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.