Sunday, February 28, 2010
Thanks for staying tuned in. This is the fourth (and last) part of a longer story. If you want to catch up just scroll back a few posts. I don’t think of Sister Justin that much anymore. She doesn’t haunt my dreams. I had forgotten her for years until I began to write this little memoir. I know I have been unreasonable with my own students from time to time. But I hope they never have to think back on second or third grade and think of me like this…
I had actually done the sentences! I couldn’t prove that I had done them but I had truly written all 100 sentences during the long miserable weekend. I did it without letting my parents know so they couldn’t vouch for me. What was I going to do?
I didn’t take communion in church that morning knowing that I would have to pass Sister Justin’s pew. Being in the cafeteria and on the playground with her that day I just waited for her to come swooping over to me, her long black habit flapping behind her to grab me up by the back of the neck and yell in my face what a worthless loser I was for not finishing my assignment, my penance for talking in the lavatory. I waited for her to pick me out in line and humiliate me in front of my classmates and Mrs. Albert.
After school I searched for the sentences. Nowhere. I waited for the phone to ring and for Sister Justin to tell my parents about my failure to complete my assignment. She didn’t call. I thought about just doing the sentences again but it would take me a couple of days and if I turned them in on Wednesday or Thursday she would know for sure they were late. I didn’t know what to do. I called Kevin.
“Hey man, did you turn in your sentences this morning?”
“Of course,” he said. “You think I’m nuts? I put them in the homework basket with my other stuff.” He chuckled. “My hand was sure sore from writing. Yours?”
“Oh yeah. 100 sentences in cursive. It took me all weekend.”
“Your folks find out?” he asked.
“You kidding? They’d pound me if they knew.”
“Well I hope they put ‘lavatory’ on the next spelling test as a bonus word. I’ll be able to spell that for the rest of my life.”
We spelled it together, laughing – Kevin a little heartier than me. “L-A-V-A-T-O-R-Y!”
After that phone conversation I figured my best hope was that Sister Justin didn’t check off the sentences she assigned. Maybe she had forgotten that she had even assigned them to me. After all, she terrorized kids all day every day. She must have dozens of pages of sentences turned in every day. How could she keep track of all of them? Or maybe she had a notebook, a register like the one my mom and dad used for their checkbooks, to make sure she got every sentence she assigned.
I just hunkered down for the rest of the school year. Any time I spotted Sister Justin I tried to make myself invisible. When she was in the hall, I was a model student, walking straight with my arms at my side. I never took an unnecessary restroom break. In the cafeteria, I sat with my back to the teacher’s table and I put myself at the opposite side of the playground whenever Sister Justin was on duty.
I’m sure there were times during my third grade year when I wasn’t worried about Sister Justin. But looking back, I remember more about my fear of her remembering the missing sentences than just about anything else. I went to Saints Peter and Paul through grade 8 and Sister Justin was there the entire time. For my remaining five years I thought of the sentences every time I saw her. When I became an altar boy and had to hold the paten for those who received communion, I held the gleaming golden dish just under Sister Justin’s throat while the priest placed the host on her tongue. I tried to never catch her eye, to never receive any undue attention.
I made it through Peter and Paul without another run in with Sister Justin. As I write this, after more than forty years, a teacher of young children myself, I wonder about Sister Justin. Is she still around? I have no idea how old she would be. Are there many others who have similar memories of her? Was she a good teacher in the classroom? Did she ever soften? What did she really think of the children she taught? What was her childhood like, her own schooling? Was she ever a friend to a child?
While we are products of all the people we have crossed paths with, all the places and times in our lives, Sister Justin left her mark. She taught me some things about teaching I will always carry with me. Through her meanness I think I learned a little about compassion. By looking at Kevin and me as just another worthless McDevitt and O’Keefe, she taught me to look at all children as individuals, not just another family member like all others. By controlling children through fear and intimidation she showed me that being gentle and reasonable with kids is the best way to solve problems.
By viewing us as obstacles to her teaching, she reminds me that children are the reason we teach.
