I took a picture of this very old picture in Dundee, Scotland in 2014 with my friend, Mike Tait, giving us the grand tour of Dundee, known for “jute, jam, and journalism.” I loved the train trip to Dundee with Norah doing her homework over cups of tea, while I stared out at fields of yellow flowers and eventually the walls of Edinburgh which loomed up in the train window before going onto Dundee. Mike has the best of laugh in the whole world. When I’m down, I think of his laugh.
This picture makes me think of Sister Matilda and Sister Mary Analise and other nuns of my childhood. The nuns were either my favorite or least favorite teachers. I had no middle-ground nuns. I loved them or was terrified by them. Some were gentle with a sharp sense of humor while others were sharp with no sense of humor.
I remember one nun in particular – Sister Celine was my brother’s teacher – my brother, Duffy. He combed his hair all the time in her Pittsburgh 4th grade class at St. Teresa’s. It drove her mad. She told him to quit but he liked some girls in that class, and he wanted his hair perfect, so he did not quit. Finally she took his comb and threw it in the trashcan. Did she make him stand in the trashcan? Something makes me remember that she did, but did I make that up in my flawed memory?
No nun ever made me stand in a trashcan.
Our mother sided with Sister Celine the whole way – enough with the hair combing!
The toughest nuns were fierce in their warnings of what would come to pass if you did not follow the straight and narrow. This pictures reminds of their dire warnings.
This is what I remember of one such nun in high school determined to keep us on the right path at Knoxville Catholic on Magnolia Ave.
Sister Joel. Geometry class. A heavy heater hissing in the back of the room. It was dark in the basement classroom of the school, and the heater did hiss, and so I began to write about the hissing heater in the back of the classroom and the nun’s monotone voice droning on about postulates and theorems, which I started to write postulums and theorates.
(Nuns are postulants when they first decide to enter the covent, which sounds like postulates.)
Sister Joel seemed very old to me then and tired and beyond weary. How many years had she taught geometry? Had she ever been young? Where did she grow up? Did she fall in love with math as a little girl?
Although it was Knoxville, she did not seem at all southern. I had just moved from Pittsburgh, so I didn’t “feel” southern either. She was nothing like the tanned and thin school secretary named Kitty who blinked at me when I talked too fast and said, “What, darling?”
But I had no empathy for Sister Joel and I was bored out of my skull in geometry, so I began describing the basement classroom with its hissing heater in minute detail. This was such a bad idea for so many reasons, but it looked like I was taking notes, and so I didn’t care.
I should have tried to care a little more.
As distracted sophomore, I had two matching notebooks and when Sister Joel asked for the geometry notebooks to be turned in a few weeks later to show our work, I grabbed the wrong notebook, which had the classroom description in it and turned it in.
A few days later, she said the dreaded words: “Kerry, see me after class.”
Everyone stared as they filed out.
I approached her as she held the notebook out as if it were a stinky rag.
I was horrified alone in the dark basement classroom with Sister Joel. Why couldn’t I be more like the girls who made A’s and teams and squads so effortlessly? I hadn’t found theatre yet. I’d only found Y-Teens where we dressed up like bumble bees in hefty sacks and screamed in empty stadiums with competing high school teams to show who had the most team spirit.
We also sang at old folks homes and places where adults lived together even though they weren’t old. I didn’t know how to describe these places, which my mother said sounded like”Halfway Homes.” The sounded sad to me – halfway home. Were they halfway home? They seemed to be permanent places of these halfway places that smelled of canned stew and laundry.
But that day Sister Joel began to page through my notebook and said flatly, “This is not a geometry notebook. There is a page I’m looking for to show you, but first – are you a morose person? Are you deeply troubled? Some thing is not right about you. Is your soul at peace with the Lord?”
She glared at me, and I apologized a hundred times. I prayed harder in that moment than I ever had for her NOT to find the page describing the dungeon classroom – and her.
And miraculously, she couldn’t find it. She handed it back to me with a dark look and told me to pray and straighten up and focus on geometry.
I promised her I would and I apologized again and escaped out into the sunshine where the scrubby practice field was filled with kids at PE. It was such an enormous relief to be outside, hearing kids running and playing.
But Sister Joel did something wonderful too in the dark world of postulates and theorems. She raffled off pies on Friday in pink boxes. We all gave a dollar to raise money for charity, and she raffled off pies.
Once I won an apple pie, and I shared it with friends at lunch. It was delicious.
The trip to Dundee was also the spring of bluebells, and I’d never smelled such a heady fragrance before.
Anyway, this is what I’m thinking about/grateful for on a rather too-hot Wednesday in Birmingham.
Sister Joel. Bluebells. Apple Pie. Postulates & Theorems. Dundee. Knoxville Catholic. Magnolia Ave. Sister Joel.
And the amazing poet Kim Addonizio who is coming to speak to night at UAB. Here is a link if you’re not doing anything and would like to avoid the debates.