter than I.
         For the first two quarters of the school years Pam had gotten straight As. I’d given her Bs and Cs because she'd done sloppy and incomplete work. She seemed to think that the assignments I gave were too juvenile. She was a ringleader of the girls, but she didn’t get checkmarks. She was too intelligent for that. Her resistance came in the form of inflections and facial expressions when she answered or asked a question.
         Pam’s parents simply couldn’t understand why her grades had gone down, and when I told them about her attitude, they expressed their belief that she was smarter. More attractive. More charming than any of the girls in her classroom. For all that, they thought, she should be given As.
         I assured Pam’s parents that if her work and attitude changed for the last quarter, she’d make better grades. I’d become steely by then and her parents seemed to recognize that the grades would remain as given. They left angry, but Pam began to respond to class questions without disdain and arrogance. She was an attractive girl and she and Ron were a couple.
         Sister Mary Norbert, who’d been at St. Peter and Paul’s Grade School for several years, had taught many of these seventh graders in her fifth-grade class two years before.
         One day she said to me, “You know, Sister Innocence, that lot’s not innocent. They haven’t been since they started carousing. Partying in the fifth grade. They changed then. And not for the good.”
         Seeing my befuddlement, she whispered, “Sex.”

         The next day I looked out upon that sea of fifty-five students and felt sad for them. I could see now why several of the girls seemed too mature for their age. Too knowledgeable. Why they stood on the playground with hips and chest stuck out provocatively. Why they looked at the boys with their mouths open while running the tip of their tongue over their lips.
         I knew that with regard to their sexuality they probably had experienced more than I. Yet that fact wasn’t important. I was there to teach them; they were there to learn.
         From February 15 to the end of the school year, I was perhaps more creative in my teaching than in any of the subsequent years. The students’ passivity and boredom became a challenge. Next week I hope to share with you some of the projects with which I captured their attention.
                                                ( . . . continued next Wednesday, October 9.) 
Photographs from Wikipedia.