I wasn’t going to share this post right now as it’s not very Christmas-vibey but then I got to thinking how important educators are in children’s lives and given the tragic recent loss of the children and teachers in Newtown I thought to go ahead and share it. Nuns get a bad rap too often and I want people to know they were some of the kindest, most open-minded, role models I have known in my life. Here’s a story of one that changed my life forever.
I’m ten years old. I’m holding a black phone attached to the wall and looking into my family’s kitchen. There’s a lot of people milling around, looking confused, and I can’t see my mom anywhere. I’ve just been told my father is dead. The person on the other line is Sister Joan, my grade 6 teacher. She asks how my Dad is. I say, “He’s dead”. There’s a long silence on the other end.
Sister Joan comes and gets me. She lives in a convent just up the street where all the nuns who teach at my school live. I go there for piano lessons. When I go to the convent this afternoon it is very quiet. No one is around. Sister Joan takes me downstairs to the basement. I never knew they had a basement. There’s a rec room with a ping-pong table. She says, “Are you ready to get beaten at ping-pong?” I smile. I say, I am pretty competitive Sister Joan. I feel a little guilty that we’re smiling but I’m thankful because I don’t feel like crying.
We play ping-pong for a long time. She doesn’t act sympathetic like all the other adults. She doesn’t talk about my Dad. She doesn’t treat me as the last child of a big family now left with just one parent.
I go to school the next day. I get a lot of strange looks. I don’t know why. Maybe I have mismatched socks on? I check. No, they’re matching. I get called to the principal’s office. I don’t know why. I talk for a long time to Sister Helen, the principal, about God. She lets me just hang out in her office. I eat liquorice candies that hurt my molars. Then she says, “I’m surprised you are here honey, so soon after your father dying?”. She strokes my forehead but I don’t feel anything.
My day is odd. No one is letting me do any of the normal things I would be doing on a Monday at school. I feel suspended from life, as though I were one of those puppets on a string in a play and at any moment someone will pull my arm this way or that, and I”ll have to go there.
I come back into the classroom at the end of the day. All the kids are gone. I stand next to Sister Joan. She looks directly at me and I look down. I’m not used to people looking directly at me like that. She asks me something I’ve never been asked.
“Do you know I love you?”
I keep looking down. She puts her hands on my small shoulders, which are also turned inward.
I know what she wants. She wants me to look up. I can’t. It’s too hard.
“Margaret, look at me.”
She’s not giving up.
I look up and it takes all the courage in the whole world to meet her eyes. She looks directly through me all the way to the bottom of somewhere no one has seen and she says quietly, “I love you.”
This is the first time I’ve experienced this and I start to cry. I have to look away. She just holds me then. I’m grateful she doesn’t speak anymore. I’m grateful she’s my teacher. I’m so grateful she saw me. I wish I could live at the convent with her and Sister Margaret (my piano teacher who doesn’t really teach me anything but lets me tell her stories) and Sister Helen and all the other nuns.
On the way home, I watch the water pool in leafy puddles around drains on the street and wonder what will happen now? Without that Dad story anymore, the story of a sick and dying father in our lives for so long. I don’t know what will happen with just my mom and my brothers and me. But I have a small place inside me now, an afternoon of ping-pong, a warm, loving hug that I hold onto and wrap around my shoulders when I feel afraid. This is the place of Sister Joan inside me no one but I knows about, it is filled with her love, that is just like her spelling drills, insistent, certain, correct. It is the only thing I do not doubt anymore.