Friday, February 26, 2010
If you are just getting to this story, scroll back a couple posts to start at the beginning. We’ll see how far I get this time…
“Well, I know two fresh buttons who have some sentences to write. How about this, ‘I will not talk in the lavatory’? One hundred sentences. Monday on my desk after mass.”
Kev and I cowered in the corner. I was thinking 100 sentences was pretty stiff for just talking in the lav but there was absolutely no arguing with Sister Justin. She would just give us more sentences. “Yes, Sister Justin,” we murmured together.
We slunk out of the restroom, miserable, our necks sore and our spirits low. One hundred sentences would take a really long time. We had just learned cursive and one hundred sentences in our newly acquired handwriting would be painful. Sister didn’t ask us to have our parents sign the papers, so I wouldn’t have to tell my folks about the episode. This was one I hoped that I would get away with.
I began my sentences at recess on three lined handwriting paper. My friends played kickball while Kevin and I sat next to the gym wall writing away. I completed about fifteen during the recess break. I figured I had about 90 minutes to go before I was finished. That was the same as three carton shows. Ninety minutes watching cartoons went by quickly, but ninety minutes working on sentences… ninety of those minutes would seem like forever.
But I did it. Over the weekend I worked on the sentences until my hand ached. Early Saturday morning before band practice, before mass on Sunday morning, whenever I could work without letting my parents know, I wrote a few at a time. If they found out I was talking in the lavatory they would probably be mad. Since Sister didn’t say I had to get my papers signed I wasn’t about to let my parents know. Of course, she could make us get them signed after we turned them in. I only hoped that 100 sentences would be punishment enough.
Sunday night I had my sentences finished. The handwriting on the last page was a little rough, but I didn’t think Sister Justin would mind. This was a punishment, not a handwriting assignment. She knew what 100 sentences would do to a third grade boy’s weekend. I tucked them into my religion book and waited to hand them in the next day. I wondered how Kevin did on his sentences. I hoped he had his finished as well.
On Monday I walked to school with my neighbor, Rick Kadar and my brother Pat. I told them what happened. Pat was outraged. “Just for talking?! She sure couldn’t make me do 100 sentences for that.” Pat probably would have gotten away with not doing sentences. Sister Justin probably wouldn’t have assigned sentences to Pat anyway, knowing he wouldn’t even do them. He was just like that. I, on the other hand, could never have gotten away with it. I wasn’t as tough as Pat.
In a strange way, I was proud of those sentences. I was going to school early enough so I could have the sentences on her desk before she even got there. I envisioned her coming in to the classroom to find my 100 sentences neatly on her desk waiting for her. In my mind I see her counting the sentences to be sure there were exactly 100. There were. I made sure of it. I could see her admiring my handwriting; 10 sentences per side, 5 pages of cursive sentences from a third grader. She would be proud, maybe even think a little more of me. I would be the O’Keefe she could count on to do the job that needed to be done.
When we got to school Mass had already started. Everyone would be in church. The building was open so I ducked inside while Pat and Rick went to join their classes.
When I reached her classroom, Sister Justin’s door was unlocked. I entered quickly and opened my religion book. My sentences weren’t there. I was in shock. Perhaps I had put them in another book and forgotten. I flipped through all of my books, searched my pockets and lunch bag. The sentences weren’t there. I searched through everything again.
I was panicked as I slunk into church. I tried to make myself invisible. My mind raced. Where could the papers be? Had I dropped them on the way to school? Had one of my big brothers played a cruel joke on me and taken them out? Did I leave them on my desk at home? Would Sister Justin take them late? Would my parents kill me if she called them? Looking over at Kevin, he didn’t seem nervous. No doubt he had his sentences ready to turn in. The pressure of waiting to find out my eventual punishment was unbearable. Would she make me write a thousand sentences? Would she paddle me? Would she take me to the principal and have Sister Rosa Lima paddle me? Would they have me talk to the Pastor, Father Beckman?
The horrible part of the whole thing was that I had actually written the sentences! I couldn’t prove that I had done them, but I had truly written all 100 sentences during that long, miserable weekend. I did it without letting my parents know so they wouldn’t vouch for me. What was I going to do?
