notquiteold

Nancy Roman

Teachers

If you’ve read my blog even once, you probably know that I am never serious.

I excel at silly, and so I’ve stuck to it.

But I cannot – as much as I’d love to – pretend that what happened here in Connecticut last week did not happen.  The whole country is heartbroken, including silly me.

I am not eloquent in the face of such serious matters.

There is nothing I can say that has not been already said. I cannot describe the loss of children I love but did not know.

I know many teachers. They are my friends and my family. Some are exceptional. Some are just doing the best they can. But every single one of them would – without hesitation – give up their lives to protect your children.

No, I am not eloquent. But I want to pay some small tribute – somehow – to teachers.

In 2006, I wrote an essay about my sixth grade teacher. My little story was published in Marlo Thomas’ book, The Right Words At The Right Time, Volume II.

I share it with you now, as the best I can do.

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MY PERFECT MESS

I had a rotten fifth grade. Although I made good grades, worked hard, was quiet and mostly obedient, Sister Saint Therese du Divine Coeur hated messy. And I was so messy.

Sister Saint Therese made us fasten our winter boots together with clothespins, line up our book bags neatly in a row under the windows, and cover our textbooks with brown paper. Plain, blank brown paper. Months into the school year, we still weren’t supposed to have a single doodle on any cover. I was ten. I don’t think I need to elaborate.

I also never remembered to bring a head scarf to wear on confession day. So once a month, I confessed with a Kleenex bobby-pinned to my head.

But in Sister Saint Therese’s eyes, my penmanship was her purgatory. Her handwriting was like the Declaration of Independence. Mine was the way desperate people scrawl on bathroom mirrors when they’ve been kidnapped.

At Saint Anne’s School, composition was the most important subject. That was fine with me. I was a wonderful storyteller, and I knew it. But in fifth grade, our monthly essays became ordeals. Because our stories didn’t only need to be beautifully written, they had to be beautifully written.

Each student would write a first draft on “practice paper” — cheap grayish sheets from the communal tablet. We would bring our essays one at a time to Sister. She’d look them over, correcting our spelling and grammar as she clicked her teeth. Then from her desk drawer, she would hand us our black-and-white-speckled composition book. The paper in the book was stapled to the center, so unlike spiral notebooks, if you tore out a sheet, the composition book tattled on you. Talk about leaving a paper trail.

Once we were handed our books, we were supposed to turn to the next blank page and copy our finished essay. With a fountain pen.

Giving me a fountain pen was like giving a toddler a bowl of spaghetti. No matter how careful I was — how deliberately I formed every letter — something would always go wrong. An a looked more like a d, an always had one too many humps, the line that crossed through the t in “the” always crossed through the h, too. And don’t get me started on the ink blots and the smears. (I challenge each of you with a ten-year-old to look at your child right now and picture him with an old-fashioned fountain pen in his hand.)

So I’d turn in my story riddled with smears, blobs, shaky letters, and mistakes, all of which I had tried to fix. Sister Saint Therese would be furious.

“Mother Mary would weep!” she’d cry, holding up my open book for all the class to see. Sister Saint Therese du Divine Coeur was a serious humiliator.

That’s when I’d get a Black Ticket. These were small pieces of paper about the size of a Band-Aid, black felt on one side and white on the other. You wrote your name on the white side and deposited the ticket in the Black Box, which sat directly in front of the statue of the Blessed Virgin. I think we were supposed to be offering up our sins, but for the life of me I never understood why Mary would want our sins in the first place.

At the end of every month, Sister Therese would open the box and read the names one by one. How we dreaded hearing our names come out of that box. A ten-ticket count was very bad. Once you accumulated that many tickets, you had to write your name in the Black Book. This could be considered the hotel registry for Hell. And I got booked. Repeatedly.

The school year is an eternity when you’re ten. And when most days include at least one moment of mortification, they crawl like Palm Sunday’s high mass. But the Blessed Virgin must have known that no child should be a nervous wreck forever, because when I got to sixth grade, my teacher was Sister Regina Marie.

Like all the nuns at Saint Anne’s, Sister Regina was strict. She looked to be six feet tall. Her habit stopped just short of her ankles, so you could see her thick black stockings and heavy-soled shoes. She had big hands with knuckles like my grandfather’s.

