May 6-10, 2013 is National Teacher Appreciation Week in the United States. There are many teachers who’ve mentored me as a student, but there is a special class of teachers I want to honor this week—nuns.
I have a fascination with nuns. For most people, the image of nuns is tied to the media: Sally Field as “The Flying Nun,” Whoopie Goldberg in the movie “Sister Act,” and even Julie Andrews as the reluctant nun in “The Sound of Music.” My childhood was filled with flesh-and-blood non-flying and non-chorusing nuns, and I love saying that I was schooled by nuns. My kindergarten-8th grade years were spent at Queen of All Saints School in Chicago, IL. The school began in 1940 and was staffed by Benedictine sisters. In 1953 a convent was built on campus to house the sisters. The convent was converted into the Benedict Center after 1993, when the sisters left the parish due to the lack of religious vocations. The ratio of nuns to lay teachers has significantly diminished, but the sisters’ lasting impact on the education of thousands of students who moved through the school’s halls can’t be denied.
My education in the 1970’s was highly influenced by nun-educators. One of my first grade teachers was Sister Ada and she literally put the fear of God into me. She was the stereotypical stern, nun-teacher you envision walking up and down the rows of 6-year-olds with a ruler in hand, ready to rap on knuckles. I can still picture her sour face and have no memories of her smiling. But, to counter her formidable demeanor, she had a creative streak, and she découpaged thick pillar candles with images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary which she sold for $1 to the students. I was enthralled with her artistry and entrepreneurial spirit. I remember begging my mother for money to buy every version of candle Sister Ada made. She was my pre-cursor to Martha Stewart, sans the federal imprisonment, of course.
Another unforgettable nun is Sister Gertrude. She was my private piano teacher from the school for almost seven years. Sister Gertrude was a sweet, wise old thing who wore a full black habit from head to toe. She barely stood taller than the average Sixth Grader. She was beloved by all and had the privilege of occupying a very large sunlit parlor in which she gave piano lessons and received parents. Many countless hours were spent by me and other children at her big black grand piano in front of a tall bay window pounding out scales and concertos. Sister Gertrude gave me the gift of classical music while simultaneously fueling my awe-filled fascination for nuns.
Principals Sister Regina and Sister Barbara were the two administrators who ruled the school during my time at Queen of All Saints. Sister Regina was the nicest nun and Sister Barbara, her successor, was the opposite. Sister Barbara commanded attention. She was an imposing figurehead who caused the students’ posture to subconsciously straighten when she was nearby. Sister Barbara was the first nun I encountered who didn’t dress like a nun—not even a nun’s veil which seemed to be the minimum garb for contemporary nuns of the 70’s. Only the dominant crucifix around her neck distinguished her as a person of holy orders. What did I learn from Sister Barbara? That women can be strong, fearless, non-traditional leaders.
In the 1970’s, when I was in grade school, they didn’t have National Teacher Appreciation Week. I have many teachers throughout my student career who I remember fondly, but the nun-educators have a special place in my heart. Nuns were undoubtedly significant role models in my life. Their Sister Act was second to none (or should I say “nun”?). I still love and revere nuns. Nuns provide an invaluable service to society whether they are missionaries, teachers, social service workers, or healthcare providers. One of my dear junior high classmates became a nun, and I admire and respect her for it. So this week, I pay homage to the women of the cloth who imparted on me lasting bits of wisdom that definitely were not in the school lesson plan.