Thursday, February 18, 2010
Here is second installment of The Lavatory. Go back to the last post if you are just getting to this. Thanks for reading!
That November morning I was a little antsy in class. We were doing handwriting, a dull subject to me. Mrs. Albert had beautiful cursive and she was an excellent teacher in this area. I needed a break and asked to go to the lavatory. Mrs. Albert was a pushover for restroom breaks. We could go pretty much when we needed to. Mrs. Albert gave her permission so I walked down the linoleum-tiled floor to the lav.
It was creepy to be alone in the big hallway. It was not well lit. The walls were painted with high-gloss, drab colored paint and I ran my hand across the shiny surface. It always seemed a little sweaty, a little slippery. My dress shoes clicked a lonely echo. I could hear Sister Justin yelling at some poor kid for not having his homework, “But I did have it, Sister. Honest.”
“Don’t you dare talk to ME about honesty!”
When I got to the lav my friend Kevin McDevitt was there. “Hi, Tim. Whatcha doin’?”
“What do you think I’m doing, goofball?” He was sitting on the edge of the sink, legs swinging, a bored satisfied look on his face.
“You’re just taking a break aren’t you?”
“Yeah,” I admitted. “Albert’s doing handwriting.
"Boring!” I sneered. I really did like Mrs. Albert but I was trying to be cool.
“Handwriting,” he answered in disgust. “Who needs that? I knew how to write when I was…”
Suddenly, a black form swooped in from behind us. I felt pain as a steel hand clamped around the back of my neck. My jaw snapped shut and my teeth clicked together hard as I was lifted from the sink. I instinctively grabbed onto the hand holding me up. I was spun around. My face thrust inches from Sister Justin’s. Her eyes behind the steel rimmed glasses were squinched almost shut. Her face was flushed and she was trembling as she spoke. I had never seen her this close before. I had never seen any teacher this close before. She may have been a pretty woman. It was hard to tell because most of her head and face were covered by her habit. But she was frightening at this distance.
“How dare you!?” she screamed. Was this a question, as in How dare you sit on the sink? How dare you be in here? How dare you speak ill of handwriting? She had Kevin by the neck in her other hand. We were standing but she was holding us up on our tiptoes.
“I’m sorry, Sister Justin,” I choked out. I wasn’t sure what I was apologizing for exactly, but I figured an apology would be a good place to begin. She started screaming and shaking us the way a terrier shakes a rat.
"You were talking in here, weren’t you!?” she demanded.
“Yes,” Kevin whispered through clenched teeth.
“Yes, what?” Did she think we were in the next room, the next hall? We could have heard her whisper the words. Our ears were only inches away from her lips but she was hollering.
“Yes, Sister Justin,” Kevin managed.
“You’re an O’Keefe, aren’t you?” She twisted my face so that our noses almost touched. “You look like your brother Patrick. He was a trouble maker as well.” She was furious. Her face was red. I looked away from her. I could not hold her gaze. “What’s the matter, Mr. O’Keefe? Cat got your tongue? You were sure busy chatting a minute ago.”
“Yes, Sister, my name is Tim O’Keefe. I’m in Mrs. Albert’s class.” Her chokehold eased up some. I could stand flat on my feet again.
She turned to my friend Kevin. “And you are a McDevitt.” She said it like he should be ashamed of it.
“Yes, Sister Justin.”
“You look just like the rest of them. I had your brother Matthew. He was a handful just like you.” At that she released us. We put our hands to our necks, red-faced and breathless. I wasn’t really in that much physical pain. We were more embarrassed I think. After all we were in the boys lavatory.
She glared at us and lowered her voice a notch. We cowered together wondering what was coming next. “Talking in the lavatory,” she hissed. “Just like your brothers. Wasting instructional time. Playing around in the filthiest room of the school just like it was the playground.”
It sure didn’t feel like the playground. I remember how glad I was that Kev was with me, how horrible it would have been to face Sister Justin alone. Of course, if Kevin hadn’t been there I wouldn’t have been talking at all.
“Well I know two fresh buttons who will have some sentences to write.”