In Sister Regina’s class, we marched like West Point cadets. Slouching was lazy, and laziness was a mortal sin. She had little tolerance for fidgety boys and less for giggly girls. And she liked science way too much for my tastes. But all of this was okay with me, because with Sister Regina there were no Black Tickets, no Black Box, no Black Book — and no black-and-white-speckled composition books.

For our essays, Sister Regina had snow-white paper with the palest of blue lines. And she sold us (at cost, I hope) special ballpoint pens.

“These pens are one hundred percent guaranteed never to leak,” she said. “You will never get a glob of ink at the tip to mess up your papers.” I bought one right away, and when my grandmother gave me 50 cents for running an errand, I bought a spare. I knew a bargain when I saw one. Still, the thought of putting that glob-proof pen to that immaculate sheet of paper was too much to bear.

When Sister Regina announced our first essay assignment of the school year, I was expecting it to be “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.” Not so. Instead, we were told to “describe something beautiful.”

On my walk to school each day, I passed a tree that looked like any other for most of the year — except at autumn, when it turned the most brilliant red. So I wrote about the red tree and how it always caught me by surprise. Since I liked telling stories more than describing things, the story was about a tree that decided, quite deliberately, to stay green as long as possible, letting all the other trees go first, the better to startle everyone by turning every single leaf to crimson over the course of one night.

It was a pretty good story for an eleven-year-old, once you got past the thesaurus overload. (I had a tiny green book called Little Book of Synonyms, and I applied it liberally.) My tree was fiery, ruby, crimson, scarlet, vermillion, blood-drenched like a rose, a beet, an apple, a sunset. I was in vocabulary paradise and delighted with my essay.

But I had to write the finished version on that pristine paper. With a death grip on my special pen, I was overcome with fear. The tears came, and I cried all over my white paper.

Sister Regina came over to my desk. She leaned over me from her great height.

“What in the world is the matter with you?” she asked.

I looked away. I could hardly answer. ‘Tm afraid I will make a mistake,” I whispered.

“So what?” Sister Regina said.

So what?! So what if I made a mistake? I suddenly felt like I was the star of one of those catechism filmstrips, like the one where Saint Paul gets knocked off his horse. Because at that moment, angels began singing and the clouds parted and the sun shone down on my ruby tree. A teacher had actually said “So what!”

Sister Regina leaned in closer, her veil providing a small, private space for the two of us.

“Look,” she said quietly, “we all want everything we do to be perfect, but sometimes it just doesn’t turn out that way, because we aren’t perfect. If you aren’t satisfied when you’re done, and you think you can do it better — not perfect, just better — well, then, just do it again. You can do it as many times as you like.”

I’ve had many wonderful teachers who have guided and inspired me. But Sister Regina Marie’s kind words at that moment have meant as much to me as anything I have heard before or since.

In those few words, I learned one of the most reassuring lessons of life: that you don’t have to be perfect. You only have to satisfy yourself. And there is no limit to the number of chances you get.

I’m still messy. So what?

sisterreginamarie.jpg

Thank you, Sister Regina Marie (Sister Anita LeBlanc).

31 Comments

  1. How wonderful that she liberated you with those two simple words!

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    • It was the very first time I understood that it was okay to make a mistake. I’ll never forget it.

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  2. That is beautiful! I can see why it got published!

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    • Thank you. It was the first piece I wrote when I decided to write again after decades of Accounting. When it got published I thought, “Gee, this is EASY!” But ha on me – it was just beginner’s luck. But I persist.

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  3. Kindness and compassion are important but especially to children. A beautiful tribute. Thanks.

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  4. My saving nun was Sister Peter. Young, Irish with a blond whisp of hair poking out from her wimple, she had apple red cheeks and a ready smile. She saved my life by treating me like the 6 year-old I was instead of the small adult that the other nuns saw. If she’s still alive I know heaven is waiting for her…

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    • And amazingly, two years ago I got a phone call. It was Sister Regina Marie. She is now called Sister Anita LeBlanc, as her order has returned to given names. She is well over ninety and had only retired a few years ago. Imagine how many children were lucky enough to have her for a teacher!

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      • I was one of the lucky ones, Nancy. Yes, Sr. Regina Marie was also my favorite and Sr. Therese the worst. Oh how I can relate. You are a very talented writer, I am making my way through your blogs and enjoying very much.

