October 16, 2014
By Michael A. Calvert
I did not expect my teacher to be an angel when I began the sixth grade at St. Gabriel. Most of my teachers had been dour nuns of indeterminate age, but not young. They were grimly determined to maintain order and cover lesson plans. On the first day of school, they laid down the rules. The penalties for violators began with filling the blackboard or tablets with statements like “I will not talk in class.” Second offenders had their knuckles rapped sharply with a ruler. Those nuns warned that ultimately they could have students expelled. They sounded like prison wardens addressing new inmates in the movies.
Sister Miriam was a surprise. A young Dominican nun with a white habit that revealed only her radiant face beneath a black bonnet with a veil that fell over her shoulders and down her back.
Her smile seemed genuine, but I didn’t trust it at first. She lightly stepped to the blackboard and wrote her name. Her habit swirled when she spun around on one foot. Her face glowed as she said, “Good morning! We’re going to have a great year together. You’re going to learn a lot, but have some fun, too. We’ll tell some tall tales, sing Irish songs, and make art.”
“Do you know what a tall tale is?” asked Sister. After a few seconds of silence, she continued, “Have you heard of Davy Crockett?” Hands shot up at every seat.
“You’ve all heard The Ballad of Davy Crockett, right?” Everyone nodded and several students confirmed it out loud. It was, after all, the #1 record on the Billboard Chart.
“Did he do some unbelievable things?” Sister asked.
“Killed him a bear when he was only three,” one of the boys said with a nod. It’s in the song.”
“OK, but do you think that a three-year old could really kill a bear? Could that be a little bit of an exaggeration?”
Some of the boys argued that Davy could have done it, but after the students talked about it for a while, most of the class agreed that a toddler could not kill a bear.
“It’s a tall tale,” said Sister. “Maybe he killed a bear when he was thirteen, about your age, or a little older, but probably not at three. Anyway it’s a fun song. We’re going to make up some tall tales of our own this year. It’ll be fun to exaggerate.” She beamed.
“By the way,” Sister continued, “Does anyone know what a ballad is? As inThe Ballad of Davy Crockett?” She opened her arms like a supplicant begging for an answer.
“A story?” I answered tentatively.
“Right you are, a ballad is a story we sing. We’re going to learn some Irish ballads, stories about Molly Malone and McNamara’s Band. We’ll also be singing hymns in church at mass on Sundays.
I’ll bet some of you like to draw pictures,” Sister said as she sketched in the air with her hand. “I do. It’s not hard to learn. Anyone can draw. You’ll see.” Sister’s face, hands and entire body were in motion as she spoke.
Sister stopped pacing and scanned the room. She smiled directly at me, and I am sure everyone believed she was smiled at each of them. For a couple of minutes, she was bathed in the morning light slanting into the classroom the floor-to-ceiling windows.
“We will have to work together this year. We need to prepare you eighth graders for high school and get you sixth and seventh graders promoted. Three classes with forty-two students in one room is a challenge, but we can do it if, and only if, we all cooperate. Can I count on you?” The affirmative response was as vocal as amens at a tent revival.
Over the next three school years, Sister Miriam flitted from one side of the room to another. Most of us concentrated on our workbooks, read assigned chapters in textbooks or wrote tall tales while she spoke to other grades. Sister Miriam did not punish kids for whispering, laughing or passing notes by rapping knuckles, but she could hit them with an eraser thrown from across the room.
All three classes joined together to practice hymns for church and learn folk songs just for fun. Sister sounded the right key on her pitch pipe and labored to keep us from going flat. Everyone also participated in the art projects. Sister brought in her own silkscreened images that now remind me of the dancers of Matisse. She also showed us how to make mobiles with coat hangers, string and paper cut-outs. I was reminded of our mobiles many years later when I saw one by Calder hanging above a staircase in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Educators shudder when I mention my experience with forty-two students in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, all in one room. On top of her teaching duties, Sister
was named principal when I was in the seventh grade. She led cheers at our home football and baseball games. Sister drew posters herself and posted them in the hallway to promote “school spirit.” In a mimeographed newsletter, she gathered compliments about students and everyone from our janitor to Pope Pius XII and filled a page under the heading “WE LIKE…” No one could resist her enthusiasm.
Sister Miriam may have been an angel. She certainly performed miracles in our classroom and in our school. I envisioned her with a halo radiating light like the mural of the angel Gabriel outside Sister’s office.
One early spring day when I was in the eighth grade, I was told to come to the principal’s office at the end of the lunch period. I examined my conscience as we were taught to do before entering the confessional, but I had not been in trouble lately and I had completed my punishments for past offenses. Yet I was uneasy.
Sister Miriam sat back in her sleek chair behind the blonde desk in her small office and smiled broadly. I realized that he had actually been quite tense. I relaxed and exhaled, but was curious.
“Michael, you are a good student,” she began. “I don’t know where you and your parents are planning for you to go to high school. I think you are definitely St. Charles material. I believe you can pass the entrance exam. You would get an excellent education at St. Charles.”
“Well, I have sort of been thinking about Aquinas. I know that several of the other guys are going there, but I don’t know anyone going to St. Charles. I hadn’t even thought about St. Charles,” I replied hesitantly. Then I impulsively dismissed the idea by saying firmly, “Anyway I’m not planning to be a priest.”
“St. Charles is primarily a preparatory school for college as well as the seminary, Michael. I pray that you will keep your heart open to a calling from God to the priesthood, but most St. Charles graduates do not become priests.
It is quite a bit more expensive than Bishop Watterson or Aquinas where most of your classmates will go to high school, but St. Charles would be a great opportunity for you. Some scholarships may be available. If you do well on the entrance exam, I think St. Charles will work with your family on the tuition. I want you to talk with your parents about St. Charles. Tell them that I would like to to talk with them as well.”
The bell rang in the hall, and she snapped to attention in her chair, picked up a stack of homework papers with penciled red notes for our next class, and looked expectantly at me with raised eyebrows.
“Yes, Sister,” I said obediently.
Sister Miriam was my personal guardian angel directing me on a path that has made all the difference. I do not doubt that she still whispers good counsel and encouragement into my right ear all these years later.