Monday, February 15, 2010
I went to my parents this weekend. It was just a short visit. The weather was looking bad so I came back on the same day. While I was there I got in a little yard work. They had a terrible ice storm last week. Many trees had fallen and the tops of trees splintered and lay in heaps. A tree hit their neighbor’s house but, luckily, there was no damage to my folks’ house. There were just tree limbs everywhere.
I spent more time on the road than actually working and visiting. But it was well worth it. I love spending time with them. My mom is so smart and funny and sassy and articulate. She makes me think deeply and laugh hard. She taught me a few new vocabulary words she learned from doing crosswords – of course I immediately forgot them. My step dad, Jim, gave me an important political article to read. We had lunch.
When I am with my mom we share stories from back in the day. Stories of siblings and neighbors, of growing up, going to school and what the world was like back in the 60’s and 70’s. My brothers and sisters and I went to a big Catholic school. It was a great education in a many ways, but not exactly a fun place to be a lot of the time. My mom reminded me of the time when my big brother Pat got in trouble because he pressed the hand dryer button more than once. They actually called her at school (she was a teacher as well) and fussed at her for Pat’s transgression.
This story came to me over the weekend. It is one I wrote a few years ago. Not all of my years at Saints Peter and Paul Elementary School were like this. Not all of the teachers were like Sister Mary Justin. I have wonderful memories of my friends and some of the priests and nuns and lay teachers. And I can honestly say I learned a LOT. Looking back, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. All of our experiences make us who we are. Surely I am the teacher I am today partly because of the teachers I had back then, for better or worse. Anyway, here is the first installment of The Lavatory.
In third grade I was in Mrs. Albert’s class. All these years later I have little recollection of her. She was heavy, pleasant, and neutral. She did not relate to kids in the violent manner of my second grade teacher, Sister Rachael Marie who would slap and pull hair and seemed to delight in making children cry. Sister Rachael Marie made me cry several times.
Mrs. Albert was mild by comparison. After having Rachael Marie for second grade, it was a relief to have calm, neutral Mrs. Albert for third. She taught pretty much by the book and her expectations weren’t too high which was fine by me. I was very glad that I did not have Sister Mary Justin for third grade. Sister Justin had a bad reputation among the kids. For one thing, she was a yeller, unlike Sister Rachael Marie who would sneak up on kids and then explode in a rage. You could hear Sister Justin yelling all the way down the hall.
“So, Mr. Kadar… What makes you think you are so special that you don’t have to do your religion homework?” she would shriek.
“But Sister, I did it. I just left it on my desk at home.”
“Now I will add LYING to your list of infractions!”
I disliked even walking by her classroom. I knew kids in her class and they confirmed that she was harsh. She hurt kids, and humiliated them. She made children cry. The smart ones would cry easily when she was angry. You got off easier that way.
Mrs. Albert had soft green eyes. Mrs. Albert had pudgy hands. Mrs. Albert hardly ever raised her voice. I wonder if Mrs. Albert was scared of Sister Justin. Everyone else was. Sister Justin was the meanest teacher I had ever heard of and I said many prayers of thanks that year that I wasn’t in her class.
Sister Justin patrolled the halls and when kids were not walking in a straight line she would smack or pull hair or squeeze shoulders painfully. Her presence in the halls was enough to make several classes walk in a straight, single file line with absolutely no talking, whispering or giggling. It is hard to imagine that 75 or 80 kids could walk from class to class and no one would talk or even whisper. I assure you that it was true. Sister Justin was so intense that her presence could block the spirit of several classes at once, just as a brick wall blocks wind or window shades darken the sunshine.
We all kept a safe distance, as I said, and although we pitied those who had to have her for a teacher, those of us in Mrs. Albert’s class considered ourselves very lucky top have only an occasional run-in with her.
On a cold November Friday, I walked to school with my two older brothers. The sky was gray and the snow was just beginning to fall. We cut across every field on the way to Peter and Paul. There were a lot of fields back then. The grass was crusty with frost and the mud was brick hard as we walked the mile or so to school. We attended Mass every morning before school and in those days we had to fast for an hour before receiving communion before mass. So none of us had breakfast at home. We ate cereal in the cafeteria after church.