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  5. Absolutely beautiful essay. And I know what you mean…what more can we say about those precious babies and how our hearts are broken?

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  6. Nancy, I have tears in my eyes over this post for a whole bunch of reasons.

    A horrible teacher followed by one who redeemed you (I’m messy too so I really appreciate Sister Regina Marie’s “so what?” I think it has just become my motto.)

    You’re right when you say that all teachers would protect our kids — someone else’s kids — at the cost of their lives, their health. The do not get the respect they deserve from the parents, the teachers or our society. Still they do it. Every day. They are amazing.

    And Newtown. Sandy Hook. I wrote that I know the town, that one of my nieces and two of my nephews went to that school Sat in those classrooms. Have the images in their heads and hearts forever. Other relatives still live there. I once went to a funeral at a wonderful Newtown bar called the One-Eyed Pig. It was memorable. But I wish the town weren’t destined to be remembered for other funerals. Ones that weren’t/aren’t going to be fun.

    Poor Sandy Hook. Poor Newtown. .Poor Connecticut, US. Such a sad, sad event.

    And for a silly person you wrote one of the most moving posts I’ve read on Newtown. Thanks.

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  7. Thank you. And you know, I now believe that even that horrible fifth grade teacher would have laid down her life for her students. Because she was a teacher. And she just would.

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    • And since she was a nun, you KNOW she’d go to hell if she didn’t!

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  8. What a wonderful story. Well spoken words from a teacher can make all the difference to a child. Thank you for sharing.

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  9. pharphelonus

    Wonderful essay. You rock, Nancy

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  10. Your poor state. Heavy hearts at every turn.
    What a contrast in teaching styles–one so severe and the other so compassionate. Still I like your comment to Elyse about the first.
    Your wonderful story eases us our minds to think in the direction of those who dedicate their lives to their Teaching Zone–Handled with love.
    What a tight knit community you came from that Sister Anita LeBlanc kept up with you through a phone call.

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    • I had not seen seen her since I graduated from St. Anne’s in 1965. She called in 2010. I could not believe it. I had not even imagined her still alive. But she is happy and well. Someone had told her they read a story they thought might be about her – “Weren’t you once called Sister Regina Marie?” And she read the story and has been bragging to everyone ever since. So with some help from a friend, she found me!

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  11. What a wonderful tribute and story. I went to Catholic school so I related immediately. Palmer penmanship. That was a saint they worshipped. This was a beautiful way to give tribute to teachers.

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    • And even though Sister Regina did not care if I was messy, her handwriting was immaculate. She still teaches calligraphy at the senior center.

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  12. Thank you for a lovely essay, and for giving voice to the dilemma faced by silly writers everywhere this week.

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    • It’s hard when you are a “humor writer” to know how to respond to tragedy. But I didn’t see how I could pretend it didn’t happen. There had to be an acknowledgement that sometimes sorrow surrounds us.

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  13. Beautiful. A lesson we need to remind ourselves of every single day.

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  14. What a wonderful tribute, and what a wonderful teacher. I’m still trying to teach myself the lesson of “So what?”

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    • It’s an ongoing struggle for us “Type A” types to accept imperfection. After all, if I make a mistake, won’t everyone hate me?

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  15. really beautiful essay – no surprise that it was published. i love the way you found a way to pay tribute to teachers. i was a teacher, too and my heart hurts for what happened. thanks for another great read.

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  16. As a parent of a young student, I too found myself thinking about teachers in the wake of recent events. Now is the time to tell the teachers in our lives that their work is meaningful and appreciated. I wrote Son’s teacher this letter on our first day back after the shooting: http://definingmotherhood.wordpress.com/2012/12/17/dear-teacher/

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  17. Fantastic story! You made me think back… Didn’t know it at the time, but back then life was always simple and free. Somehow, someone always solved our “big” problems. However, I’m afraid the freedom and simplicity we enjoyed as kids will never be experienced by my grandkids…that concerns me. And, your right, your stories are funny and fun to read. Thanks! I look forward to reading more of your writings and I just tapped your “follow this blog” button.

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    • Thanks. Glad you are enjoying my stories. I love to make someone laugh.

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