In church, Sister Justin was constantly occupied with making sure her students had their hands folded just right, knelt down at just the right moments and, above all, were not talking during Mass. The candles by the altar twinkled brightly and the air always had the faint smell of smoke and incense. The statues of the saints and the Stations of the Cross were spooky to me although I could not help staring at them during Mass. In that same way I could not help staring at Sister Justin. I was afraid of her and mesmerized by her at the same time. She simultaneously fascinated me and repulsed me the way one is drawn to a scary story. You want to listen and, at the same time, you are glad that you are not in the story. Seeing her from afar was more than enough for me.
Saturday, February 6, 2010
Several years ago a perspective parent called me before school began to see if I was available to talk about our school and the upcoming school year. It was during one of the cherished workdays we get after all of the big meetings and before the students come. I was setting up the classroom, arranging books on the shelves, writing letters to kids, writing curriculum. It was a busy time. But David, my new second grader, was coming from another school and his father wanted to know if we were right for his son. I instantly agreed for him to come in. It was important for me to get to know him as well.
When he got there I was writing letters to my new students. I had saved his because I wanted to put in there how I had met his father. Usually when I meet new parents, it is light, surface level…
David’s dad asked me really important questions. We exchanged backgrounds first. He had two Ph. D.s in the sciences and obviously had an IQ twice mine.
He wanted to know how I teach reading, what emphasis I place on writing, what about children who were advanced? How do I continuously challenge them?
He asked questions that made me think deeply about what I believe. I never felt like I had to convince him that CFI was right for David. But he was asking me to let him in on my philosophy, how I plan, how I make sure each child’s needs are met. He was asking me the kinds of questions every parent deserves to know the answers to. I never felt defensive. But I did feel clearer about my teaching right then. I passed the audition because as he left, about 90 minutes later, he shook my hand warmly and said that we would see David on Monday morning.
I don’t think I ever felt so anxious to meet a new student. In a good way. David’s dad was brilliant and insightful. He asked “deep end” questions and was an engaging conversationalist. David was too.
One late afternoon my students and I were chatting before the end of the day about what parents say when they first see you after school. At the time I got the kids to remind each other about the significant events of the day so they would be prepared for the inevitable question, “What did you learn in school today?” David said that when he saw his father at the end of the day the prompt was, “What questions did you ask today?”
How simple. How brilliant. How elegant.
That was one of those “Ah Ha!” moments for me as a teacher and as a dad. Over the next few days my class and I wrote a song entitled “What Questions Did You Ask Today?”
In our room we have four public journals for kids to write in: Science, Mathematics, Language and Culture. The journals are placeholders for questions, observations and insights about our world. They are conversation starters. Anyone who writes in a public journal gets to share the entry at our next class meeting. They run the intellectual spectrum from, “Why does an apple have a core?” [from when we were studying plants] to “Why are there hungry orphans in the world when we seem to have SO much in our country?” My mom lived in Mexico and our service-learning project that year was to buy chicks, a chicken coop and chicken feed to help support those children.
We sifted through our class journals and came up with the lyrics of this song.
What Questions Did You Ask Today?
Why do leaves have twigs and veins?
Why when we fall do we feel pain?
I want to know why the sun goes down
Why is our weight measured in pounds?
Why do gerbils so constantly chew?
Why are there animals in the zoo?
What questions did you ask today?
To see the world in a different way?
Take an adventure through your mind
Who knows what surprises you might find?
Why do people fight and kill?
Why are there hungry orphans still?
How does the moon stay up in the sky?
How does a butterfly know how to fly?
Why are some rich and some so poor?
Why does an apple have a core?
How does a cheetah run so fast?
Where does the time go when it’s passed?
Why do birds have wings to fly?
Why is it hard to say goodbye?
How can some fish live so deep in the sea?
Why are some people slaves and some people free?
Why do some people live to be old?
Why in the winter time is it so cold?
What makes the daytime sky so blue?
How do you find a love that’s true?
Why is writing sometimes bold?
What is something more precious than gold?
Why ask so many questions?
Why do you want to find out?
To unlock the mysteries of this world
To know what life’s about – what life’s about